The Aadhaar project is many years away from providing every Indian with a unique identification number, but a cinematic response of sorts is already out. First-time director Kamal K.M.’s I.D. is the story of an Indian without papers, a ration card, a proper address or even a name.

I.D. follows thriller conventions, in that its protagonist trawls through the underbelly of a city in search of a mysterious person, but it is also a political drama. The 90-minute feature succeeds admirably in humanizing migration by poor Indians to Mumbai, the metropolis that encourages individualism but also erases the individual.

The confidently-directed and strikingly-shot film stages a forced encounter between two job-seeking migrants from vastly different social orbits. Charu (convincingly played by Geetanjali Thapa), a management professional who has come to Mumbai to look for work, feels compelled to take responsibility for an unnamed painter (Murari Kumar) who comes to work at her apartment and collapses soon after picking up his paintbrush. Charu takes the man to hospital but he dies and she tries to discover his identity. The quest takes her far out of her comfort zone and into one of Mumbai’s numerous slum sprawls.

Kamal K. M. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint
Kamal K. M. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

The story begins in a fourth-floor apartment in north-west Mumbai and descends into the shanties of north-east Mumbai. The urgency of Charu’s journey is captured vividly by Madhu Neelakandan’s hand-held camera, which produces the right-here-right-now images usually seen in documentaries. “We wanted to experiment with a new kind of realism, we shot in a candid way without preparation or a brief," Kamal says. “We wanted to confront reality as it is."

The scenes in which Charu accosts casual labourers at street corners and slum dwellers and shows them a photo of the painter are mostly unrehearsed—the people in the scenes thought they were being asked about a real dead person. “We shot things as they were happening, and we told people after the shoot that we were making a film," Kamal explains. The reactions were edited out, and the result sits somewhere between fiction and documentary.

Among the organizations thanked in the opening credits are the National Alliance of People’s Movements and The Humsafar Trust. The former’s members helped the crew gain access to three slums in Mankhurd. The latter supplied Kamal with eunuchs, who play an important role in the story. Shooting guerrilla-style in the open had its moments—the crew was stopped thrice by the police and a slumlord on one occasion. “We shot silently," Kamal says. “When you are shooting in this kind of situation, you have no control over the locations, you don’t have permissions, you don’t want to invite public attention." The same shot was taken from different points of view, in case one of the angles showed people peeping into the camera, and spliced together on the editing table to create dynamism and urgency.

Thapa, a first-time actor from Sikkim, had to adjust her reactions to suit the shooting requirements and act as naturally as possible without knowing how the scene would pan out. “I was anxious, I didn’t know what would happen, and I just went with the flow," says Thapa, who will also be seen in Geethu Mohandas’ under-production feature Liar’s Dice. “I surrendered myself and got used to somebody holding a camera and following me around."

I.D. premiered in India at the Mumbai Film Festival in October, and it’s making many more stops before it shows up in cinemas. Among its halts are the ongoing International Film Festival of India in Goa, the Festival of Three Continents in Nantes, France, also on now, and the International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram in December. Since the 50-lakh production has been made unconventionally, don’t expect a regular theatrical release. There are also plans to disseminate the movie through social organizations, universities and film societies.

I.D. is the first of hopefully many films that will be produced by the newly minted Collective Phase One. Like other such initiatives in the past, including the Odessa Collective in Kerala and Yukt Film Cooperative in Maharashtra, Collective Phase One pools together the resources and expertise of its members in the service of cinema. Apart from Kamal, the collective comprises cinematographers Rajeev Ravi and Madhu Neelakandan, sound designer Resul Pookutty, editor B. Ajithkumar and production designer Sunil Babu.

“We didn’t make the film to make money," says 37-year-old Kamal, who worked as a journalist with the Malayalam magazine Sameeksha before studying direction at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. He moved to Mumbai three years ago, and his impressions of the city made their way into his debut.

Like all movies, I.D. too “comes out of love", says Kamal, who made short films after graduating in 2004 and assisted film-maker Santosh Sivan on a bunch of projects. “When I moved here, people asked me if I was scared of Bombay. I would say I was perplexed by the geography, the pace. You realize that the city isn’t moving according to any rules, but there is harmony within the chaos. I was quite amazed by this, and I started loving it."