His toothy, high-wattage grin is an outright winner. It lights up the desultory desert landscape. But there is infinitely more to I Am Kalam than child actor Harsh Mayar’s heart-warming screen presence.
Indeed, he is just one of the many treasures on offer in Nila Madhab Panda’s directorial debut. I Am Kalam is a sure-footed cinematic essay that delivers its essential social message without working up the sort of gratuitous preachy froth that films of this genre often end up doing.
This sparkling little tale of ordinary people with their desperate dreams and tremulous hopes, their stray highs and persistent heartbreaks, follows a genteel, unhurried narrative trajectory.
I Am Kalam draws its lifeblood primarily from the innate authenticity of its tangible characters and the sustained evenness of its pragmatic tone.
Mayar is Chhotu, a spirited young boy who goes about his chores in a highway food joint with a smile on his face, a twinkle in his eyes and a spring in his steps.
“His mind is as a quick as a train,” his mother tells the dhaba owner, Bhati (Gulshan Grover), when she drops the boy off at the eatery on the edge of a Rajasthan town so that he can escape the grinding poverty of their drought-hit village and fetch the family a few extra pennies.
Chhotu is indeed a quick learner. He picks up the ropes without a fuss and strikes an instant chord not only with his amiable employer but the stream of foreigners who visit the dhaba for a sip of the famed hot cuppa that Bhati whips up.
But what really keeps the boy going is his love for his books. Chhotu, who, on an impulse, assumes the name of Kalam inspired by the then President APJ Abdul Kalam, dreams of going to school one day.
Bhati warns him that “dreams are heart-breaking”, but Chhotu is determined to fight his destiny a la the self-made Abdul Kalam, who, as the boy learns from a Republic Day television show, hawked newspapers to fund his education.
Chhotu’s resolve receives a fillip when he befriends a lonesome prince, Ranvijay (Husaan Saad), who lives in a sprawling royal mansion, a part of which is now a heritage hotel that Chhotu visits every day with supplies of tea and snacks.
The two boys meet on the sly because the prince is barred from hobnobbing with commoners. They develop a relationship of deep trust across the yawning social divide that separates them.
They complement each other as they, in all their innocence, seek to explore facets of life that they haven’t known before. Chhotu cannot read English; Ranvijay is weak in Hindi. Chhotu can ride a camel and climb trees with ease; the cloistered prince cannot, but he can ride a horse.
I Am Kalam would probably have been a bit of a drag after a point but for the subtle layers of humanity that Panda dovetails into the film’s broad narrative design. He etches out each of the characters in fine detail and mines memorable moments from them. Every sub-plot has a meaningful resonance.
Chhotu, for instance, forges multiple ties with the world around him, especially with Bhati’s camel for hire, which becomes the boy’s all-weather companion and means of transport.
The well-meaning Bhati has a crush on a French musicologist, Lucy (Beatrice Ordeix) unmindful of the pitfalls that lie ahead.
The dhaba assistant, Laptan (Pitobash), an Amitabh Bachchan fan, dreams of being in the movies and is bugged no end with all the attention Chhotu garners.
The King without a kingdom, Ranvijay’s stern father, lives in the distant past yet is acutely aware that he might be “a museum piece”.
I Am Kalam shows how beautiful small can be, especially when the heart is in the right place and the mind is clued in.