I am Kalam is a charming, heartwarming story that captures the conflicted emotions of a poverty-stricken kid with real sensitivity. The film is inspirational, moving, funny, and gives you a young hero to root for. It's the kind of hopeful, kid's-eye-view Indian dramedy that hasn't been made for a while.
What makes I am Kalam such an unexpected treat is that debutant director Nila Madhab Panda crisply separates the film's emotional core from a plethora of mawkish classism. There is no sloganeering or preaching here - Panda finds a very subtle and moving way to illustrate the film's "schooling for everyone" message. He does away with the melodramatic gas and delicately weaves the theme of educational growth against incredible odds. Writer Sanjay Chauhan doles up a very realistic depiction of rural India’s education and lack thereof, and the struggle of learning in a community that places it as a last priority. It makes for an excellent film, mainly because its lead character Chotu (Harsh Mayar) is not only down to Earth and awfully familiar, but he never becomes a caricature or a gimmick.
Here we have Chotu, an uneducated, though quick-witted 10-year-old who works with Bhati (Gulshan Grover) at a tiny highway dhaba in Rajasthan. Chotu dreams of attending school; he even calls himself Kalam after learning that like him, the then-president too used to be a child laborer forced to support his family. Chotu becomes friends with the rich young Prince Ranvijay (Husaan Saad) who introduces him to his school books, and musician Lucy (Beatrice Ordeix) who promises him that she’d take him to Delhi for his studies. Writer Chauhan mines the location for drama, giving Chotu static through his unsupportive mother, the nasty dhaba assistant Laptan (Pitobash), and the rejection from his rich friend’s household. Panda positions the barriers well, keeping the viewer hopeful that Chotu’s dream will indeed be realised.
Most of the characters are stock types - the discouraging mother, the upper-class snobs, the inspirational friend - but they are given a bright re-envisioning. There are a few moments where I am Kalam dive bombs into hammy subplots - the worst offender is the prolonged exposition of Bhati’s crush on Lucy. The climax is a tad schmaltzy too, but it becomes easy to overlook the contrivances, seeing as the film's heart is so wonderfully in the right place. The lion's share of the credit for the film’s success goes to young Harsh Mayar who holds his own against veterans like Gulshan Grover.
I am Kalam is a delight to sit through. It is one of the bright spots in a dim period for half-witted commercial films. Don’t miss it.
First published in Mumbai Boss