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The turbulent story of a child’s journey from the slums to becoming a national sensation in India debuts on HBO on November 3. The documentary takes us back six years ago, in an impoverished corner of India, where an orphanage director and a slum boy captured the imagination of their country.
Plucked from obscurity and thrust into the national spotlight, Budhia Singh ran 48 marathons by the age of four, winning thousands of fans and making headlines around the world. But what started as a remarkable rags-to-riches saga morphed into a tale of greed, corruption and broken dreams.
The action-packed Marathon Boy recounts Budhia Singh’s fascinating story when it debuts on Thursday, November 3, exclusively on HBO. Filmed between 2005 and 2010, Marathon Boy is a riveting exploration of poverty, corruption and exploitation. Born next to a railroad track, Singh was sold by his destitute mother to a street hawker at age three.
Destined to lead a desperate existence as a beggar, he was rescued by Biranchi Das, a concerned local judo coach who ran an orphanage for slum children. Recognizing in Singh an uncommon talent for long-distance running, Das became his mentor and nurtured the boy’s gift.
A master showman, Das also organized marathon events designed to showcase Singh’s talent and raise his profile, thereby turning him into a folk hero for the underprivileged masses.
Fascinated by the boy’s ability after reading about him online, British filmmaker Gemma Atwal set out to film his story, focusing on his complex relationship with Biranchi Das, whose genuine affection for the child is countered by his zeal to burnish Singh’s celebrity at all costs.
Allowed direct access over the course of five years, Atwal and her crew captured many of the boy’s racing milestones as a three- and four-year-old, as well as intimate moments between Singh, Das and his wife Gita, who is interviewed for the film, along with several other principals.
Atwal chronicles the government’s growing disapproval of Das’ tactics, especially in the wake of the four-year-old’s highly publicized 40-mile run – a marathon is just over 26 miles – in 93-degree heat, after which Singh collapsed on the “victory” stand.
That incident, combined with criticism of Das by Singh’s birth mother, Sukanti Singh, led to investigations of the coach, who lost custody of Budhia in 2007. The conclusion of Marathon Boy is jarring and unexpected, as Singh is coerced to entrap Das, who pays a heavy penalty for helping turn a slum boy into a celebrated, albeit polarizing, figure across India.
In addition to striking location footage shot in Orissa and Delhi, Marathon Boy includes animated shadow puppet sequences that underscore a dark fairytale quality of this unsettling story.
The film is the first of four documentaries about contemporary India debuting on HBO and HBO2 in November. The others are: “The Bengali Detective,” a profile of Rajesh Ji, who solves crimes in the city of Kolkata while following his dreams of being a professional dancer, debuting Nov. 16 on HBO2;
“The Sound of Mumbai,” the upbeat story of tenacious, musically inclined Indian street children recruited to perform a one-time-only concert with members of the elite Bombay Chamber Orchestra, debuting Nov. 23 on HBO2; and “Pink Saris,” profiling the unlikely female activists of Northern India’s Gulabi Gang, who battle violence against women, debuting Nov. 30 on HBO2.
Marathon Boy is the first feature of Gemma Atwal, who has worked as a freelance director and producer on a variety of documentaries. Prior to her documentary work, she spent four years working as a journalist in Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe.
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