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“I Am Kalam” at the Cannes Film Festival

Updated: May 22, 2010 4:22 pm

Produced jointly by the Smile Foundation and Eleeanora Images, I am Kalam will have its world premiere at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival starting on May 12.

            “The dream is not what you see in sleep….dream is which does not let you sleep.”

            “Let us sacrifice our today so that our children can have a better tomorrow.”

            “It is essential that we enlighten and create widespread awareness of education among all sections of society particularly in rural areas and among the urban poor.”

            These are the expressions of former President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. It was this vision of his about taking education to all the deprived populace in India that sparked off the idea of making I am Kalam, a full-length feature

film in Hindi.

            Set in the background of Rajasthan, the film is based on the story of Chhotu at the backdrop of Kalam’s hunger for education, something which he cannot aspire to have because of his family’s acute poverty. Through an engaging, entertaining and fast-paced narrative like a fable, the film takes the viewer to the world of Chhotu, who at one point starts referring to himself as Kalam after watching on TV where Dr Kalam speaks about how he got his education passing through several hurdles in life.

            Interestingly, naming himself as Kalam has more than a symbolic meaning for Chhotu (a name thrust upon him by people at the dhaba (road side food joint) 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’, or the small one), who because of circumstances has to work at a roadside dhaba so that he can send some of his earnings to his mother back in the village at home. Luckily for him, the dhaba owner Bhati is a compassionate person belonging to the same village who engages him after finding out that Chhotu is a fast learner.

            In the film, 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?

            The film strikes a chord remarkably with the viewers but for the brilliant and heart-touching acting by the 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 serious and sensitive film on the plight of the underprivileged, it is also about how the privileged class can play a role for the upliftment of the less-privileged millions.

            Nila Madhab Panda, who has earlier made over 60 short films, documentaries, television drama and films for national broadcasters, the BBC, Discovery Channel, NGC and private producers across the globe, makes his feature film debut with “I am Kalam”. Orissa-born Panda, who was adjudged one of the final three of “India’s creative future” in 2007 and achieved the “Longest Journey Award” from the British Council, and has been a United Nations Fellow in 2003 and winner of the UK film Fellowship, says this about the film, “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 marginalised. 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” in Rajasthan,” he 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 a fantastic ensemble of actors, including veteran Bollywood and international 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 and Meena Mir.

            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. Says Panda, “To make it more interesting, I have given the treatment of a contemporary fable, which would surely attract children more since it promises you something that hard work will win half of the battle in life rather than luck. However, I would also see it as a 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.”

            With Dolby Digital 5.1 (Optical) sound, the 87-minute film has been shot in 35mm with sync-sound. The idea of the film got acclaim even before it was shot, having got selected to the International film co-production market in Amsterdam (Cinekid) and the “Work-in-Progress” Lab at the NFDC-organised Film Bazaar at IFFI-Goa. Leading film festivals like those in Venice, Lucas, Cinekid, Shanghai, Korean Kinder festival, Germany international film festival, Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica and Festival for Children and Youth, The Czech Republic, have also shown interest in the film.

            Well-known Barbara Broccolli, the producer of the James Bond films with whom Panda has worked earlier, is also planning to organise a special screening of the film in London as a goodwill gesture to the director.

By Dr Bhabani Dikshit

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