11/02/2011 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

Gemma Atwal, 'Marathon Boy' Director, Talks Making The HBO Documentary

Few documentaries can capture both the hope and deep-seated corruption of a nation quite like Gemma Atwal in her debut feature-length documentary, "Marathon Boy."

Filmed over five years in India, “Marathon Boy” follows the story of four-year-old Budhia, whose mother sold him to a passing pedlar for 800 rupees ($16). He was then taken in by judo coach Biranchi Das and trained to become India's greatest runner. At 4 years old, the child was running marathons, and after one year under Das' training, he had run an astonishing 48 marathons, becoming the youngest runner to do so.

At the heart of the film is the complicated relationship between Das and Budhia. Throughout the film, Das straddles the line between father-figure and monster, training a future champion while simultaneously taking away his childhood. As he rises to fame, Budhia becomes a national beacon of hope for India, a real-life slumdog success story, but after collapsing during a 42-mile record-breaking run in 2006, the Orissa state authorities banned him from long-distance running.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Atwal tells us about Budhia's incredible journey and the personal struggles she had to overcome to capture it.

How did you come across Budhia's story, and what compelled you to make this documentary?

I was just looking at the BBC News website, and they ran a story on a very small boy from the Indian slums who was running huge distances on a daily basis. It was both astounding and unsettling. The thought of a boy running his way to a better future and out of the slums sprang to mind immediately, so that drew me in. There was also a photograph of Budhia with his coach, Biranchi Das, and their relationship just instantly fascinated me. Biranchi seemed to occupy that potent dual role in Budhia's life in being both a foster father and a coach, so I wanted to understand more of the psychology of their relationship. Why does Budhia run these distances for him, and what would be the consequence of stopping? And I think I was also thinking about the spiritual nature of their relationship. We don't really have an equivalent in the West, but the bond between a guru and a disciple is more sacred than the relationship between a mother and a son.

You also had a personal connection to the story as well, is that right?

Similar to Budhia's mom, my birthmother belonged to the lowest Hindu cast and lived in extreme poverty. This kind of fate led me to be adopted by a couple in England, and I lived a very different life filled with possibilities. Those kind of factors really drew me to making the documentary and go out and find Budhia and his coach.

You followed Budhia's story for five years, but was there ever apprehension from Biranchi?

Well, Biranchi is this master showman, so it was actually quite easy for me to get permission to film. I went out there and spent about two months in their presence. I wasn't really filming. I was trying to get to know them and gain their trust. At that time, they were being inundated with calls from a lot of different production companies, so it was really important that he trusted me and my intensions. I just so happened to be on the ground in India before everyone else. I also spent a lot of time in the slums with Budhia's birthmother. I tried to shadow her life and really put myself in her shoes and try to understand her decisions.

Hospitality and spending time with people is so regarding in India that, after a week, Biranchi and all of the parties involved were very willing to do the project. He never even asked to see any of my footage. He would say the same thing he always said, "I like you, I trust you and I don't need to see any of your footage." So I guess I was quite fortunate.

Did you ever have moments of partiality -- where you felt compelled to help Budhia?

I was having those moments all of the time; the impulse to intervene versus observe was just forever there for me. There was a time when I did intervene and turn off my camera, and that was at the end of the record run. Budhia is on the verge of collapse, and it was just horrendous to watch. I mean, anybody watching this would be moved to tears. I turned off the camera, and I actually shouted across to Biranchi, "Take a good look at your son, who you claim to care for so much." It was just horrendous to watch. Up to this point, Budhia actually seemed to enjoy running. He had this extraordinary talent, but it was when he was forced to do these outlandish distances that things started to go wrong. Biranchi knew that I didn't approve of a small boy running long distances, and I made sure that he was aware of national guidelines, but he made his own mind up, really. On a personal level, I made the point to turn off my camera at that point because it was just too terrifying to watch.

Being that this is you first feature-length documentary, are you happy with the way it turned out? Is the message that you wanted to convey clear?

I think I'm just happy that the film I've made was the one that I originally envisioned. It's a film without fixed notions of good and evil. It deals in these constantly shifting shades of gray. There are no true heroes or villans -- which is actually the opposite of what's required for an issue-led or campaign-driven film. We often need to know who is good and who is evil, partly so that our own belief system can be reassured. So I'm glad that it's a film where viewers can make up their own minds in terms of who Biranchi Das was and should Budhia have been running. I feel like that's the real strength of the film.


Now, having seen the film, I can honestly say that I was shocked by the ending and Biranchi's murder. What was that moment like when you realized one of your central subjects had been murdered?

I had about 50 text messages come through in about a minute, all saying the same thing -- that Biranchi had been murdered. It was just shocking and completely devastating that something like this could happen. Then, at the same time, it all started to make sense. I had been having these conversations with Biranchi where he was saying that, 'There were people who want to take me out' and 'My days are numbered.' He was saying crazy things, like, 'If anything happens to me, please take care of Budhia.' I remember thinking, 'Well, what's going to happen to you?' It was all drama with Biranchi, so I didn't know what he was talking about.

But when we found out, we got on the first plane. It was shocking, actually. I sent my cameraman in to film, and I stayed with Budhia to make sure that he was okay. He was my priority.

"Marathon Boy" premieres Thurs., Nov. 3 at 8PM ET on HBO. Watch a clip below.