Journalists, filmmakers, authors—in fact, anyone who prides on being a storyteller—has a responsibility to fulfill, because simply telling a story, even of people or circumstances that don’t usually find representation, isn’t enough. It’s also about telling it well, because that’s the only way to show that you care. Caring about a story becomes especially important, if it’s got the power to generate a conversation, to make us see the familiar in a new light. So many times, films that seem to pursue a moral truth, based on real people and stories, are given a free pass, even if they are middling; they’re called “earnest”, “well-intentioned”, and, horror of horrors, “a small film with a big heart”.
Budhia Singh – Born to Run, starring Manoj Bajpai, Tillotama Shome and Mayur Patole, is indeed a “small film” (it’s a low budget fare, which has released in limited theatres); it does have a “big heart”, and it tells a story both incredible and important—a story that we should know and care about. But a more important question is this: Is Budhia Singh, a dramatized account of Budhia’s life, good art? Does it do justice to the 14-year-old boy, who, in a government sports hostel in Bhubaneswar, must be wondering, how could his life go so wrong?
Before Budhia (Patole) began running, he was not considered a person, not by his own mother at least. She treated him like an object, sold him for Rs 850 to an alcoholic in a Bhubaneswar slum. And even before this event, Budhia’s life was only marginally better: A car on road meant a chance to beg; discarded cigarettes, for his friends, meant a free drag. Budhia wasn’t just poor; he was reduced to a number, one among the many poor children in Orrisa.
Budhia’s life changes for better when he’s adopted by Biranchi Das (Bajpai), a local businessman who manages a judo school in town, which shelters 22 impoverished children. One morning, Biranchi orders Budhia to do the rounds of the courtyard, because the kid said a cuss word. Biranchi returns home in the evening to find Budhia still running. This scene’s strikingly similar to the one in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, where, the film showed, how Milkha Singh, too, discovered passion through punishment. Soon, Budhia, with Biranchi accompanying him on a bicycle, is running on the highways of Bhubaneswar, scaling astonishing levels of human endurance.
But what does running mean to Budhia; what does it do to him, for him? Budhia, moreover, hails from an unprivileged background. Did that play a role, too? Soumendra Padhi, the film’s director, isn’t interested in that question. Sure, Budhia was only five years old when he began running, and children aren’t really articulate about their desires, and usually follow what they’re told, but this boy did run, with the passion and intensity associated with professional athletes, so an insight into his mind, or even an attempt of it, would have firmly connected Budhia Singh with Budhia. With the film’s most important question remaining unanswered, Budhia Singh seems like a film that is removed from its protagonist.
Another crucial plot point looks unconvincing. Quite early in the film, Biranchi requests a CRPF officer to let Budhia run at the police force’s annual event, which includes many dignitaries from the state, including the chief minister. That request is honoured, but one does wonder why. Running, as opposed to, say, dancing, isn’t a performance act; moreover, Budhia isn’t competing in a race, just running by himself, so scores of people cheering for him seem strange and abrupt. (This could have well happened in real-life, but, even then, this plot point should have been effectively fictionalized to lend it some credence.)
Budhia Singh’s first 30 minutes are weak, and, mostly, ineffective, for they quickly slot characters into good and bad, and expect us to take a side. The film, however, takes off when it shows some semblance of ambiguity, especially in a long, kinetic sequence where Budhia runs from Bhubaneswar to Puri, a distance of 65 kilometres in a record-breaking time, a little more than seven hours. It’s a scene of immense power, showing many locals of Bhubaneswar running alongside Budhia, shouting “Budhia bhag, Budhia zindabad!”, as if the boy has given hope, and a sense of purpose, to a small Indian town.
At one moment during the run, Budhia looks visibly tired and is on the verge of giving up. He’s run around 50 kilometers for the last five hours. He asks Biranchi for water. Biranchi picks up a bottle of water, tied to his cycle, and dangles it in front of Budhia. Budhia reaches out for it, but Biranchi lifts it further, teasing and torturing him. It’s impossible not to wonder whether Biranchi’s being too tough on the boy. Some people and organisations (including the ‘Child Welfare ministry’) fling accusations of exploitation at Biranchi. Although their criticism seems politically motivated, Biranchi’s methods do look questionable, and you wonder where does the film places itself in that debate.
Budhia faints after the race. After regaining consciousness, he’s unable to drink anything, puking out fluids given to him. But instead of nursing Budhia, Biranchi takes him in front of TV reporters, and makes him repeat how he condemns the accusations made against him. We aren’t sure if Budhia understands the circus he’s become a part of (a few versions of this scene play out later in the movie, too); Biranchi may have spotted Budhia’s unique talent, but he isn’t quite interested in getting the boy’s consent. This ambiguity—whether a child prodigy is being made to ‘perform’, and whether his childhood becomes collateral damage, as a result—is intrinsic to Budhia’s story, but the film doesn’t dwell on it, instead concentrating on a much simple, straightforward story.
There’s also too much going on in Budhia Singh—the implication of Biranchi being a negligent father and husband, the subplot involving a filmmaker making a documentary on Budhia, the political players trying to benefit from this story, the role of Budhia’s mother—but Padhi isn’t wholly interested in any of them, too. There are sporadic flashes of each of these segments, but none that says, or implies, anything definitive. Even the last couple of vital plot points seem hurried and haphazard.
Budhia Singh is intermittently moving, and it’s mostly so because this story itself is so powerful. Budhia is a boy who’s been claimed by Indian apathy and bureaucracy; few stories can get more heartbreaking than this. And it’s commendable that a film was made on his life, for this story needs to reach out to a lot of people. But, one can’t help but think that, just like a better country, Budhia deserved a better film, too.