What does it take to make your mark in Bollywood? Is it contacts, big bucks or a star-studded cast in your debut feature film? In Nila Madhab Panda’s case it was none of these. His directorial venture, I am Kalam, which released last week, has taken the cine world by storm winning close to 11 awards, some of them as prestigious as the Young Jury Award at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, 2010. His journey into the world of cinema was not one of luck but one of a passion to tell stories that mattered and to depict people, emotions, relationships and circumstances through the lens.
Hailing from a small village in Orissa, Panda’s childhood was spent grappling poverty, meeting the unruly demands of his father and pushing himself to study in the makeshift village school. Says Panda, “Life as a child in the village was about whiling away time by the river, playing with friends and working in the fields. The only things that gravely concerned me were meals and education because getting a proper meal seemed impossible in a joint family of 10-15 people and I hated studying in the mud school, which would get washed away during the monoons. Since I hated theoretical bookish framework, and avoided school education, my father and I were constantly at loggerheads,” recalls Panda.
Ask him how he developed an interest in movies when circumstances were so grim, he says, “I loved storytelling. In the village, I would mesmerise people with my stories and the craft of storytelling. It was kind of a stress-busting exercise for me. Then, someone in the village bought a television and that changed my life. I saw villagers going crazy over the shows. For them, it was very difficult to understand that it was people like them and I who acted in those programmes. That was my chance. I knew they were people, and I wanted to meet them,” says the filmmaker.
However, taking the first decision wasn’t easy because of the lack of funds. So, he convinced his father to sell off his mother’s jewellery and used this money to fund himself in his quest.
His quest brought him to Delhi’s National School of Drama, and later took him to the US. It was while he was in Delhi that he met some filmmakers from the US. “It was exciting to interact with them and understanding the contrasting worlds we lived in. For us, clean water, sanitation, roads were a problem, but for them these were reality. They came from a place where these things were taken for granted. What was interesting was the possible stories that emerged from that encounter. After this first experience, I realised that there was a way of telling stories by collaborating and building networks,” Panda says.
He has produced and directed over 700 films and describes his work as being ‘needs based’ – aimed at creating awareness about social issues and bringing them into mainstream entertainment. Elaborating about this, he says, “I am not just a filmmaker, my films are a platform. They serve a purpose. They aren’t about an item song here, a DK Bose there. I address social issues through cinema. My films hold a mirror up to society and reflect it in its true character. Even I am Kalam does the same – it weaves in entertainment with a very serious issue of child labour, childhood dreams and aspirations to help the viewer relate to Chotu (the main protagonist).
“You can say that the movie is partly based on my life experiences, but it goes beyond that to highlight child labour, to convey the rights of education, particularly for village children — any of whom could be the next Kalam — who is the inspiration for the movie.”
Next on his agenda, Panda says “is one of the many stories I have in mind. Twenty-first century India is changing, and changing at a very fast pace, throwing up new challenges at every step. Be it the BPO culture, growing consumerist tendencies in the metros, issues of skewed sex ratio, sanitation, or education in villages – these present exciting opportunities to be told to the world as stories.”
Addressing the youth of today, he says, “Just follow your dreams and have firm belief in your abilities. Do what you like and never be afraid of making choices.
They might be wrong, but you’ll have the satisfaction of it being your decision. Theoretical knowledge isn’t everything – what is important is that you understand the society around you. Feel the pulse of the place.”