“Being An Odia I Felt That The Stories From Odisha Need A Voice To Be Told,” Says Soumendra Padhi
A sports biopic for a directorial debut might appear challenging for many but for young Odia filmmaker Soumendra Padhi, the decision came naturally since he wanted the story to be told. And, the kind of attention ‘Budhia Singh – Born To Run’ has garnered so far which includes a National Award as well, it seems Padhi is on the right track!
In an exclusive conversation with MCL, Padhi talks about the making of the film even as he tells us how happy he has been representing Odisha in mainstream cinema. Excerpts:
A qualified engineer by profession, how did you switch to film making?
I had always been fascinated by the idea of storytelling through the medium of film making. However, while growing up, films were something that were to be watched and enjoyed – not to be taken up as a profession. So I became an engineer as I could not override my parents’ decision. I took up a job in Hyderabad to gain financial freedom. Later, I quit the job and came to Mumbai to join an animation course. I had stepped into advertising by then. During those times, I shot a number of short films and documentaries that also won a few awards at the national and international film festivals. I also made a couple of music videos for Eros Entertainment. Meanwhile, I had also started working on this film.
Duronto is your mainstream debut film. What interested you to make a biopic on the child prodigy Budhia Singh for your first film?
Personally, as a story teller, this story is full of contradictions and is rich with layers of interpretations. Choosing a biopic and one like that of Budhia and his coach Biranchi, the story had all the cinematic elements that a film maker would look for. Moreover, this story is of a young prodigy from Odisha. Similar to the North Eastern states, there are many stories from Odisha that are not adequately covered by national or international media. Being an Odia, I felt that the stories from this part of the country need a voice to be told.
Though biopics are usually very inspiring, they are also based on true incidents. So it is important for the maker to stick to the reality. How did you ensure that aspect as a director?
The story of Budhia and his coach is probably one of the most widely covered articles of our times. There was so much written on them, that it was difficult not to have an opinion on them. There were already many documentaries on him. So it was challenging for me to have my own voice. Every time I went to Odisha, I would find a different version of the same story. Also since some of the people are no more alive, it was perplexing to find the actual truth. We could only get to know about Biranchi through the people who were close to him like his wife and all those who were associated with him and Budhia. We interacted with all of whom we could and constructed the best possible version of the story in the socio-political context prevalent then, based on these interactions.
How much of inputs have you received from Budhia?
Unfortunately, Budhia doesn’t remember much from that part of his life. He remembers events in bits and his memory of Biranchi is only about how he used to wake him up in the morning, go for the long runs and talk a lot about Olympics. As we are portraying Budhia as a five-year old in the film, we have tried to keep his voice innocent as a five-year-old wouldn’t have had a strong point of view. The film is also from the coach’s point of view.
How difficult was it to find Mayur?
It was very difficult. We almost searched through the cross-section of the country before we finalised on Mayur who comes from a slum in Pune. The dynamics were interesting as we already had Manoj Bajpai on board and we had this kid coming from the chawls, who had never faced the camera earlier. But we did also feel vulnerable as the entire film focused on him and it was important that he made a connect with the audience. We were lucky to find Mayur as he closely resembled Budhia and was also athletically very active. He went through many workshops prior to shooting. His chemistry with Manoj Bajpai also was very good and thankfully, he justified his presence on screen.
Why did you choose Manoj Bajpai to play Biranchi?
While writing, I had no particular actor in mind. But he happened to be the first actor whom we gave the script. And he agreed! Moreover, a completely commercial actor would not have done this film. Our script too demanded a fearless actor as there was a good deal of grey shade and layering to the character.
How was it working with him?
Fantastic! He was always available. He gave a lot of time to pre-production preparations with the multiple workshops and reading sessions with the kids and other actors. He learnt the basics of judo in as less as six months. His commitment level was very high and that set the tone during the shoot.
Why did you change the name of the film from ‘Duronto’ to ‘Budhia Singh’?
‘Duronto’ literally means restless and we were quite convinced with the name. It was fitting to our film during the making. But when Viacom 18 came into the picture, they did a research and the title, ‘Budhia Singh – Born to Run’ suited the overall scheme of things and the audience could relate to it better. Though the name was changed mostly as a marketing strategy, the content however, remains the same.
How much of the movie was shot in Odisha?
Nearly 40 to 50 per cent of the movie was shot in Odisha. We shot at quite a few locales across the state and maintained a low profile while the shoot was going on. As the story traveled we shot at places outside Odisha.
You have represented Odisha in a large way in your film. What reactions have you received so far in this respect?
The responses are great. People were amazed to know that Odisha had such beautiful sites which are still under explored. I don’t think even Odia films have captured them the way we have. It can become a film maker’s paradise if the state government provides adequate support.
Why didn’t you make the film in Odia?
If once the film is made in Odia, it stays in Odisha. It would have limited the film from attracting a pan India cast. You cannot have a Manoj Bajpai act in Odia! It would also be deprived from reaching a wider section of audience. Making it in Hindi also helped Viacom to come in and make it even bigger with their kind of marketing unseen in Ollywood. Strangely, this story also had been there for a long time but sadly nobody took up the subject in Odisha in Delhi, Pune and other cities.
Why did it take so long for the movie to release?
Basically, we got the censor board clearance in December prior to the National Film Award. Although this film was slated to release in January this year, we were looking for a different kind of platform for this film. That was the reason for the delay in release.
What are your future projects?
It is too early to say, but I would only take things up post this film’s release in August.
Eventually, do you think this film is going to work positively for the real life protagonist Budhia?
I think it will. He is already popular and age is also on his side. If he is groomed properly and is given the right resources, he can resurrect himself as the star marathon runner. We hope we will get the voices to speak out louder for his cause.