Interview with Nila Madhab Panda (I AM KALAM)

“Indian cinema is like disco”

The Indian film I AM KALAM (by Nila Madhab Panda) manages easily to get round the European festival audiences. The film won several awards and got a warm welcome in London, Giffoni, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Vienna, Oulu, Copenhagen… The story about little Chhotu (common name for an Indian child laborer) who wants to go to school but ends up as a worker in a dhaba (an open roadside restaurant) sparkles and sputters in a million colors, as it is set in photogenic Rajasthan.

Nila Madhab Panda: “For the documentary project STOLEN CHILDHOOD I was investigating child labor and poverty in rural India. That’s when I realized a feature fiction would be a better format to explain about these problems. KALAM is the first in a series of 3 fables looking at 21st century India through the eye of a child and was filmed in Rajasthan. The next one will be shot in Bengal and tell about class and caste-related bias.”


That’s a very India-based problem?

Panda: “Indian filmmakers are often tempted to make India-centric films. My story is profoundly Indian but not India-centric. I want it to be understood universally, I want the whole world to share in this emotional journey. I wanted to deliver a low budget product with an international relevance. And I’m very happy with the result. KALAM is well acclaimed in festivals all over the world. Everywhere the children coming out the theatre are trying to whistle as the children in the film do. That’s a proof of the film’s universal appeal.”


In what way does your film differ from traditional Indian cinema?

Panda: “Indian cinema is like disco: it’s usually loud in its images and its music. European cinema is more subtle. That is why the European audience absorbs more from the visual language of cinema. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE combined both styles in a unique way.”


Did that film make a big difference for the Indian film industry?

Panda: “At first we thought SLUMDOG would mark the beginning of a new era for Indian cinema. But it didn’t. It came and went and nothing much has changed.”


On a visual level I AM KALAM definitely benefits from its location: Rajasthan.

Panda: “I AM KALAM is a rather dark and sometimes sad story. So I felt it had to be shot in a happy place to keep it balanced (although it’s a pretty expensive location). From all over the world people come to Rajasthan, seeking beauty. Rajasthan is a unique place and all its typical elements can be found in this movie: the colours, the music and dancing, the landscape, the religion… Even the negative aspects like people still clinging on to a forgotten 14th century era of kingdoms and princes.”


The audience will be surprised to meet Princes and castles in a contemporary story.

Panda: “But it’s totally true to the story. Many kings lived in Rajasthan, owning land and palaces. Now their kingdoms and wealth are gone, they rebuild the palaces into guest houses where tourists can pick up a glimpse of the ancient Indian life. It’s not the contemporary world they live in. But the Prince is not like his father who spends his days drinking and playing chess, being a stranger to his son.”


What does that say about Indian society?

Panda: “That the class bias is still there. Many rules installed during the British colonial exploitation haven’t changed over 50 years. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the gap constantly enlarges. All over the world millions of children can’t go to school. They’re working in tourism, on the railway or in other hazardous industries. Through I AM KALAM I want an international audience to discover this reality.”


There’s one European character in the movie: a French lady.

Panda: “She adds an international angle to the movie, another viewpoint of reflection on the Indian society. She represents the many tourists that come to India to experience a bit of the old colonial lifestyle. In this region, named Bikaner, 90 % of the tourists are French.”


How did you work with the child?

Panda: “It was extremely difficult. Harsh Mayar is a slum boy from an unprivileged class. He behaved really naughty. Sometimes he deliberately destroyed things on the set. On the other hand Husaan Saad, playing the Prince, was very well-behaved. Harsh was assured of being the hero but acted very jealous. I had to pamper him and learn to be a psychologist. For instance Harsh was rather scared and didn’t dare to climb trees or ride a camel, both were required for his performance. So I made Husaan do all those things and I threatened Harsh by saying I would make Husaan the hero. It was a tough task and I cried many times.”


Whoever says India says ‘colours’.

Panda: “We mainly used natural colours. Rajasthan is so beautiful wherever you put the camera the view is always magnificent. But more than capturing that beauty I wanted the cameraman to add something to the story. I didn’t want a great technician behind the camera, I wanted a storyteller. People worked 20 days and nights to construct the dhaba but according to the cameraman it didn’t work on screen. So finally we had 3 days to rebuild it.”


What about the ghost stories the boy tells?

Panda: “All children have their own fighting spirit and they’re very clever in dealing with people who are doing them wrong. This boy for instance is using ghost stories, a strong part of Indian culture. Those stories easily scare off people.”


Did you get support from the Children’s Film Society India? Or was that a ghost story too?

Panda: “I got nothing from CFSI; all talk and no money. They support film production but not the release. Moreover I wanted to work independently. I got financial support from the NGO ‘The Smile Foundation’ who deals with children’s rights and health care. But the budget was insufficient. First I took a loan on my house, then I sold it. My wife and children agreed on moving into a rented house. Without them I never could have finished this film.”


Is there an audience for this film?

Panda: “The film was sold to Germany, Taiwan, Holland and we are still negotiating with Belgium and Sweden. I’m planning the Indian release next year so we can benefit from the reputation we gained on the international market. There is a strong demand from the Indian audience. The film industry does hardly anything for children. There is no marketing, no investment so we’re depending on individual initiatives.” (GH)

Medialab: Writing for children’s cinema is essential in India

India today has a billion plus population. It is the youngest nation in the world (over 35 % of the population is under 15), the largest cinema producing nation and 79 million households with a TV make it even the largest TV market in the world. But Indian production for children is non-existent. Children watch adult stuff, Hollywood films and Korean TV programs. This vast country with its great history and many religions has plenty of stories to tell, but no one tells them to our children. That’s why I myself have installed a media lab with a strong emphasis on children’s film. I want to attract young writers to write original stories and gather with actors, film makers and financers with a true concern about quality screen writing.
Moreover I tried to bring in European experts from Germany (the Goethe Institute), Italy, UK, Holland… Those countries with an excellent tradition in children’s film can help us, as we are new in this area. Meanwhile I’m hoping to draw the attention of European producers to India, the most consumer driven market. I hope this Lab can bring a good future to India’s children and family cinema and television. (More info on (Nila Madhab Panda)

For ECFA Journal, December 2010