Twelve-year-old Chotu starts off like the millions of boys working in small industries. He doesn’t have a name. Till one day he watches A.P.J Abdul Kalam on television in the dhaba he works in. “I am Kalam,” Chotu finds himself saying. And, why can’t he be Kalam? The former president of India, he learns, grew up poor, selling newspapers.
I am Kalam is a contemporary fable that will steal its way into your heart. The film is the feature debut of award-winning documentary film-maker Nila Madhab Panda. It betrays that first-time film-maker ethic— the bookish narrative graph, the homage to cinematic greats such as Satyajit Ray.
Inspiring: Chotu in the film’s poster.
I am Kalam will be the opening film at the ninth Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (Iffla) on 12 April. This red carpet event caps a year-long tour of the festival circuit, starting with the film’s world premiere at Cannes last May, and a dozen other Indian and international festivals subsequently.
The film stars Gulshan Grover as Bhati the dhaba owner, and Harsh Mayar plays the precocious Chotu. It was shot in Bikaner and Delhi on a budget so low that the producers aren’t willing to talk about it.
While focusing on the grave issues of child labour, the narrative doesn’t fall into the easy trap of pitting Chotu against a slave driver. Bhati is actually an incredibly sweet man who is concerned about taking Chotu on. Instead, the story draws its strength from Chotu’s friendship with the local prince his age, Ranvijay (Husaan Saad—you’ll want to take him home).
At its core, I am Kalam is the story of a child and his struggles to pursue his dreams.
There is something to be said about the producers of the film. The Smile Foundation, a development organization founded in 2002, focuses primarily on child health and education. Its programmes currently benefit 200,000 children across 22 states in India. But as one of the founding trustees, Santanu Mishra, says, “We’ll never be able to make a dent on the fact that 30 million Indian children don’t go to school.” What Smile can do, he concurs, is sensitize a larger donor group. And this was how I am Kalam was born.
Mayar, who’s never acted before, will fool audiences with his perfect Marwari diction. He hails from a slum in Delhi and is one of the beneficiaries of Smile, with dreams comparable with his character. “I have had to struggle to get a good education,” says Mayar, who met Kalam at his residence during shoots.
But don’t love the film because of its genesis. Love it for its fairy-tale essence and emotional landscapes. One can hope that Kalam’s message, which charges Chotu and sets the narrative rolling—“Destiny isn’t written but can be made”—holds true for the film too. The producers are presently finalizing its much-delayed release, and hoping that it will hit theatres this June.