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By giving all his secondary characters their due, director Soumendra Padhi neatly ties together what could have been a meandering mess.

Review Budhia Singh Born to Run is an invigorating race through a winding many-sided tale
Features Bollywood Friday, August 05, 2016 - 16:12

There’s a moment early in “Budhia Singh: Born to Run”, when Budhia’s coach and adoptive parent Biranchi Das (Manoj Bajpayee) has just bought the miracle runner a new pair of shoes. However, it’s not Budhia (Mayur Patole) the camera looks to, but one of the many other children to whom Biranchi plays surrogate parent  – and the longing in the child's eyes is a perfect counterpoint to the celebration of Biranchi’s special affection for Budhia.

It’s touches like this that give “Budhia Singh” its depth and texture. As closely as director Soumendra Padhi stays with Biranchi (who’s the real centre of the narrative rather than Budhia), he employs his secondary characters excellently. Thus each of them forms a refractive surface through which the none-too-simple motivations of the coach and his protégé can be recomposed over and over, until no easy conclusions are possible.

This attention to the secondary characters also gives Padhi the chance to tie together the many threads of what might have otherwise been a meandering mess. From the claustrophobic smallness of the life of Sukanti (Tillotama Shome), Budhia’s mother, to the grand canvas of state politics, the director manages to fit it all into the frame without bias. You would expect such attention to every piece of the story to fragment it, but the film actually becomes more coherent for it. As Biranchi says at one point in the film, “It’s not really about the race.”

There are moments when it’s clear that Padhi strongly sides with Biranchi. But it’s also visible that this admiration is not naïve about its subject. More than anything else, the repeated impression one gets of the coach is that of a fixer. You can see it in the way he gets Budhia his first public stage to display his talents. You can also see it in the way he repeatedly has Budhia parrot words of impertinence towards the government and the child welfare committee. And in the way he puts the boy in front of news cameras - just right to create good television.

And it’s this ability as a fixer that makes the story so engaging. Bajpayee manages the unlikely task of letting us connect intimately with Biranchi, and then holding him at arm’s distance so we can see him with a critical eye. And Padhi builds him up and slices him apart with equal dispassion. So Biranchi is both the man who seems to genuinely love Budhia as his child and the one who casually uses the boy as if he's little more than a puppet. And as in real life, so in the film, the abrupt, nicely unresolved end ensures that we can never quite unknot that contradiction.

Soumendra also ensures that the burden of the camera falls only lightly on Mayur Patole, the child actor playing Budhia, bringing genuine emotion to the surface and turning away before any awkwardness or inexperience begins to show. Hence, Budhia appears as a profusion of feelings and emotions, and you’re never quite sure how much of that originates in him and how much is just a reflection of the people around him, thus making the contradictions of the Budhia-Biranchi relationship even more apparent.

If there’s one problem with the film, it’s that it runs like an inexperienced marathon runner. It gallops sometimes, flags at others, and very occasionally raises the anxiety that it might not reach the finish line. The last third of the film, in particular, becomes a bit too maudlin, as problem after problem piles up on Biranchi. The soundtrack could also have been toned down a few notches, and not been so obvious. Still, much like its titular character, “Budhia Singh”, it makes it to the end of the race, and is only slightly the worse for wear. 

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