Feature Documentary Reviews

Mad’ouk – Toughened by Life (2021) – 3 stars

Director: Bharat Talaviya

Running time: 1hr 24mins

A feature film centring on a marathon was almost destined to be a gruelling affair, so I will do my best to cut director Bharat Talaviya some slack here. The obvious positives are that this film is visually stunning – taking in some of the most beautiful mountain vistas a filmmaker could hope to capture – and well sound tracked, while capturing footage of an event that is objectively amazing.

The mammoth task of the runners is contextualised against the dramatic landscape, the men presented as ants against the terrain of Ladakh, illustrating the futility of the attempt to outrun the Earth itself. Meanwhile, the churning score taking in synthetic hums and organic chants crafted by Sarabjot Singh Kalsey places us in a kind of meditative state, ready and waiting to receive some greater message.

Unfortunately, that message doesn’t convincingly arrive – if it arrives at all. Mad’ouk – Toughened by Life follows Raj Vadgama, a seasoned Indian ultra-runner, as he attempts to complete a high altitude 333 kilometres race in 72 hours – and as he shivers, chafes, aches through the thoroughly unpleasant experience, it is hard not to feel similarly physically depleted by the film’s crawling run-time.

There is something to be said in defence of the pacing – an epic physical and mental feat arguably justifies an 84-minute duration at least – but the problem is that the act in itself will not make for especially compelling viewing to anyone but the true believers. If you are into long-distance running, if you have the discipline and the inner metronome to control both your body and your emotions throughout a Herculean challenge that pushes you to the very limit of breaking, then you will probably love this film.

The problem is, for the rest of us physically flabby viewers who have been conditioned by popular culture to have the powers of concentration of an inebriated goldfish, this is an impossible drag. The thing about the best sporting documentaries is that they can make something utterly niche compelling to the unconverted.

I have previously noted that Senna is the gold standard in these terms by making the distanced, elitist pastime of Formula 1 (a sport I generally find as interesting as drying Dulux) into absorbing human drama, while honourable mention should also go to the BBC film The People’s Champion – something which did the same for the smoke-filled lobbies of professional snooker by focusing on a particular chapter in the career of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins. Both these examples manage to draw on the magnetic and confounding personalities of two of sport’s great enigmas – trying to give us insight into what makes them tick, and giving us something to attach ourselves to their aspirations, empathise with them in moments of failure, and feel at least some of the elated buzz during their triumphs.

Unfortunately for Talaviya, he never manages to weave such a compelling narrative for his own subject. Certainly, there is some base relationship we feel with Vadgama as he slogs through the mountains – but it is more borne out of simply spending large amounts of time with him than getting to know who he is. While we learn when his team joined him, meanwhile, we never see any of that apparent warmth or rapport which has seen them follow him to the ends of the Earth – which is a crying shame, because to inspire such devotion to his hellish cause he must have one hell of a personality!

Indeed, while an ultimately defeated Vadgama is sympathetic in his moment of concession, his resolution to continue racing “until I die” doesn’t do all that it could as a rallying cry at the film’s conclusion. Disconnected talking heads – often other runners or event hosts – have previously told us that they believe long-distance running appeals to people because it gives them a sense of peace, or an ability to take control of their lives in a world that otherwise robs them of the chance to be master of their fate, or captain of their soul.

We hear precious little of this from Vadgama himself however, meaning that especially when one of the climactic segments from an interviewee suggests while what they do is “pretty fun,” ultimately it is “a pretty pointless act,” we almost pity our protagonist. Was there never any greater theme at play? Was this all a waste of time in the end?

Perhaps the greatest message of the film, and one which would have been better used in this climactic sequence, comes from the chief organiser of the race. He states that in the end, “We need to fail once in a while in life, and start appreciating life a little bit more.”

That, in combination with the possibility that Vadgama’s defeat by the run might have yielded some more meditative benefit – self-knowledge relating to the limits of his mind or body – could have pulled this all together in a much more satisfying and relatable way for the lay members of the audience.

Mad’ouk – Toughened by Life never quite manages to move beyond a simple depiction of an event. It struggles to thoroughly engage with its main on-screen presence, while spending more than half of its run-time going through the minutiae of organising a long-distance event. I do not believe this is necessarily a failure as such – but it is something which like its leading man comes up a little short in the end. Hopefully, Bharat Talaviya will bounce back as emphatically as Raj Vadgama in future projects, by learning from some of the rough edges of this one.

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