I don’t know if he was good or bad, but Biranchi Sir made my life – Budhia Singh

Child marathoner from Odisha speaks to, throws light on his remarkable feat at age 4, and defends his late coach who was accused of exploiting him for financial gain.

Mayur Lookhar

In 2006, the country was stunned by the exploits of a poor boy, barely older than a toddler, from Odisha. All of four, Budhia Singh entered the Guinness World Records for running from Bhubaneswar to Puri, a distance of 65 kilometres (40 miles), in seven hours and two minutes.

Budhia's feat was incredible, but the Budhia Singh story was mired in controversy with some reckoning that it was cruelty on the part of the child's coach, Biranchi Das, to make him go through this ordeal. Budhia’s story, however, found flavour with the international media with BBC Storyville and HBO funding the documentary The Marathon Boy.

Four years later, Biranchi Das was shot dead by a local gangster and Budhia Singh was forgotten. Come 2016, the legend of Budhia Singh has come alive again with Odiya director Soumendra Padhi making a Hindi feature film Budha Singh – Born To Run, which is set to release on 5 August 2016.

Budhia Singh, now 14, spoke to recently. Given his humble upbringing and the fact that he has never had to interact with the media at length before, the boy appeared a bit nervous. He bemoaned the kind of facilities he has to make do with at the sports hostel where he lives, admitted he isn’t too keen on studies, and said he is still seeking a coach like Biranchi Das. Excerpts from the interview:

Budhia Singh was born to run but the whole nation, in particular the media, gets worried when Budhia disappears without informing anyone. Can you tell us where you had gone?

Contrary to the rumours, I can assure you that I wasn't kidnapped nor did I vanish. My mother and I gone for a leisure travel.

The trailer of the film is really impressive. What strikes me the most is Budhia's 'haga aur bhaga' (defecated and ran) dialogue. As a child, did  you speak in such an innocent tone?

[Laughs.] No, never. I don't think I ever said this.

Jokes apart, it has been reported that doctors in Odisha reckon you are now unfit to run. How is your health now?

I'm in good health. There is pain in my left knee after I banged it against the railing while treading down the stairs.

Though you created history as a child, your marathon run created a controversy, for how could a four-year-old perform such strenuous physical activity? Do you recollect facing any health issues during or after the marathon?

I don't recollect having visited any doctor, but I do remember that I had passed out at one stage of the marathon. A doctor must have attended to me then.

Budhia, there have been reports saying that all those marathons at a tender age have weakened your lungs. Is that true? How do you feel now?

The only time I recollect a doctor telling me to stop running was when I hurt my knee recently. I feel perfectly fine when I'm running. There is no problem with my lungs. My personal doctor, Siddharth Mali, took my mother and me to a specialist in Bhubaneswar who found nothing wrong with my lungs. I’ve been passed fit to take part in marathons.

Coming to the film, when did you learn about a film being made on you? 

I was informed about the film before the shooting took place. Soumendra [Padhi] Sir told me he wanted to make a film on me and has picked a little boy [Mayur Patole] to essay my character. I was thrilled to hear this.

What do you think this film can do for your future?

Soumendra Sir told me the film will be good for my future.

At 14, you are too young to understand. Usually, filmmakers/producers have to obtain permission and compensate the person for making a film on them. Did your mother or any elder in the family get any money from the producers?

[Pauses, looks to his mother.] No, there has been no talk of any money.

(We tried getting a word from his mother, but she only speaks and understands Odia.)

What is your expectation from the film?

I have no expectations. Ah… actually, the only expectation I have is that if it could help me find a good coach like Biranchi Das. 

Did you have any interaction with Manoj Bajpayee and Mayur Patole. Can you talk about it? 

One gentleman had come to my house along with Mayur. I was told he is the boy who will be playing Budhia in the film. I’d met Manojji at an office. He told me the government might have forgotten me but this film will do something good for me.

Did you pass on any tips to Mayur?

[Laughs.] No. I had no personal interaction with him.

Did you happen to visit the sets at any time?

No, I have only seen the trailer.

Back in 2006, you were too young to realise what you had done. How do you feel now about your past achievements?

I recollect how people praised me for my running. Some even pondered whether I had two livers. Now, I wish I could turn the clock back and run the same way.

Did you ever feel that you over-exerted by running marathons at that tender age?

No. I don’t think so.

Do you know why you were running then? Were you merely running because someone told you to? 

All I know is that my coach used to lay down a start and stop time for me. I used to merely follow that. Sometimes my coach did scold me, but I don’t think I was running out of fear.

What do you recollect of your equation with Biranchi Das?

I had a good equation with Biranchi Sir. Both of us had Sunday off, so he used to train me from morning to evening. Most time was spent running from morning till evening. Once I had gone to Rajasthan where Sir made me run on sand. Besides, he took me to an army camp in Pune to show how the armymen train.

Have you seen or heard reports that said Biranchi Das exploited you for financial gains? 

I do keep hearing that Biranchi Sir was a bad person. I don’t know whether he was good or bad; all I know is that he made my life. He remains my guru.

When did you learn of Biranchi Das's death?

I had heard the tragic news but then I was told it is a lie. Some time later, some reporters came to my hostel and informed me that my coach had passed away. The media was then barred from entering the hostel. Sadly, the news was true. I saw it on television. I was keen to see him [the dead body] but the hostel staff felt it would not be ideal for me to go there.

Are you in touch with his family?

No, we did meet them once before coming to Mumbai, but as such there is no communication with them.

We have read that you are not happy with the facilities at the Kalinga Sports Hostel. Can you talk about it? 

I’m not saying the coaches and training isn’t good. What I don’t like are the strict rules which don’t allow the kids to move freely. Sometimes, our parents too aren’t allowed to meet us. Every time I wish to go out, I need to take permission from my coach.

It is said that your sporting prowess has diminished, perhaps as a result of running those marathons at a tender age. But do you feel there has been a drop in your ability to run in the last 7-8 years?

Save for funding my studies, the sports hostel hasn’t really helped in my development as an athlete. The food is also too oily, not ideal for athletes. I cannot compete in the 100 metres, I can only do well in races above 15,000 metres.

Going ahead, have you set any academic goals for yourself?

If I have to concentrate purely on my studies then my sports career will have to take a back seat.

How do you think you can develop in your sports career?

Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a good coach like Biranchi Sir. I would like to go to a different state where I can have access to professional coaching, training and facilities. In bigger states, you will find one athlete having two coaches, but at Kalinga Sports Hostel, you have one coach for two athletes. I believe in other states they train for marathons from the age of 15. So, I will have to wait another year.

Are you fond of cinema? Who are your favourite stars?

I do watch films. I like watching Ram Charan Teja’s action scenes in his Telugu films. In Hindi cinema, I like Shah Rukh Khan.

What about your sports idol? Do you follow any international athlete? 

I do not know of any marathon athletes, but I have heard great things about Usain Bolt. It is my dream to meet him one day. As a child, I once dreamt of running for India at the Olympics. I wish to achieve that dream some day.