August 5, 2011
Nila Madhab Panda
Harsh Mayar, Husaan Saad, Gulshan Grover, Pitobash, Beatrice Ordeix
Smile Foundation – producers of this film – could have made a documentary on the need to educate our children. What they’ve done instead is given us an unobtrusive, non-preachy, loveable film about a little dhaba boy in Rajasthan who idolises A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is inspired by Kalam’s rise from poverty to Presidentship, studies doggedly by the light of a kerosene lamp while developing an unlikely friendship with a local ‘prince’.
Much of I Am Kalam’s charm lies in its authentic feel and its sense of humour. But it would have been half the film that it is if it hadn’t starred those two exceedingly talented boys Harsh Mayar and Husaan Saad. Mayar has already won a National Award for his performance as the poor yet perennially positive Chhotu who longs for an education and insists on being addressed as Kalam after his hero. He’s a live wire before the camera. Saad’s Ranvijay is less bubbly and therefore less likely to attract attention, but the actor plays his part of the lonely and kind youngster from an erstwhile royal family with the ease of a practised performer though he has starred in only one film before this. The warmth of their chemistry is what well and truly brings alive this sweet and small film.
The story is simple and contained in the two paragraphs I’ve written already. After years of playing over-the-top caricatures of bad men in numerous Hindi films, here in I Am Kalam, Gulshan Grover turns in an unexpectedly likeable performance as Chhotu/Kalam’s boss. Bhati Mamu is the dhaba owner who recognises his boy helper’s immense talent and – in an unrelated development – falls in love with one of his tourist memsaabs. That musician mem is played by Delhi-based French actress Beatrice Ordeix whose Lucie Madam is kind, considerate, a frequent visitor to Rajasthan and in love with India. Ordeix and Yamla Pagla Deewana’s Emma Brown Garrett offer a ray of hope for viewers tired from years of watching actors of limited talent and/or charisma playing white folk in most Hindi films. Chhotu’s bête noir in I Am Kalam is Laptan played by actor Pitobash who is as delightful here as he was in a larger role as an impetuous small-time crook in Shor In The City earlier this year.
The beauty of I Am Kalam lies in the friendship between Chhotu and Ranvijay. But the interactions between Bhati Mamu and Lucie Madam too are entertaining without mocking Bhati, though it might have been tempting to go that way – nice touch! Equally enjoyable are the scenes in the dhaba where the white tourists all look and speak like real white tourists, where Chhotu picks up languages with alacrity, where everyone is taken in by this spirited child, and where we have one of the film’s most memorable moments: an impromptu jam session kicked off when Lucie is testing a new ravanhatta – the traditional stringed instrument popular in Rajastan – and is joined by Chhotu on his khartal, an unnamed tourist with a banjo (Delhi-based musician Deepak Castelino) and everyone else who gathers around to clap, click pictures or watch in admiration ... evocative evidence, if any is needed, that music has no language, class or nationality.
The only thing that didn’t work for me in I Am Kalam was its hurriedly wrapped up ending suffused with improbabilities. Could a tradition-and-possibly-caste-bound king who is so conservative that he doesn’t run a kitchen at his palace hotel suddenly be transformed into the benefactor of a poor boy? And why did that song in the children’s classroom focus so much and so awkwardly on the teacher? The director’s sure-footedness through the rest of the film turns slightly shaky in the last 10 minutes.
But still, this is a lovely film! 2011 has been unusual because it has brought us a string of Hindi children’s films, all of them very well cast, from Sagar Ballary’s Kaccha Limboo and Amole Gupte’s Stanley ka Dabba to Chillar Party just last month and Bubble Gum just last week. Bubble Gum suffered from indifferent production values and Chillar Party meandered beyond a point. I Am Kalam is more polished; it’s also well-intentioned, entertaining and as much for adults as it is for kids. Sanjay Chauhan’s writing is straightforward and extremely effective. Nila Madhab Panda’s direction is so confident that it’s hard to believe this is his debut feature. A big thank you to him for bringing together the sparkling Harsh Mayar and Husaan Saad in one film. Mayar lives in a resettlement colony in Delhi and is making his film debut with I Am Kalam. Saad was earlier seen in Delhi 6. It will be our good fortune if Hindi cinema provides these remarkable children with more opportunities so that two decades from now, we are still watching them on the big screen, perhaps as the successors of Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2
CBFC Rating: U without cuts
Running time: 90 Minutes