Marathon Boy Reviews
Shot over five years, the film really focuses on Budhia's coach and guardian, a judo teacher named Biranchi Das who discovered him in the slums. Das, a well meaning and caring but naive and somewhat overly ambitious man, took care of many impoverished children at his judo temple, and discovers early on that Budhia, around the age of 3 years old, is an incredibly fast and energetic runner. Boasting that he will train Budhia to be in the Olympics by the time he is 18, Das uses publicity and showmanship to push Budhia into the spotlight as a national hero, as Budhia continues to train and excel in running these lengthy marathons.
Soon, however, the government begins to notice and become concerned with the amount of publicity and sway Das holds, as well as the boy's general health. And to be honest, it's easy to see why, in an early scene as Das pushes Budhia too far in running, and the boy becomes sick under the heat, pressure, and malnourishment of running such a long distance in such a hot country with such a young body. I felt at this point like Das may turn out to be a villainous type just out to exploit the boy, but the movie never lets things get that simple. It's true that Biranchi pushes Budhia too far, and he does seem to be a media hound, but it's made rather clear that he loves the boy (perhaps more so that his own son, according to Biranchi) and wants him to represent India in the Olympics, showing that greatness can come from the poverty ridden slums.
As the film presents Biranchi Das as a man with good intentions going after them in perhaps morally questionable ways, it also presents the same viewpoint on every other adult that is involved in making decisions for the boy. After Budhia makes several commercials and even records an album, his birth mother (who let Das legally adopt him, and who also was known to hang around the judo temple living as one of Biranchi's family) takes back custody of the boy after Das tells her he can't give her any money (he apparently didn't make a dime from advertising the boy around, which no one around him believes). The boy makes claims that he was abused by Biranchi, and the government places him under arrest. Whether or not these claims are true I won't go into, but it becomes rather obvious that every adult in Budhia's life is involved in a power struggle over the boy for money, fame, or even, in the government's case, misguided justice. All of this is made clear when the tragic third act hits and we see what happens when all of these struggles go too far.
As a documentary, "Marathon Boy" excels in its heartfelt but fair look at all of these variables involved in the story of Budhia. The young boy is presented exactly how he is, as a little boy with no real understanding of the importance and controversy around him, and is easily manipulated. As likable as Biranchi is, he seems to go too far in his boasting to the press, as well as his training and marketing of the boy. The government officials come off as concerned and well meaning, but overly controlling and overbearing. Budhia's mother seems like a woman broken by life in the slum, and the company around her (including some pretty frightening criminals that help her get Budhia back) seems to be manipulating her as well. In the end, the film is a disturbing and heartbreaking look at how fast corruption and hunger for power and fame can intrude on a person or event that is meant to inspire hope and change.
For all of its strengths as a documentary, what I admired most about "Marathon Boy" was how thrilling and compelling the story is. The twists and turns here are more affecting and emotional that any reenactment in a fictional version could ever achieve, and the movie kept me 100% riveted to see how this would all play out, and provoked a lot of thought and conversation as to the ethical and political situations that are center stage here. And that's exactly what a good documentary should do. "Marathon Boy" is a must for fans of non fiction filmmaking that is smartly and craftily handled, as well as anyone else who wants to watch a powerful and interesting film of any genre.