I Am Kalam
Director: Nila Panda
Actors: Harsh Mayar, Pitobash
A little Rajput royal 'Kunwar saa, Rannvijay Singh' speaks to everyone, including his commoner friend, in the honorofic, respectful, 'aap': "Aap kaise hain (How are you?)," "Aap kahan jaa rahein hai (Where're you going)" etc.
"Aap aap kyon (bolta hai), lagta hai kisi aur se baat kar raha hai (What's up with these aaps, seems like you're talking to someone else)," the poor kid, an unlikely buddy, asks this prince, to loosen up a bit, get more real. Theirs is a tender, classless relationship.
The prince's father, "Hukum" though – stern, morose, moronic – still lives in the imagined glory days of his feudal forefathers. We're in the late 2000s (in the film). Everyone in this palace, now a guest-house, plays along with the supposed king's uppity pretenses ("Hukum, bhojan ke liye padhariye!").
How could a pauper, Chhotu (Harsh Mayar, the boy picked up a well-deserved National Award for this part), become friends with a prince his own age? Well, he works at a dhaba nearby. Which is extremely popular. As so many fabulous, delightfully addictive dhabas of the great Indian highways are. He delivers food and tea to paying guests at the prince's palace. Which has no catering facilities. Because the delusional king doesn't approve, "Hukum se hotel-wale. King se cook?" Naah.
Anyway. This is how the two boys first meet, instantly hit it off. They've a lot to share. The rich boy's good at English (Sesomu is the strangely named school he goes to). The poor kid is uniquely quick on the uptake: he's picked up bits of French, Spanish from backpackers at his dhaba, has great command over Hindi, can play a percurssion instrument, make fine tea…
He's essentially a bright, honest boy stuck among various accidents of birth, under the care of an unusually paternal dhaba-owner (Gulshan Grover), who's always dapperly dressed in crisp kurtas, jackets, probably ordered from a chic boutique (Why? I don't know). Lakshmi, the camel, is the boy's best friend; washing dirty utensils is his dayjob.
The media, it appears, is easy escape route for such unfortunate, mundane lives. His dim-witted, jealous co-worker 'Haddi Pehelwan' (Pitobash) imagines himself as Amitabh Bachchan. The boy himself is struck by a speech on TV of the then Indian President, whose first three names read Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen.
I don't know if you've ever had the chance to hear APJ Abdul Kalam live at a public function. I once did, and could instantly figure why the 'People's President' would make for a perfect children's icon. His speech, mostly homilies, delivered in a sing-song tone, came with questions he'd ask his audience to raise their hands for. This was a gathering of old fogey politicians (LK Advani et al). It seemed quite bizarre.
The motivational speech li'l Chhotu is inspired by is one where APJ refers to the supremacy of karm (hardwork) over kismat (destiny). The kid even changes his name to Kalam, moved by the story of a rocket-scientist President who started out with selling newspapers, when really young. He wants to meet this Prez. Which obviously is not the point of the story. As you'd know, this ain't no My Name Is Khan.
The picture, I'm told, is backed by a children's NGO. That, thankfully, never shows. This is no melodramatic, moralising pamphlet either. It's a sweet, intimate, fable-like film, even unnecessarily sanitised in parts, that touches upon issues of class, poverty, childhood, dreams, without ever quite losing sight of a reasonably plausible, engaging tale to tell. This helps.
A westerner (a French girl), usually more compassionate than most Indians, eventually takes a shine to the little boy. He really is charming. You know. So is his movie. It's called I Am Kalam. Of course. I am (a) column. Which adored it, and thinks, so would you!