IFFLA 2011 Diary: I Am Kalam

By Shekhar Deshpande • Published on April 12, 2011

I Am Kalam opens Indian Film festival of Los Angeles on Tuesday

There is an audience in search of a narrative in the West and even more for a broader legitimacy in world cinema. Indian cinema itself has staked its candidacy for that narrative too. Here, we give up the weighty burdens of established formulas popular within the country and address the frames that outsiders expect of us. Each national cinema directs its narratives to the palate of the West, cleansing its films of the coded pretensions that have been familiar and dressed up as something that partly fits the baseline expectations of a patronizing audience. Let us get more concrete here. We’ve seen too many narratives that look alike, from all over the world, where the native subjects are simple, fighting for something simple that could be understood and couched in the romantic terms of what a world different from that of the Western viewers live in. Too many films at Cannes look alike; so many of foreign film Oscars seem to come from the same fountain and so many of the Rotterdam and Venice entrants look eerily similar in form and narrative. This taste is cultivated by the audiences outside the country that beckon “world cinema” much the same way it fashioned “world music.” For Indian films, there is the marked patronage of the NRI audience, which has shaped the style and the content coming from our cinema.

Nila Madhab Panda’s I Am Kalam (2010) opens up the 9th edition of Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles bringing with it a mixed bag of questions, praise and some more questions. It is a watchable fable, simple and straightforward in its narrative reach, claiming that middle space between the real and the framed, and carrying with it a beneficial orientation of childhood education. It is also a film produced by an NGO, the Smile Foundation, engaged in the care of young children deprived of their equitable place in childhood and society. There is nothing not-noble about this film and as such it deserves all the kudos, in part to encourage others to frame urgent social issues in narratives that have an audience appeal. As a debut film from a director, it is an admirable effort, also because of its stylistic consistency and integrity to the central purpose of children’s welfare.

Kalam, a young child, takes his name in inspiration from the former President of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, giving up his generic chhotu in pursuit of the ideals of education and self-improvement represented by his idol. Kalam works in a dhaba that apparently also caters to a nearby Royal family where the head seems to be onto his second wife who doesn’t cook and prefers the food and tea brought in by the genuine taste of the dhaba. Kalam befriends young Prince who seems to go to school with commoners but cannot stoop so low to be with Kalam. The Prince and Kalam continue their relationship, learning from each other and doing what kids do, being simple hearted children. Kalam wants to be educated, wants to learn languages and has the facility to absorb everything around him that the thick-skinned and self-obsessed adults can’t.

This is a story of redemption, of the need to provide education to the underclass and to equalize the social inequities in distribution of wealth. It is a feel-good story in part because it doesn’t make you feel repulsed by anything. And yet, the film has all the trappings of a formula that is cultivated by the patronizing audience and not by a nativist desire to frame the issues in a hard-hitting way to drive the point home. The presentations and arguments on the web site of the Smile Foundation make a far more compelling case for children’s education, social equity and welfare. What is lost in this film is that hard hitting, clear cut argument that all children, especially poor children cannot be deprived of their education. This is a social responsibility, not a reason to wait for the patronage offered by some moribund Royal family in its spirit of weakness. The real social inequity is between the social classes that accumulate wealth and take their place for granted in the self-made echelons of power and the poor who live in condition of depravity that are created by the accumulated wealth. I Am Kalam is a fairy tale; the struggle is not with the disappearing Royal families that shun contact with the poor but with the rest of us who look at depravity in the face and don’t lift a finger to do something about it. And therein lies the rub. Films like these promote the sugar-coated vision of social engagement. They make the audience feel good instead of feeling responsible. An important opportunity slips by to hold them by the neck and give them a word about their place in our shared world. Western liberalism loves narratives like these. It nurtures them and needs more of them. In fact, Westerners always make an entry into these narratives. They often appear in the form of single Western character, like Beatrix Ordeix’s Lucy, a Western tourist who make friends with Kalam and Gulshan Grover’s Bhati, the owner of the dhaba. She is an entry into the identification for the audience abroad, a connection for the sympathizers that ought to find this film interesting with some redemptive message. She is oblivious to Bhati’s romantic feelings but steps up quickly to befriend and save Kalam when she has to.

The film has the idle pace of a popular Hindi film. It does not delve into songs but on a number of scenes that could have well ended on the cutting room floor, making this a crisp film, moving with the same urgency as that of Kalam’s needs. There ought to be a broad soul-searching of the pace of our films where we may cultivate one audience at home that is forever ready to indulge and the other that finds the wasted scenes and non-narrative elements splattered for inexplicable reasons.

But overall, what I Am Kalam invites is not a criticism of its own intent but the reach of this genre; this posture of making films that are about urgent issues but so removed from the real pressures of everyday lives that fail to realize that we must give children what is theirs instead of making them dream of the Princes and Palaces and their possible patronage in weak moments of generosity. The film is bound to be an audience pleaser as many of its awards have shown. We ought to see it to realize how narratives of world cinema need to defy the pressures and address what is genuinely ours.

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