I Am Kalam, from director Nila Madhab Panda, tells the story of a young boy, Chotu, who is sent by his mother to work at a roadside food joint in Rajasthan. One of the food joint’s biggest customers is the Royal Palace where the wealthy but somewhat irrelavent Royal family reside. The young prince of the family lives surrounded by everything a young boy could want but like the rest of his family, he is disconnected from ‘real life’ in India and cut off from the people around him. Chotu helps break down this barrier though and befriends the priveleged prince.

These two parallel worlds form the backbone of the film’s narrative drive and it is the character of Chotu who is the film’s lead and hero. Chotu later renames himself Kalam, after the country’s president, and the decision is one that comes to define him both in his similarity to his namesake and also in the statement of defiance against the opinion that ‘Chotus’ have no name, that they are just street kids. This comes to a head and is spelt out explicty in a speech towards the end of the film that is perhaps a little too on the nose but works within the context of the film.

I Am Kalam rests mostly on the shoulders of its lead and Harsh Mayar is absolutley wonderful in the role, bringing a genuine sense of wide eyed wonder and the actor’s wisdom beyond his years is obvious and entirely appropriate to the character. Thankfully though he never slips into the precocious child character that is so often the blight of so much Hollywood fare.

I Am Kalam is utterly charming and the strong central performance coupled with the bright colours and fun, carefree direction helps ensnare an audience in the feelgood fairytale on screen. The problems that the film touches on, including poverty, abuse and child labour are for the most part relegated to the far background in favour of breezier and more ‘fun’ scenes but these themes are not completely ignored and in many ways it is to the filmmakers’ credit that they manage to include these elements, even to a minor degree, in a film that is constantly hopeful and for the most part avoids any darkness or grittiness.

The film plays very much like a fairytale, bringing to mind classic Disney rather than something with more real life grounding. The film is not really grounded too far in reality at all, despite the harsh realities of some of the situations and the inclusion of footage of the actual president, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. This fairytale tone is handled well by Nila Madhab Panda and will have most audiences enraptured.

The tone of I Am Kalam may admittedly be just a touch too bright and cheery in places but for the most part it manages to escape falling into unjustified schmaltz and what is left is a touching and affecting portrait of humanity filtered through a hopeful view, an optimist glimpse at what could be.