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Two thumbs down for Taare Zameen Par

It often happens that when you have low expectations of a film, you end up enjoying it because it has something that you didn’t expect it to have. When I read the tagline of this film “Every Child is Special” every cynical bone in my body had low expectations of the film. Unfortunately, even that could not redeem the painful experience that was Taare Zameen Par. For a person hailed as a perfectionist, Aamir Khan sure didn’t deliver in his directorial debut.

Some may think that this is the view of a cynic, who doesn’t appreciate the moving journey of a little boy’s struggle with dyslexia. And I would like to set the record straight by saying I was moved by the boy, but not because his story was depicted with any complexity, but only because Darsheel Safary (who plays Ishaan, the dyslexic child) gave a memorable performance. In fact, the emotional quotient is the root of the problem of this film. Aamir Khan is a thinking, responsible individual of the film community and he has proved this more than once by joining hands with social causes that need support. And one appreciates that. However, in this film, in his attempt to bring this issue into mainstream cinema, his film-making sense seems to have gone awry. The film is a long, trite and preachy classroom lecture on dyslexia. The humour in the first forty minutes of the film, that showed some promise in terms of treatment of a serious social-medical issue, soon gave way to a good two hours of constant weeping.

To begin with, I am in two minds about the ethical question behind the treatment of dyslexic people and in effect people suffering from any misunderstood mental disorders who have to struggle harder than others to survive in society. I strongly agree that there need to be more avenues for creating awareness and sensitivity about neurological disorders. At the same time, I feel that we do the sufferers a great injustice by pitying them. Perhaps the greatest oversight (in some ways an oversight is the opposite of perfection) is that dyslexia is equated with physical and mental challenges. That is completely incorrect. “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that manifests primarily as a difficulty with written language, particularly with reading and spelling. It is separate and distinct from reading difficulties resulting from other causes, such as deficiencies in intelligence…Evidence suggests that dyslexia results from differences in how the brain processes written and/or verbal language. Although dyslexia is the result of a neurological difference, it is not an intellectual disability.” [1] So, all the connections made with the school for mentally and physically challenged children and the documentary footage used with the closing credits only succeeds in evoking pity which is a response that results from a sense of superiority. And in the simplistic treatment of the life of Ishaan in the film, I believe the film hasn’t achieved any real sensitization, rather only a long weeping trip that wears off soon after we leave the cinema-hall because apart from anything else, all was well at the end of the film and it seemed to take precious little to cure the boy. Three quarters of the film was about Ishaan’s struggle with dyslexia, while it took just the duration of a song to fix it all. It seems to reduce the pain and the effort it must take to even begin to make some progress in cases of dyslexic children.
Besides by the end of the film, he has ‘won’ in the traditional, somewhat conservative sense – his report card has moved his parents to tears (sadly that is their response to a good and a bad report card)…he has achieved it all – he is on the front and the back cover of the yearbook. The feel-good factor ruins the aim of the film. Let me justify this, while interpreting Walter Benjamin’s stance on television, Alan Meek says, “TV positions us as subjects of a technological imaginary and…virtual participants in what modernist theorists once called mass culture”[2] We can extend this argument to the experience of a film in the cinema hall as well, in fact it perhaps works better that way because with television we are still aware of other people and things around us to bring us back to our reality, but in the cinema hall, the attempt is at building an intimate relation between us and the film. Another form of mimicry, this leads to viewers responding as characters in the film. As a result, what remains at the end of the experience is not the hard part, but the warm feeling inside of having done something good. If we are so satisfied with the way things turned out the process of sensitization is over with the film.

The film is also a textbook case of what to avoid when you are drawing up characters of your film. I’ll begin with the mother, a character that held immense potential for the depth of the film, was brutally limited since her response to any of Ishaan’s or her husband’s activities or decisions was to cry. I can’t recall a single scene in which she didn’t have tears in her eyes. This is not to be insensitive to the struggle and frustration of a parent who can’t understand her child’s disability, but really, I feel that the insensitivity isn’t mine, but that of the filmmaker who has created such a formulaic mother – who will be read as the archetypal woman who has no opinions at all, and if she does (considering she is an educated woman who cares a lot for her son) she doesn’t feel the need to voice them.

