Marathon Boy debuts tonight on HBO at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Summarized in brief, Marathon Boy, the first in a series of four documentaries about contemporary India airing this month on HBO, sounds like a heartwarming sports documentary. It tells the story of Budhia Singh, a boy from the slums of Orissa, India, who at the age of 5 became the world’s youngest long-distance runner and a hero to the people of the people of his impoverished home state. Destined to be a crowdpleaser, right? Think again. Marathon Boy may sound like Slumdog Millionaire meets Chariots of Fire, but it turns out to be something much more powerful and, sadly, more authentic—a Dickensian tale of a boy surrounded by crooks, charlatans and hypocritical bureaucrats.

The story begins in Bhubaneswar, a city on the east coast of India, where Biranchi Das, a charismatic 30-something, runs a combination judo school and orphanage. His prize student and foster son is Budhia, allegedly a running prodigy. When we first meet Budhia, he’s all of 3 years old—a scrawny moppet with a scratchy voice and big ears. He arises early one morning, sleepy-headed, looking like your average toddler.  Then he embarks on a 13-mile run, surrounded by a throng of enthusiastic supporters, and it becomes clear he is anything but. Biranchi tells us his plan for the small boy: he will make Budhia the number-one marathoner in the world.

Gradually, we learn more of Budhia’s backstory. His biological mother, Sukanti, lives in a shanty a few feet from the train tracks in the slums of Bhubaneswar. Desperate for money, she sold him for 800 rupees to a passing bangle peddler (that’s less than $20, in case you’re wondering), who brutally beat the boy. At Sukanti’s behest, Biranchi then paid the peddler 800 rupees for Budhia, who went to live at the judo school along with Biranchi’s other students. One day, Biranchi punished Budhia by making him run around the courtyard. When he returned home six hours later, Budhia was still going. It was then he discovered Budhia's talent for long-distance running—or so he claims. There’s something apocryphal about the story, a little too perfect to be true, and you being to wonder about Biranchi's motives.

Despite the gnawing suspicions, Budhia is, at least at first glance, much better off with Biranchi. “The first time I met my coach I was a naked, hungry and skinny kid. Then Sir"—he invariably calls Biranchi "Sir"—"took charge of my life by taking me to his home,” Budhia says. Budhia is clearly healthier, but he’s still a little rough around the edges. When a reporter asks him about his morning routine, he replies, “I took a shit, then I went running.”

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More worrying than Budhia’s potty mouth is his brutal training regimen. As news of the “Wonderkid” from Orissa spreads, government officials step in and try to limit Budhia’s running. They’re right to be worried—I’m no physiologist, but I’m guessing it’s not healthy for a 5-year-old boy to run marathons—but there’s an undeniable hypocrisy to their concern: before Biranchi adopted him, Budhia was naked and starving, as are millions of other Indian street children. What's worse: starvation or exploitation? It's impossible to know the answer.

In brazen defiance of the authorities, Biranchi announces plans for Budhia’s longest run to date. The boy will make the journey from the holy city of Puri to Bhubaneswar, a distance of 42 miles. For a few minutes, it’s all very inspiring. Budhia sets out before dawn, trailed by hundreds of supporters. “May your fame outlive the sun and moon,” a well-wisher tells him.

But the optimism quickly turns to dread. By 8:30 am, it’s 93 degrees outside, and Budhia is only halfway. (I actually made this exact same journey a few months back, in the comfort of an air-conditioned car, and it was nevertheless one of the hottest, most uncomfortable rides of my life.) By the time he gets to Bhubaneswar, Budhia is delirious, barely able to run in a straight line. Ever the showman, Biranchi urges him to run an extra mile to the stadium, where a crowd of supporters awaits.  Pushed to the edge, the boy collapses. Needless to say, the footage is incredibly difficult to watch: weak and horribly dehydrated, Budhia guzzles a huge glass of water, only to throw it up everywhere. The government bans Budhia from running or walking any long distances, and Biranchi retaliates by recording an album. Budhia becomes a cuase célèbre, the poor boy from the slums Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Viewed charitably, Biranchi is a loving but possibly overzealous stage father; viewed less charitably, he’s a publicity whore and shameless child exploiter.  The tragedy of Marathon Boy is that Biranchi may still be Budhia’s best hope for the future.

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Like so many other great documentaries, Marathon Boy provides few clear answers and owes much of its narrative power to fate. After the Puri-Bhubaneswar run, the story takes yet another dark turn.  What had been a film about the relative welfare of one child becomes something bigger, a story about the ruthlessness and corruption bred by crushing poverty. My only quarrel with the film is that it does relatively little to place Budhia’s life within a broader social context. We know he was born in a slum, but the Marathon Boy doesn't fully explain what makes Orissa—an extremely poor and extremely devout state—different from the rest of India. Why do the people of Orissa rally around Budhia and Biranchi with such fervor? A bit more explanation might have helped, but this is a minor quibble with an otherwise remarkable film.

Whether by luck or foresight, director Gemma Atwal is there to record of the key turning points in the story—of which there are many. In a welcome departure from many documentaries, she relies very little on news reports or newspaper headlines. There’s an immediacy to her footage that lends an extra element of drama to Budhia’s heartrending tale. It’s frequently hard to watch, but it would be a shame if you missed it.