By Utpal Borpujari
It is easy to descend to a preachy mood while making a movie on a socially-relevant subject, and there are umpteen number of examples all over India of it. It is equally difficult to take up a theme as depressing as a vast chunk of children from poor Indian families not having access to education and keep the tone warm and fairytale-like even while successfully sending the message across in an entertaining way.
A low-budget Hindi film, produced by an NGO and directed by a first-time director has been able to achieve exactly that, and the world is applauding the achievement. The film we are talking about is I Am Kalam, directed by Delhi-based Nila Madhab Panda and produced by Smile Foundation, which has till now travelled to around 25 film festivals across the globe, sweeping prestigious awards and adulation from both the young and the adult audiences.
With a tone that keeps the mood light-hearted, this indie film starring child actors Harsh Mayar and Husaan Shaad and Bollywood/Hollywood actor Gulshan Grover in an image-reversing role, puts across its message of how the right opportunities can unearth thousands of A.P.J. Abdul Kalams and Lal Bahadur Shastris from among the poor of India, just as these two luminaries had been able to. In fact, the name of the film, says Panda, reflects this fact.
Panda has just won the prestigious Aravindan Puraskaram for the best debut director of the year in Indian cinema, given out by the Kerala government, as well as the audience award at the Montreal International Children’s Film Festival (FIFEM).
“A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, one of the most loved Presidents our country, has had to sell newspapers as a child to be able to study. Shastri too had toiled hard to come up in life, becoming one of the tallest political leaders and our prime minister. My film talks of a kid just like them, waiting for the right opportunity in life,” says Panda.
The protagonist of the film, Chhotu (Mayar, a Delhi slum boy who has won the best actor award at the Minsk International Film Festival for his confident and moving performance) is a highly-intelligent boy from a Rajasthani village, forced to work in a roadside dhaba to eke out a living. What he wants to do in life is to become an “officer wearing suit, tie and boot”, but has no wherewithal to even go to school. How he achieves his goal, inspired after listening to a television address by Kalam and overcoming adversities with the help of a few helping individuals, forms the core of the film.
Panda, who hails from the remote Dasharajpur village in Orissa’s backward Sonepur district, has drawn from his childhood experiences to give life to the character.
Like its story, the film too has had a fairytale run in the festival circuit. It won the Young Jury Award as the best feature film of the Indian Panorama section at the 41st International Film Festival of India in Goa, the best feature film award and the Don Quijote Prize of the International Cine Club Federations at the Lucas International Film Festival in Germany, the audience award at the Barbican London Children film festival, and special jury mentions at the Cinekid International Film Festival in Rotterdam and the Ale Kino International Film festival at Poznan (Poland). It earned good reviews at the MAMI International Film Festival in Mumbai and the International Film Festival of Kerala, and was among the handful of Indian films, along with “Dhobi Ghat” and “Pan Singh Tomar”, to have been screened at the 54th BFI Times London Film Festival.
“What has been really heartening is the fact that both children and adult audiences have connected really well to the film, which is reflected by the fact that we have won quite a few audience choice awards in several countries,” says Panda. Smile Foundation, he says, is negotiating with distributors for an early release of the film in India. “It is laudable that an NGO has come forward to produce a film on an important subject like making education accessible for poor children at a time when the government has introduced a path-breaking legislation like the Right to Education Act,” says the director.
The film makes a strong comment also on child labour, but not in a didactic manner. The protagonist, in a sense, represents all those ‘Chhotus’ (as children working in roadside eateries or other shops are usually “generically” called across north India, not leaving any scope for their individual identity), and their struggles to access education and a good life. The film’s positive tone means that this Chhotu finally sees a ray of hope, unlike those millions of real life Chhotus who remain unlettered for life because of lack of educational opportunities.
“I deliberately kept this positive tone as I believe that if we try, all of us can be a catalyst for change. My film says that if we make an effort, we will be able to change society. Perhaps because I am a strongly positive person in life, that I felt I should see this serious subject through a positive viewfinder,” says Panda, who is planning his next two films in Hindi, to be shot in Orissa and Meghalaya.
(Published in The Hindu – Magazine Section, 15-05-2011, http://www.hindu.com)