Continuing with the poor characterisation, there is the father. Even if I am to be extremely kind and say that perhaps the father stands for the competitive, straitjacketed world, he falls miserably short. A trained actor, Vipin Sharma, is one of the weakest presences in the film. His responses as an actor are extremely contrived, as if out of a very dated Acting for Dummies kind of manual. He has three major conversations with Mr Nikumbh (Aamir Khan) in the film, and the graph of each is strikingly similar. It starts with him on the offensive about his son’s weaknesses, about his role as a father and Nikumbh’s place as a teacher. This is followed by an inspirational (read extremely trite) speech by Nikumbh about how every child has his strengths and how parents don’t understand this and pressure the child. And this is followed by the previously mentioned predictable facial responses of the father who looks down to show understanding and shame. The question to ask is, if this tempo was followed in the first conversation where there was a sense of understanding and shame in the father, why does he come back to repeat the pattern? It is a real waste of effort and not to mention our time, if the father is back to a tabula rasa state by the second conversation.

This brings us to Nikumbh, the character who makes this film the painful diatribe that it is. He enters the scene as a clown with big ears and a funny moustache, dressed in bright colors, uttering gibberish and basically establishing himself as the anti-thesis of the teachers we witnessed before (images of a whistling Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society haunted me). The greatest problem of Taare Zameen Par is that polar opposites define the film. There isn’t any scope of layers, or of shades of grey of any character, particularly the teachers, who therefore become caricatures rather than characters. That the cartoons of the three teachers at the art mela captured their entire essence should have been a clue to Aamir Khan. Ishaan and his brother, the mother and the father are the other polar opposites that exist in the film. Coming back to Nikumbh, quite predictably he is an art teacher. Predictable not just because a dozen films have used it before (Mona Lisa Smile and Notes on a Scandal to name a few recent ones) but because it is an easy way out to make art the polar opposite of any ‘actual subjects’ that are taught by the other teachers.

I certainly expected Aamir Khan to think a little more out of the box. There is almost nothing believable about Khan’s character (and here I am willfully ignoring the fact of a singing and dancing teacher). He legally teaches in two schools, he addresses little eight-year-olds as ‘doston’, and comes up with the most didactic, unreal dialogues about how a table is too small to handle the weight of a child’s imagination etc. The listing of famous and successful dyslexic people was accompanied by technical sounding descriptions of their achievements that were out-of-place to say the least. It seems, as if somewhere down the film Khan got confused about how to treat these eight-year-olds, like adults or to become a child along with them.

But one must end on a positive note – Darsheel Safary is a treat because he is the only actor who has a character that goes through a journey in the film and he does great justice to the role. We see him transforming from a wonderfully spirited child to one who seems to have given up on the world. He cries and makes you cry, but that is not his defining feature – he has captured the frustrations, joys and the life of Ishaan in a way that makes him the only believable character in the entire film. The flip-book was a great device but its greatness is slammed in your face till you are tired of it and its sentimental implications.

So I guess while every child may be special, every film might not be, and this one certainly isn’t.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyslexia
[2] http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/firstrelease/fir998/AMfr4e.htm

13 comments

1 tanmoy goswami { 03.22.08 at 5:02 pm }

While it was interesting to read a review quite starkly at odds with the prevailing critical environment vis-a-vis this film, I am afraid your criticism is itself besmirched by some of the formulai-ism that you have blamed the filmmaker of. Sample these:

1. “…I feel that the insensitivity isn’t mine, but that of the filmmaker who has created such a formulaic mother – who will be read as the archetypal woman who has no opinions at all, and if she does (considering she is an educated woman who cares a lot for her son) she doesn’t feel the need to voice them”

