When Delhi-based filmmaker Nila Madhab Panda began work on his first feature, I Am Kalam, in 2009, he nursed a dream of shooting a sequence with former President APJ Abdul Kalam. Upon meeting him, Panda suddenly decided against it. “I realised I didn’t want him to be an ‘actor’ because that way he won’t remain the hero he is. His philosophy was enough inspiration,” says Panda.
The 2010 film, which won numerous awards and critical acclaim, follows the story of Chhotu, a poor Rajasthani boy, who wishes to rise above his circumstances, and aspires to be like Kalam after he hears one of his speeches on TV. Kalam becomes Chhotu’s hero, so much so that he changes his own name to Kalam. Chhotu’s character was inspired by a 10-year-old boy, whom Panda had met in a dhaba, when he had been shooting for his documentary Stolen Childhood in Rajasthan. “For this film, I looked at my own life and growing up years. Who does a child look up to? Who is his hero? For me, it was never a filmstar or a cricketer, but someone real. And that real hero was Kalam. I worked on this one line while shooting the film,” says Panda.
Once the movie was complete, Panda showcased it at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival in 2010, and also held a screening for Kalam in Delhi. “He was not a man who indulged in any sort of self-praise. He was happy that a movie was made that spoke about going after your dreams,” he remembers. About his first meeting with Kalam, he says. “I was so nervous but as soon as I met him, the first thing he said to me was ‘You have a true smile, you will grow, Panda’. He then asked me if I was married and had a joint family. He told me that the future of India lay in its joint family system. It’s something I haven’t forgotten.”
Panda last met Kalam two years ago to discuss his plans of opening specialised schools for students interested in pursuing Science. While the film catapulted Panda to success, he says his greatest sense of satisfaction was that he made a film that took forward Kalam’s beliefs. “He was the best Indian leader of the 21st century. It saddens me that he is no more, and I wonder if we will ever see a leader like him again,” says Panda.