Curiously enough, films on kids – as a genre, if you may – have generally been a cut above the usual Bollywood fare. Shekhar Kapur’s brilliant Masoom (1983) and Mani Ratnam’s sensitive Anjali come to mind immediately. Films on kids are also, understandably, rare to come by. Both points are also true for Aamir Khan films.
There was therefore considerable anticipation and trepidation preceding the release of Taare Zameen Par. As if this wasn’t enough, the film also happened to mark Aamir’s debut as a filmmaker – officially, at any rate. The hype bordered on hyperbole.
Taare Zameen Par is Aamir’s heartwarming and immensely sentimental paean to differently abled children. It tells the story of Ishaan Avasthi, an eight year old who is anything but “normal” in this world of conventions, rules, and innocence lost. He paints vivid strokes of life seen without the prejudices and cynicism we are accustomed to. He is fascinated by the magnificent creations of Nature that other children – and indeed, adults – have longed ceased to observe, and prefers catching fish in his water bottle or watching a bird feed its young ones over the more mundane matters of understanding Maths or learning English in school. Attributing his dismal performance in third grade as an attitude problem, Ishaan’s parents decide to put him in a boarding school in the hope that it will “straighten him out”.
Unable to find someone who can understand his language instead of forcing him to learn theirs, the achingly innocent Ishaan withdraws into a shell and appears to cut himself off from the rest of the world. Just when it seems that his fragile shoulders cannot carry the burden of trying to “fit in” anymore, there appears a sliver of hope in the form of his new art teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh. Ram discovers that Ishaan is afflicted with dyslexia and is in need of someone to reach out to him. Having been dyslexic himself, Ram is able to relate to Ishaan and sets about repairing the damage done to him. Slowly but surely, he convinces Ishaan of just how special he is. In helping him overcome his insecurities, he shows how patience, understanding, intelligence and caring can triumph over ignorance and apathy to make this world a better place, one child at a time.
TZP scores on many grounds. At a script and screenplay level, the film packs a huge emotional wallop. Clearly a lot of thought and research has gone in putting a script like this together, and it shows. To writer and creative director Amole Gupte goes the credit of writing a script that has the depth and sincerity possible only through years of experience in dealing with differently able children. The dialogue is minimal but highly effective, and aided – often substituted – by several visual and animated sequences that reflect the world as seen and understood by an eight year old. Considering that he and his wife have also done most of the art work in the film– paintings and drawings that Ishaan has done in the film – Amole has lent a lot to the film, and definitely much more than what a writer usually contributes. Without taking anything away from the director, it is also Amole’s vision that we see in Taare Zameen Par. The plot may be criticized for being overly simple at times, and it is criticism that is not necessarily wrong. Certainly the second half lacks strong pivot points that could take the story forward and give it more depth. Aamir’s efforts to heal Ishaan is more of an overarching theme, and there is an absence of tension as we move towards a fairly predicable ending. Still the effort is commendable because it comes straight from the heart, and at the end of it all, you stand moved.
It is gratifying to see that at no point does the film become self involved with itself. Writers and filmmakers often tend to lose the plot when dealing with serious issues like dyslexia. What helps TZP’s cause is that it manages – in an almost Hrishida like manner, albeit with less subtlety - to balance the emotional moments with lighter ones, as is wont in real life. This without digressing from the main story. Take the sequence when Aamir reveals to Ishaan’s family that he is dyslexic. Without being preachy, he shows them how they almost made a terrible mistake in ignoring the reason why Ishaan couldn’t behave normally. The scene is moving as it captures the regret Ishaan’s mother goes through in realizing what they have done to Ishaan It’s beautifully matched by a following sequence where Aamir tells Ishaan about his condition, and tells him its ok to be this way because even he himself has been this way once. There is a great deal of sensibility and wit in handling the screenplay, and it makes sure that the audience never loses focus of the point of the film.
