Budhia Singh is a boy in India who was able to run marathons by age of three. But like so many other child prodigies, his story involves politics, false-accusations and tragedy. The first episode of Kidult, a new series from the BBC concerning talented children, Marathon Boy is actually a study in the cynical and callous nature of humanity.
Budhia was born in a slum, his mother sold him to a violent travelling salesman for 800 rupees and he was bought back for the same amount by a man named Biranchi Das. Biranchi was India’s most notable Judo coach, having trained champions at the gym he owned in the Orissa province. He noticed that Budhia had an extraordinary talent for running and took it upon himself to train him up to be an Olympic champion.
Biranchi started Budhia on a training plan and by the time the child was 4 years old he had run 48 full marathons, which is, in itself, quite incredible. Biranchi also legally adopted Budhia, but the Child Welfare Committe at the Orissa Government was not happy, thinking that Biranchi wanted to own the boy for his own gain. At this point, it seems like a fair assumption, given that almost everyone watching will be suspicious that Biranchi was using Budhia to make himself famous. But hold that thought, things get much stranger.
Budhia, as a publicity stunt, completes a 42-mile run in 7 hours and 2 minutes and is then urged to complete another 1.8 miles taking him into a stadium containing some important people. But he collapses due to exhaustion and – according to an Army doctor present – would have died without the immediate medical attention they gave him. At this point he looks terrible and is taken to hospital for a medical examination – but everything turns out to be fine.
The Orissa Government bans Budhia from running in marathons, claiming it is for his own safety, yet by this point it’s clear that they have something personal against Biranchi as well and are determined to stop him from raising his profile further. It has to be said that Biranchi is a talented but shameless publicist, while he clearly wants the best for the boy, he is also looking out for himself. And the way that he puts words into Budhia’s mouth is pretty objectionable, getting the kid to spout various slogans for the watching cameras.
As time moves on the Government becomes more and more obsessed with Biranchi, and Biranchi himself becomes ever more defiant in the face of their authority. Added to this, Budhia’s mother gets fed up with Biranchi, believing him to be rich and withholding money and other things that she feels she deserves. So she takes Budhia back to the slums where Biranchi can’t get to him and coerces him into claiming that he has been abused and tortured by his coach. None of this turns out to be true after Budhia is examined by doctors.
Unfortunately, the programme ends in tragedy as Biranchi is shot dead outside his gym. The accused – a man named Raja – has apparently been involved in 64 other murder cases with no convictions (Go figure). It seems pretty clear that someone high up ordered the murder, but it’s unlikely that anybody will ever find out. Oh, and at the end the Orissa Government gives Budhia a scholarship for sporting excellence so he can continue his training. Unbelievable.
Ultimately, the documentary is a look at a tragic series of events that should never have developed. No party emerges looking very good, but the whole situation seems like such a sad waste and is a powerful indictment of what happens when people become more interested in power and self-preservation than the best interests of each other.