'Review: I am Kalam (selected for London Film Fest, wins awards in Germany)
Former President A P J Abdul Kalam’s popularity with children is too well known to be recounted here. But what is not too well known yet is that his inspirational words for children has led to making of a full-length feature film that has found a place in the forthcoming 54th BFI London Film Festival’s World Cinema section.
The film is debutant Nila Madhab Panda’s “I am Kalam”, which has just won the Best Feature Film Award at the Lucas International Film Festival in Germany. It has also won the Don Quixote Prize of the International Federation of Ciné-Clubs (FICC) awards, and is on its way to a number of film festivals.
(India-US co-production Kavi by director Gregg Helvey won the best short film award at the Lucas Festival)
Set in Rajasthan, “I am Kalam”- the film is the story of Chhotu’s hunger for education, something which he cannot aspire to have because of his family’s poverty-stricken status.
Through an engaging, entertaining and fast-paced, fable-like narrative, the film takes the viewer to the world of Chhotu, who at one point starts referring to himself as Kalam after watching on TV, Kalam speak about how he got his education fighting several odds.
Naming himself as Kalam has more than a symbolic meaning for Chhotu (a name thrust upon him by people at the Dhaba, who, like most of us, care two hoots for the identity of little kids working at eateries, shops and other establishments, and insensitively calling all of them as ‘Chhotu’, (the small one). Chhotu has to work at the roadside Dhaba so that he can send some money to his mother back in the village home. Luckily for him, Dhaba owner Bhati is a kind man from the same village and indulges him after finding out that Chhotu is a fast learner.
Chhotu’s life takes an unexpected turn as he befriends Prince Ranvijay, whose father, an erstwhile “king” of a princely state, is running a heritage hotel at his ancestral palace across the street, where Chhotu goes to deliver tea to the guests. Both the kids bond big time, and Chhotu starts getting his education informally, courtesy Ranvijay’s old books and interacting with the costumers. Does Chhotu achieve his dream finally, is what the film all about?
Told in the classic prince-and-the-pauper format, the film strikes a chord with the viewers thanks to the heart-felt acting by Delhi slum boy Harsh Mayar in the title role of a young boy who could be another Kalam-like success story, provided he gets the opportunity to study and progress in life. Chhotu represents, in a way, millions of other kids who could become many Kalams, but for the unfortunate circumstances they find themselves in.
A sensitive film on the plight of the underprivileged, it is also about how the privileged class can play a role in the uplift of the less-privileged millions.
Panda, who has made over 60 short films, documentaries and television drama for Doordarshan, the BBC, Discovery Channel, NGC and private producers across the globe, says, “I believe in telling stories that have a universal appeal and a sense of purpose to the art that I create. I believe that the more local you get, the more global your access will be; and so here is one such local story. In all my films, I have explored the people’s basic needs and problem of the marginalized. I find such stories purposeful and exciting. I am also interested in making cinema for children and family; a genre that is much neglected in world cinema and more specifically in Asia.”
“’I am Kalam’ is a story of struggle that I have faced and observed since my own childhood. The film celebrates the survival of the human spirit against overwhelming odds. It could be a story from any developing country and especially with a colonial past. I started my career in filmmaking, working intensively on the issue of child labour. I understood that it is an inheritance of an exploitative structure that profits from cheap labour without any responsibility. This is also partly a true story I encountered 10 years back while I was shooting a documentary “Stolen Childhood” (produced by Barbara Broccoli of James Bond fame) in Rajasthan,” Panda says.
The strong narrative, scripted by Sanjay Chauhan (of Dhoop, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara and Pan Singh Tomar fame) talks about how every child deserves to live his/her childhood, no matter where he/she is born. The film has an ensemble cast, including veteran actor Gulshan Grover (as Bhati the dhaba owner), child actor Hussan Saad of “Delhi 6” fame (as Prince Ranvijay), French actress Beatrice Ordeix, FTII-trained Pitobash Tripathy and Meena Mir. It is produced by an NGO Smile Foundation.
It also has some delightful music composed by Susmit Bose, often referred as the ‘Bob Dylan’ of India, and Deepak Pandit. Mohana Krishna of “Ishqiya” fame is the Director of Photography, while Kaamod Karade of “Ishqiya” and “Dasvidania” fame has done the sound design. Sanjay Dasgupta dons the role of Production Designer after “Oye Lucky Lucky Oye” and “Partition”, while costumes have been designed by Barnali Rath and Narender Singh.
“’I am Kalam’ is an inspirational film aimed at both children and adult viewers. To make it more interesting for viewers, I have given the treatment of a contemporary fable, which would surely attract children more since it promise you something that hard work will win half of the battle in life rather than luck. However, I would also see it as world cinema. It’s also a film where there is no use of any unnecessary props, is done in a simple style of storytelling, a tradition established by Satyajit Ray,” says Panda.