This is the typical first response of someone who is predisposed to thinking in terms of stereotypes – a crying mother easily becomes an ‘archetypal woman’, not talking neatly equates to ‘lack of opinion’ etc. I suggest you consider another (simpler) possibility: confusion. Ever seen a mother so completely torn between unconditional love and ground reality that words simply escape her and ‘lachrymose’ becomes her middle name? You are lucky if you have not. I have. I know it does not imply a vacuous head or a lack of personality. I know that no amount of education or self-sufficiency can at such times help her in breaking the silence. What you have stated is not at all a ‘feminist’ point, lest you believe so. In fact, yours is a hopelessly and irritatingly theoretical point that finds little or no resonance in lived life. In the film – and this is perhaps what has bolstered your opinion – the mother’s character is limited to displaying her vulnerability regarding her son’s well-being – thus making it impossible for her to show the kind of firebrand and anti-stereotypical zing that you would perhaps like to see in her. Neither was it the filmmaker’s goal to show the inner journey of the mother, wherein she discovers the hidden fire within her or some such through her son’s travails. No! That would have diluted the message and blurred the focus. For a film pitched this high on the emotional scale, it is important to maintain focus on ONE central theme – which happens to be the boy’s initial Utopian mental life, his gradual fall in an apathetic system and his eventual rise to self-understanding and happiness. Anyone else’s triumph would have taken away from the boy’s. You might point at the art teacher’s triumph here. To me, that seems to be a part of the boy’s larger victory. He is assisted but not overwhelmed by the teacher. However, had the mother been any more ‘assertive’, the central tension of the film – Ishaan and Nikumbh on one side and the father/’society’ on the other – would have been disturbed by too many polarities. I agree that your view is the most plausible-sounding one, but it is far too unforgiving in the film’s context. Yours is a valid take, but you make it sound like the ONLY valid take possible. Elementary mistake when it comes to film criticism.

2. “…The question to ask is, if this tempo was followed in the first conversation where there was a sense of understanding and shame in the father, why does he come back to repeat the pattern? It is a real waste of effort and not to mention our time, if the father is back to a tabula rasa state by the second conversation.”

Once again, it looks like you are out stereotype hunting. The point driving this repetitive behavioural pattern (to be precise, three instances of such behaviour in the film) is simple – a single piece of flamboyant oratory is not enough to create sustainable realisation in convention-hardened minds (and more than three instances a 150-minute film simply does not have space for). Don’t tell me you have never felt shame or embarrassment when your parents pulled you up for a breach of model behaviour and then repeated that same behaviour maybe the very next day?! Once again, you were a model child if you never faced this. I did, not thrice but fifty times in some cases. My parents must have felt that it was a waste of time for them, each time they had to rebuke me for the same sin, but if reality being represented in cinema is a waste of time for you then you definitely do not have much patience for life or reality or both. And your assumption that all this is a waste of ‘our’ time is virulently smug. A critic can be taken seriously only when she is careful to not assume familiarity with her readers’ reactions. Fail that test, and you sound a bit like a comedian who laughs at her own jokes.

That is as far as the perceived brazenness of the father while interacting with the art teacher is concerned. You have obviously ignored the other kind of interaction that he has, significantly, with his son. These are little nuggets (for instance, when he comes back from his tour and has this little ‘strawberry’ scene with the boy) which a more open critic would perhaps have not forgotten to acknowledge. The chosen actor’s ‘acting skills’ I am not qualified enough to analyse.

3. I am not going to quote anything from your ‘painful diatribe’ against Nikumbh’s characterisation. Just some general comments will do. In this section, you have granted greatest credence to my theory that while watching the movie you were only out sniffing for stereotypes, at the cost of trying to look at the message more closely. Of course the teachers are all caricatures, of course there are polarities galore in their sketches! This is not The Bicycle Thief, miss critic. The idea is not to psychoanalyse characters. The idea is to pass on a message, loud and clear. It is a massist movie, not a classist one like Truffaut or Bunuel’s cinema. People (I have a feeling you will strongly agree with this point!) generally understand ONLY black and white, stereotypes, caricatures. Shades of grey make them either wipe their glasses in discomfort or think too much on a tangent from the core issue. Not good for an issue-based film. Taare Zameen Pe is not character-driven cinema. Therefore, there was no terrible need for the film to have round characters. The need was to drive home an abstraction, a message far more immediate than the intricate psychological trappings of average men and women. Flat characters make good vehicles for such plots. You will pull up hundreds of examples that go against this. But unlike you, I do not have an extremist and exclusivist opinion. It is possible for films to have perfectly rounded characters and yet drive home an idea. But if those films work, this film also does. Maybe not with you, but with that vast majority for whom the film was made.

Then there is your ridiculous jab at Nikumbh’s engagement with two schools at the same time. Let’s talk facts here. It is widely acknowledged (and much of this research came to the fore post TZP’s success) that India is acutely understaffed when it comes to special schools or handling challenged children in ‘regular’ schools. As such, I see it as the director’s visionary masterstroke to have Nikumbh work for two schools at the same time. But at least in this case you have not attacked a stereotype!

