The film more than makes up for its failings with sheer heart
Films with children being the protagonists have been releasing thick and fast recently with the over praised Stanley Ka Dabba, the saccharine Chillar Party and the stolen Cycle Kick being recent example. Though severely flawed, Nila Madhan Panda’s debut feature I Am Kalam is a winning addition to the genre.
Little Chhotu (Haresh Mayar), from an indigent Rajasthani family, is sent to work at his uncle Bhati’s (Gulshan Grover) highway dhaba. The boy is as bright as a button and shows not just a keen aptitude for his job, but also a thirst for learning. This earns him the ire of the other dhaba employee, the film obsessed Laptan (Pitobash), who is overshadowed.
After seeing president APJ Abdul Kalam on television, Chhotu is inspired and takes heart that he can defeat his poverty and grow up to become a man of substance. He styles his hair similarly to the president and even begins calling himself Kalam. The dhaba also supplies victuals to a nearby haveli, half of which is let out to tourists and the other half is occupied by the ruler of the erstwhile principality and his family that includes prince Ranvijay (Hussan Saad), a lonely boy of Chhotu’s age. The two form a fast friendship and share their knowledge with each other.
The film’s biggest flaw is its script where major events are telegraphed miles in advance, thus lessening the impact when they occur. The viewer is also left in no doubt that Chhotu’s burning ambition to get ahead in life will only reach a happy conclusion. The script also gets needlessly sidetracked with strands that are introduced but left half-explored, like ex-royals bemoaning the loss of kingdoms; the rigid class divide in Rajasthan; foreign tourists and their relationship with India, etc. However, the film more than makes up for its failings with sheer heart. What comes across is a genuine attempt by Panda to highlight the issues of child illiteracy in India and how, given the right opportunity, even the poorest child can crest pinnacles, much like the inspirational real life story of president Kalam himself.
The director is immeasurably helped by a clutch of great performances, especially by Mayar as Chhotu/Kalam. Grover sheds his villainous tag and delivers a mature performance as the kindly dhaba owner who has an unrequited love. Pitobash as the dhaba hand is excellent, especially when doing his terrible Amitabh Bachchan impressions. But the best performance of the film is by Hussan Saad who plays the cloistered rich prince to perfection. Though the film is all about Chhotu, the real character arc is that of prince Ranvijay who emerges from his cocoon butterfly-like by the end of the film. There is also some wonderful Rajasthani folk music that enriches the soundtrack of this heart-warming film.