“Do you believe that destiny makes a man, or his actions?”
Nila Madhab Panda’s Indian drama I Am Kalam (2010) was produced by the charity Smile Foundation, an NGO for poor child education in India. As its production struggles to compete with the lavishness of Bollywood, the film directs a microscope lens at the contemporary lives of the less privileged, whose only desire in life is to outrun the encroaching poverty of their supposed fate.
Chhotu (Harsh Mayar), a young Indian boy, is handed over to a Dhaba owner named Bhati (Gulshan Grover) by his mother, who hopes that her son’s labour can recompense the debt she is otherwise unable to repay. As the boy proves both his agility and intelligence, he manages to antagonise his colleague, Laptan (Pitobash Tripathy). Meanwhile, under the self-appointed name of Kalam, Chhotu befriends the young Prince Ranvijay (Hussan Saad), thanks to whom he both finds the means to continue his self-education, and parts with his innocent view of the country’s social hierarchy.
The first thing to note about I Am Kalam, and possibly the most divisive factor in establishing its audience, is the pleasant amateurship of the film’s production. Especially in the beginning, the film has the earthly, coarse feel of a documentary filmed on a hand-held phone, with its askew angles and unintentional close-ups. But as the story progresses, the hand seizing the camera stabilises, matching the thickening fabric of the film’s numerous – and highly dramatic – subplots.
Impossible to ignore, the screen is dotted with the pale faces of virginal foreigners, who exist painfully out of sync with the reality they are admiring. Their mere presence serves as a way for Kalam to both develop a craving for freedom, and understand that education is the only path towards it. This message, as paramount as it is for the audience to grasp, is never turned into an exhausting piece of propaganda. Instead, it possesses a subtlety that leaves room for the viewer to indulge in an emotional journey through the stirring plotline.
Despite their grinning faces, the film’s ubiquitous travellers speak with all the flow of a clogged sewage drain – which is as expected as it is nonthreatening. By contrast, the Indian actors’ efforts possess an ardour that hints at the end goal of the production, which is to carry the load of the film’s message about education as seamlessly as possible. This is no small undertaking, as I Am Kalam pounces on such themes as: poverty, hunger, child labour, social hierarchy and friendship. And all this is achieved with surprising drollery. Pitobash Tripathy, in particular, embraces the wicked nature of his character with the zaniness of a James Bond villain.
Apart from Laptan, every character appears beguiling, and none more so than Kalam himself. Despite his young age, Harsh Mayar prances around with the charisma of a seasoned actor, tugging the spotlight away from almost everything else on-screen. This feeds the audacity of his character, for whom one can’t help but cheer breathlessly until the end. It’s the friendship portrayed in the film that unearths the immaculateness of youth in our eyes. Unable to shake the self-imposed nostalgia that accompanies watching Kalam and the prince grow close, we can’t help but surrender to the timeless appeal of the heart-warming film.
I Am Kalam serves as a reminder of the privilege most of us are born into, and the things we are used to taking for granted. The film provides not only moments of unintentional levity, but also a series of reflections on the course of our lives – starting with the concept of destiny, and whether one should use it as a defense against active involvement in one’s fate. Even more resounding is the longing for an identity of one’s own design, and the helplessness of facing the world from a unfavourable position.
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