Why is Nikumbh an art teacher? Well, besides the all-too-simplistic reasons posed by you, how about the fact that the facade of an art teacher allows the actor-director to infuse colours in the film in a way that a math or a biology teacher could never have? Have you seen the film’s posters? Heck, have you really seen the film?! Do violet, red, blue, yellow, green etc ring a bell? ‘What is so special about colours?!” you might ask, but I want to give you the benefit of doubt and assume that you will not really tread that path. Another question you might ask is “Why can’t a science teacher deal with colours?” Ummm, after about three seconds of hard thinking, I conclude that the reason must lie in the somewhat obscure connection between art and colour. I am also pretty sure that you would have anyway complained about the lack of realism if the film actually had a science teacher talking colours and singing songs.

Khan, you say, appears confused as to how he should handle the kids – like adults or like the kids that they really are. “The listing of famous and successful dyslexic people was accompanied by technical sounding descriptions of their achievements that were out-of-place to say the least.” You know, primary-school moral science and social studies textbooks are often guilty of such ‘confusion’. But most kids manage well with them. Some even learn something from them! I know I will sound a bit strange here, but I ACTUALLY learned about Mahatma Gandhi’s greatness (as well as ‘technical sounding’ terms such as Satyagraha and Ahimsa) when I was merely in standard fourth. Many other people I know also coped similarly well before they attained puberty. What can I say, life is stranger than fiction.

Now to your final point – pity, ultimate satisfaction, incomplete sensitisation. I choose to see the film not as an ambassador for dislexic kids but for all kids per se. I don’t know if anyone from the film’s cast and crew has actually made a public point that it is a film meant to highlight only the problems faced by dislexic children; even if they have, I disagree with that view. Once you agree that such a reading is possible, of the film being a mouthpiece for childhood in general, you will lose much of your spleen. For a pitiable affair is best suited to invoke pity. Pitiable is the word when it comes to describing the treatment of the average Indian child. The karuna rasa is the most appropriate outcome of any effort to project it in art. Not the bhayanaka rasa, nor the veera rasa, or the adbhuta rasa (Were you by any chance looking for any of these in the film?)

Subsequently, Ishaan’s victory might not have been the most well-nuanced climax, but I know not what you expect! Did you perhaps expect the child to turn into a psychopath and kill someone out of frustration?! Would that have been ‘complex’ enough for you?

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When I was in school, I had a peculiar habit. I would prepare some 20 essay topics (I know that is yet another stereotype, a school kid mugging up essays, but it DOES happen you know!) before my language exams, and then on D-day, I would always choose the least common topic, for which I often had absolutely no preparation. In ‘for or against’ questions, I would argue ‘for’ when each pore of my body would cry out ‘against! against!’. I thought I was making a statement to myself by being ‘different’. I was lucky to have gotten away with good marks. Readers of criticism may not be as forgiving. A harsh critique will at least at times be met with harsh negations. Although I hope the driving force behind your harshness is at least something more justifiable than the urge to prove a point. To yourself, and by extension, to your patient readers.

On a different note, it is clear that you were not satisfied with the film. To compensate for that, go see it again.

2 tanmoy goswami { 03.23.08 at 4:00 am }

Corrections:

1. Taare Zameen Par and not Taare Zameen Pe
2. Dyslexic and not dislexic

PS: After posting the comment, I visited your profile page where you have clearly announced your hatred for message-oriented flicks. That partly salvages you 🙂

3 Kuhu { 03.23.08 at 1:32 pm }

Tanmoy, first of all, i can assure you that I do not have it in me to watch the film again, you might think of it as an addition to my narrow perspective and patience in and towards life, but as it is evident to you, I disliked the film.
There are a lot of things that need to be addressed, but I’ll pull out a few.
1. As far as stereotype hunting is concerned, i disagree that I was stereotype hunting. I didn’t need to actually hunt, because they were in my face. You and I see the same stereotype in places (for instance the teachers/caricatures), the only difference is that at times you celebrate it and I criticise it, because I feel that they take away from the complexity of the situation. Yes, I have no real problems using that somewhat fluid, easy-to-appropriate term. You say at one point that “The idea is not to psychoanalyse characters.” Whereas earlier in your comment you said, “it is important to maintain focus on ONE central theme – which happens to be the boy’s initial Utopian mental life, his gradual fall in an apathetic system and his eventual rise to self-understanding and happiness.” Sounds to me like there is some psychoanalysis here. And later yet, you say that “Taare Zameen Pe is not character-driven cinema” I am a bit confused about your take on what kind of film it is. Also, you must tell me what a message-based film is exactly.

