- Posted: 13th Jan 2011
- Category: Reviews
by Matt Strachan
This may be disappointing to a small minority, but Marathon Boy is not a superhero film (villains roughly 26 miles away that need to be stopped in several hours’ time are, apparently, few and far between). It does, however, follow a hero’s journey so ripe for the making of myth that Joseph Campbell would be proud, and culminates in tragedy so Shakespearian it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. All the more astonishing given Marathon Boy is not fiction, but a documentary.
The fictional familiarities do not end there – born into a slum in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Budhia Singh (the Marathon Boy of the title) eventually finds his way out through glory, adulation and potential riches (Slumdog Millionaire?) after being sold and resold until his athletic abilities and tenacity catch the eye of someone who knows how to apply them (Gladiator?) – Biranchi Das, a judo teacher who also runs an orphanage.
Boy and coach, or Wonder Kid and Guru as they describe themselves, train hard for a series of ever-increasing physical challenges (Rocky? The Karate Kid? every boxing or sports film ever made?!) until Budhia runs a staggering 42 miles in around seven hours and sparks debate – is Biranchi Das a provider of opportunity or an exploiter of children? – which attracts government and gangster involvement with tragic consequences.
That the shadow of so many archetypes, from such staples of modern fictional film, can be sensed hovering throughout Marathon Boy is a credit to the storytelling abilities and sheer enduring commitment of director Gemma Atwal (who perhaps deserves the moniker Marathon Girl). She forges an almost impenetrable story arc using footage gathered over several years (that begins with Budhia aged three, and ends when he’s aged eight) from subjects whose twists, turns, complexities and ultimate fates would have been impossible to predict at the outset, and perhaps even during the first few years of filming.
What elevates the film, and Atwal, to the fringes of mastery is a refusal to follow the more hyperbolic path through, and around, the events as they play out. Instead, the frisson surrounding the controversies at the centre of the film, and their obvious potential for high drama, is tempered with differing perspectives that introduce the concepts of unreliable narrator and objective versus subjective truth. This provides the necessary seeds of doubt to engage the audience whilst making room for a broader meditation on the power of the media (Budhia’s mother, at one point, proclaims “I saw it myself on TV!” as proof of her beliefs) and the dominance of celebrity.
Although by no means perfect (the animated sequences for example, although aesthetically pleasing, somehow manage to simultaneously detract from, and overemphasise, the story), Marathon Boy operates successfully on a number of levels – as myth vérité and high tragedy, as rags to riches morality tale and, of course, compelling documentary. If it did happen to be a superhero film, no doubt this would be the beginning of a fruitful franchise.
Dir. Gemma Atwal, UK / India 2010, 98 mins Oriya
Marathon Boy is released on DVD in the UK on 30th January.
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