Hero or Victim?

An Indian filmmaker probes a life she was spared in the arresting new documentary 'Marathon Boy.'

by Mary Kate Frank
Photograph: Photo: Sanjib Das/Courtesy of HBO

When Gemma Atwal first heard about slum kid turned running phenom Budhia Singh, she felt an immediate connection. Like Singh, she was born into extreme poverty in India, to a mother who couldn’t care for her. But from there, the stories diverge. Adopted and taken to England, Atwal says she grew up “in privilege,” whereas Singh’s life was Dickensian. His mother sold him, at age three, to a street peddler for $10. He was rescued by Biranchi Das, a judo coach who later discovered Singh’s talent for running. Before the child was five, Das had entered him in 48 marathons.

Atwal chronicles the journey of Singh and Das in Marathon Boy, a documentary debuting on HBO November 3. “It’s a film about desperate poverty and a boy who has few options,” says Atwal. Singh seems to adapt to his new life, but in one devastating scene, Atwal turns off her camera as he struggles to complete a 42-mile run.

The film raises questions about fame, exploitation and what Atwal calls “the slippery nature of truth. I wanted to tell the story of two people in an ‘unimportant’ part of the world,” she says, “who I came to care for deeply.”

Click here to learn more about Marathon Boy.

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First Published October 25, 2011

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