Harsh Mayar is Chhotu, an uneducated but bright young village kid whose mother drops him off to work at a dhaba owned by an old acquaintance on the outskirts of a small town in Rajasthan. With his toothy smile and his affable manners, Chhotu quickly wins the affection of his boss Bhati (played by Gulshan Grover) and the foreign tourists who visit the dhaba. In between his daily responsibilities of washing the dishes and serving the patrons, Chhotu pores over his books, nursing the seemingly impossible dream of getting an education.
On learning through a television news broadcast that the country’s then-President funded his own schooling by selling newspapers, Chhotu rechristens himself Kalam and discovers a role model to look up to. He becomes friends with a rich young prince named Ranvijay (played by Husaan Saad) who shares his books with him, and also catches the fancy of a French tourist named Lucy (played Beatrice Ordeix) who offers to take him to Delhi and get him admitted into a school.
Never losing track of the film’s central theme or the message it wishes to convey, the script by Sanjay Chauhan allows enough room for light laughs. It’s hard not to be amused by Chhotu’s clashes with Laptan (played by Shor in the City’s Pitobash Tripathi), the Hindi film-obsessed wannabe actor who also works at the dhaba. More far-fetched but also mildly funny is the subplot involving Bhati’s crush on Lucy.
I Am Kalam works as much for its intelligent script as it does for its convincing performances. Pitobash Tripathi is terrific as the envious Laptan, and Gulshan Grover brings the right mix of humor and feeling to the part of Bhati. Husaan Saad is a perfect fit as ‘poor little rich kid’ Ranvijay, but the film of course belongs to Chhotu. Harsh Mayar, who won a National Award for his performance in I Am Kalam delivers a wholly believable, endearing performance as the boy who wants more from life. His smile alone will melt your heart.
Integrating music cleverly into the plot, director Nila Madhab Panda gives us a realistic slice of Rajasthan that’s hard to find in our over-styled Hindi films.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for I Am Kalam. It’s a charming little film that’ll leave you wiser and happier. Don’t miss it.