By Utpal Borpujari
That former president A P J Abdul Kalam is extremely popular with children is common knowledge, as is his prescription for success in life: hard work, a goal in life, perseverance to achieve it, and most importantly access to education.
Now, both these aspects have come together in a full-length feature film that focuses on child’s right to education and how in India’s villages millions of A P J Abdul Kalams or Lal Bahadur Shastris can bloom if given access to right opportunities.
Produced by NGO Smile Foundation and Delhi-based production house Eleeanora Images, the film, I Am Kalam, has a Delhi slum boy in the lead role of a poor Rajasthani village boy who is extremely intelligent but if forced to work in a roadside eatery along the highway to help his family survive.
The film, which also touches one rarely spoken aspect of child labour – that how poor family conditions force many children to work even though they would like to study – drives home its message strongly through the story of the boy who gets inspired by Kalam’s message on television and strives to get educated.
First-time director Nila Madhab Panda, who is a trained cameraman and has directed a number of documentaries and television programmes on children’s themes, got the idea for the film from a character he had encountered while working in the cinematography department of James Bond films’ producer Barbara Broccoli’s feature-length documentary Stolen Childhood, which focused on child labour globally.
“My story is close to real life, though I have incorporated fictional elements, including the part in which the boy gets inspired by Kalam,” he told Deccan Herald.
Of course, like his character, Panda also got inspired by Kalam’s philosophies while developing the film. “In recent past, the only person who has inspired children is Kalam, it ‘s no more Nehru and Gandhi for them,” says the director, who met the former President before making the film.
Despite its serious subject, the film tells its story in a light-hearted manner through the eyes of Chhotu (played by Harsh Mayar), who introduces himself as “Kalam” to all and sundry after watching the President interact with children on TV.
His adventures with his friend (Husaan Saad, seen earlier in Dilli 6) who is the son of a former ruler of a princely state who now survives by turning his palace into a heritage hotel, drives the story forward.
Sundry other characters, such as the kindly dhaba owner played by veteran Gulshan Grover, a French tourist played by Beatrice Ordiex and a cruel dhaba owner played by FTII graduate Pitobash Tripathy help take the story forward to its finale outside Rashtrapati Bhawan in Delhi.
According to Panda, his film tackles the larger issue of exploitation of the poorer sections of the society by those well off. “In any country which had colonial rule, exploitation does not end, whether it is by zamindars or by corporates. The former ruler in my film represents policy makers and the government, and I have shown how a change in their attitude is important,” he says.