The songs of the film are a big plus. Shankaar Ehsan Loy are pretty good with the title track and score consistently with the music of the film. But the star is definitely Prasoon Joshi. The lyrics are of that kind; so magically simple to hear, but incredibly complex if one were to attempt to write them. He said in an interview that he wrote the lyrics watching his son play and hoping even he would be able to appreciate them, and you know this is inspirational stuff. From the tenderly worded Taare Zameen Par to the naughty Bum Bum Bole to the wittily penned (and shot) Jame Raho, Prasoon’s words are original, refreshing, and lend to the mood of the film unfailingly. He keeps the lines sparse and conversational, and refrains from any verbose or OTT writing usually so typical of songs in our films. His has been an impressive run in the recent years with RDB and Fanaah, and he goes from strength to strength with this film. Great job!
There is no doubt that the film is what it is because of its actors. Darsheel Safary as Ishaan Avasthi is one of the most endearing kids we have seen on screen. As the gifted but dyslexic child who is misunderstood even by his own family, Darsheel is absolutely convincing, playing his part with spunk, humor, and a great deal of heart. He is at his best when being a child who does things what children do – play, bunk school, be cheeky to the teachers, do things they are not supposed to, and be scared of the parents when they are caught. The brief dancing sequence while standing outside his class is marvelous. While he stumbles in the emotional scenes initially (his frustration at being bullied by a kid in his building is rather awkward), he is a scene-stealer in the second half. Dialogue for him is at a minimum – as it should for a depressed 8 year old kid – and his silences and eyes offer tremendous weight when reflecting his feelings and sorrow to the audience. Aamir does a most un-filmy turn, first appearing in the film moments before the interval, and that too in a joker’s getup! He certainly made the audience anticipate his entry, and from their reaction, it worked. The interaction between Darsheel and Aamir become some of the most enjoyable moments on screen simply because you’ve been waiting for it to happen! While the reference to Robin Williams’ similarly played role in Dead Poet’s Society is a little too obvious in parts, Aamir’s is a poignant performance, pouring tremendous sincerity and feeling into every scene. His affection for Ishaan in particular and children in general is genuinely felt, and he handles Ram’s character with a great deal of honesty. Even with such reduced screen time, Aamir makes a huge impression with a flawless performance in the film. It is amazing how he manages to create the time and space needed to establish the right emotional bond with Ishaan, because you never seem to realize how close the two are until the end. But when you see first Ishaan’s portrait on his canvas, and then Ishaan running to Aamir on being declared the winner in the painting competition, the impact is startling. As Ishaan reaches out to the one man who has understood him and made him feel special, you have to applaud the subtlety with which Aamir has created his character. Tisca Chopra is the perfect supporting cast as Ishaan’s mother, and she plays the part with the poise and warmth. It’s only the father’s role that strikes a jarring note, being surprisingly caricatured in contrast to the other characters in the story.
The other debutant in TZP - Darsheel being the first – is Aamir Khan as the director of the film. It is a confident and assured start to what could be a fascinating filmography as a filmmaker for Aamir. By choosing to make Taare Zameen Par his first film, he has ensured that we can look forward to his future films as director with the same anticipation as his films as actor. He shows considerable visual flair in telling the story, and has perfect control of the narrative all through to the end. There are moments of repetition and the first half sometimes tends to be meander a little. A more sparing usage of slow-mos and possibly a little more subtlety can also be argued for, but these are mere nitpickings for a first time director. He hits the right notes with the emotional high-points in the film, be it the scene where Ishaan makes the “water-plane” or the painting competition at the end of the film. Given his deep understanding of what the audience likes, his experience as a director will only make Aamir a better filmmaker from here on and there is no reason to expect anything less than the best after Taare Zameen Par. I suspect he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Uncompromising and sincere, TZP is a film of great integrity made by a team of people who believe it can make a difference. Ishaan and Ram ask us what gives us the right to count a dyslexic child any lesser because they cannot understand our world of letters and words, when we wouldn’t be able to survive in their world for a fraction of the time they have. TZP questions our ulterior beliefs of what is right and what is not based purely on our perception, and forces us to look through the eyes of someone else. Kudos!