It is a wonder how life’s seemingly mundane experiences spur profound milestones in the journey to self-discovery. Filmmaker Nila Madhab Panda would certainly have a lot to say on that. The 37-year-old’s I Am Kalam is well on its way for an exclusive screening at the world’s biggest children festival — The National School Film Week, London — on October 14.
Already riding on strong promise, the film, produced by Smile Foundation, has managed to bag the best feature film award and the Don Quixote Prize of the International Cine Club Federation at the Lucas Film Festival, Frankfurt Germany. “I come from one of India’s poorest regions, a remote village in Orissa’s Sonepur district. I know about daily struggle. But I also know what aspiration is. It’s a story of struggle that I have faced in my childhood,” says Panda. “I’m an eternal positivist. There is so much of negativity today, be it climate change or corruption. But I look at the spirit that instills fighting instincts against overwhelming odds,” he adds.
Strong on the social message of the need for education, the film is a celebration of struggle, aspiration and success. It also has a strong take on child labour, the exploitative Indian system and the thoughtless individual.
The cast includes Harsh Mayar, a 10-year-old boy from a Delhi slum, actor Gulshan Grover and French actor Beatrice. The film was inspired by Panda’s encounter with a young boy ten years back which has been superimposed with the life and character of former president APJ Kalam. Kalam’s quintessential thesis has been his firm belief that every individual in life is endowed with special qualities or a unique ‘fire’, and that the purpose of one’s life is to develop these attributes or ‘to give wings to this fire.’
The child protagonist in the film, Chhotu, works as an errand boy in a roadside dhaba. His name is suggestive of a generic identity for all child workers where no one gives a damn about them. He recognises his life’s purpose when he’s asked: “What is your real name?” He realises that he wants a real name with a character, unlike the countless faceless Chhotus. He needs a hero and finds his answer on TV — APJ Kalam, a man who scaled the pinnacle of achievement, an individual who financed his school fees by selling newspapers.
I Am Kalam had its world premiere at the Marche du Section of the Cannes film festival this year. Having produced and directed over 65 documentaries, shorts and films across the globe, Panda is a promise among India’s emerging generation of young filmmakers. His contemporary storytelling methods offer a skillful and visually striking edge to social themes.