Kamal K.M.’s debut feature, I.D., is set in Mumbai, a city of outsiders. Charu, an upper class young woman, finds her worldview transformed when a nameless migrant painter collapses on the job at her apartment. Armed with only a photograph of his corpse’s face, Charu searches for the identity of this man in a journey that leads her through the slums of Mumbai. I.D. has screened in Indian and international film festivals since its debut in 2012, including International Film Festival Rotterdam, and won many awards, such as Best Film at the Torino Film Festival in Italy. The most recent award is the jury prize at this month’s South Asian International Film Festival in New York.
I talked to Kamal about being a communist activist’s son, the burdens of identity and displacement in India, and why he couldn’t get a visa to see his own Los Angeles premiere.
This is a narrative film, but it often has the feel of a documentary, especially when Charu is searching in the slums. How did you do that?
Kamal K.M.: We shot in actual neighborhoods with actual people. We used the same picture you see in the film, the face of the dead body. The reactions from the people were very spontaneous. They are sympathetic, they will ask questions, they will guide her, tell her “I think I have seen this fellow. I think it is the brother of Ibrahim who lives there, I think it is Sameer.” There were a few written scenes in between, which I shot in a very realistic way. Like the hijra character. She is actually a transsexual hijra, but I created that character and I casted her, and we shot in a very real way. She and her friends, were acting in front of camera without any brief, I would say.
What did people say when you told them that it was a fictional movie?
After the shooting, most of the time they will see the camera, and they will ask me, is it news, is this for TV or something? Then I will tell them that no, this is a fiction. Then they will be happy; “Oh, so that means that this man is not dead.” A lot of people recognized him, and I realized that there are people who look like him in different parts of Bombay. Like in one scene you’ll notice that there are four or five people that confirm that “Oh, this is Sameer! This is Sameer! This is Sameer!”
Why did you make this film?
Because the urban upper class needs transformation. I’m telling the story of a laborer who collapses and dies. I thought it should come from the point of view of an upper-class person. Then only the people who are out there will understand. I could have told the story through the point of view of this laborer. But I chose the point of view of this upper- class lady who gets transformed.
Even the censor board in India, after seeing this film, asked me, “So you think people should have more identity cards?” It’s not about identity cards. It’s about people who are losing identity by getting displaced.
What got you interested in the themes of identity and displacement?
I think that this is one major question we confront at this point in time, particularly in India, and I can see the same thing is happening all over the world also. You are getting displaced over a particular kind of identity. Like if I tell you, I was born in a Muslim family. Even though we are very secular, I have got a Muhammad attached to my name. The M in my initials stands for Muhammad. [When my film first screened in the U.S. in June, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, my visa was denied.] I had an invitation from the Los Angeles Film Festival. I inquired with one of the officials from my state, and he told me there is no reason to hold this application other than my being Muslim. I am not aspiring to ship to any festival country and move in. I don’t have that kind of ambition! I’m happy living in my village with my mother.
How did you get started as a filmmaker?
There was a cinema hall near my house. I used to watch films every day. It was free for me to enter the cinema anytime. We, the children, used to make our films using the clips of films the projectionist throw off. Have you seen Cinema Paradiso, when they spliced all the kissing scenes together? We made a projector using an electric bulb. You take out the inside filament so that you have only the glass of the electric bulb, and you fill that with water, so the sunlight will hit this bulb which works as a prism, as a kind of lens. So we would run the film in front of this bulb, which makes a reverse image, on the white wall, or the white dhoti of your dad, which will be the screen. And there would be many kids in my house to watch this film. So this was the kind of childhood we had.
When I was studying there were two things in my life. Writing and cinema. But after I finished my graduation, I chose to study journalism because I wasn’t in a position to join a film school in a different state. After working for three years I got some kind of savings for my studies. I got my masters in direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
My Dad was a communist activist. He was a guy who lived for the people for his entire life. After he died, wherever I go, people respect me only because I was the son of this man. Comrade K. Muhammad had a lot of respect in this district of Kerala. Even though he couldn’t give us that sort of economically secure life, he taught us great values. He thought that whatever we do should be for the people. That was the great inspiration. That is what I still believe.
Hannah Harris Green is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in American, Indian and Pakistani publications. You can follow her on twitter: @write_noise.