2. You spoke of the criticism of the mother. Of course she is confused, however, there are a variety of ways of showing the range of emotions a person in her position is going through, instead of the one physical response of crying. Besides, you seem to have adopted a somewhat superior position of how you understand the details of representation while ‘the masses’ only understand black and white. I refuse to believe that the film would convey less in a more than usual representation.
3. I never claimed that mine was feminist perspective, but surely you understand that there is something in between feminist and regressive, usually referred to as the normal. And before you jump, I know that there are different ‘normals’ for different classes, levels of education, and it is precisely in the class that the family was situated in that my expectations are towards. I never thought of them as excessive or extreme. And as far as the central tension and its delicate balance is concerned, I think that that is precisely the problem of the film, it has fixed itself in a way that it can’t move beyond this central structure, give space to any other character to move beyond the usual stereotype without losing ‘the focus’ you feel that film has.
4. You made a connection between a child repeating her mistakes after being reprimanded by parents, and a parent making that same mistake. Problem one: that analogy doesn’t work (at least for me) because I feel that there is an inherent difference between response patterns of adults and children. You might think I’m wrong. I do apologise for assuming a familiarity with the audience, I merely thought using the singular actually appears more smug, like my time is more important than the time of others who also watched (what seemed to me) an unnecessarily hyped film.
5. I however completely agree with my oversight of the strawberry scene.
6. I’ll be loathe to ever be caught saying this is like Bicycle Thief, or some other actually well-made film. And my understanding of this is based on literature, I know. But I disagree that ANYTHING (lit or films) can be considered good without well-rounded characters. It is another way of saying they are well-thought-out characters. And just to be clear, are you saying the mother is a flat character??
7. As far as your support for the listing of dyslexic people is concerned, I think you misunderstand the central issue of the film, even as you understand it – a critique of the education system that is crushing children. The battle is between Nikumbh and textbooks. He is ‘colourful’ to combat the textbooks that you are hailing while the film criticizes.
8. The film is not an ambassador to all kids, most were brutal to the little dyslexic boy, it is one for dyslexic children. And as far as pity in concerned, you might be OK with that response, I’m not. I find it degrading. We can call it a difference of opinion, can’t we?
9. About Ishaan’s victory, all I expected is some balance in the time spent on his suffering and the 4 minute song that ‘cured’ him, taking him straight to victory.
10. Of course I wish to bring my point to others, but by writing this long comment, don’t you as well? and what exactly is the problem with that? Unless you have something against criticism/reviews in general. It is just a way to express an opinion, which I feel it is healthy to have and to share.

4 tanmoy goswami { 03.23.08 at 7:36 pm }

First things first, or should we say last thing first? There was nothing in my comment to suggest that I am fundamentally opposed to you expressing your opinion. The problem was with the ‘kind’ of opinion you had chosen to air. I also have absolutely no doubt in my mind that you are 100% genuine in your expression and really feel the way you have written you do. I only wrote that I had a problem with your unqualifiedly harsh take on the film (barring your praise for Darsheel, on which you have my unqualified support), not with your act of reviewing it per se. And if I had a pathological problem with criticism/reviews, I would have stayed away from a forum that specialises in precisely this exercise. So that takes out point no. 10 (and approximately 60 words) from your list, without much sweat.

Now that I have started this in the reverse order, I quite like this upside down approach. So here’s the rest of the countdown:

9. Ishaan’s ‘victory’ did not come within the 4-minute span of a song, unless you are talking about his ‘literal win’ at the painting competition or his good performance in the school exams. His triumph is unmistakably brought out through a number of small episodes strewn across the film – including the one where he makes this little boat out of sundry stuff, the one where he gives the right answer to one of the questions asked by Nikumbh (“Edison”), and even the landmark scene in the beginning where a mathematical problem leads his imagination to draw up a cosmic catastrophe of sorts. In fact, the whole film is an extended metaphor for the triumphant life and spirit of every child threatened by any kind of adult convention. The point is this – the filmmaker did not see Ishaan’s scorecard triumph or his win at the painting contest as the acme of his achievements. His real triumph lies in EXISTING, in BEING just the way he is. But of course, marks and the like are also important indicators of success, perhaps more tactile indicators, for the common, uncritical audience of this movie. That’s why these ‘victories’ are thrown in as well, aptly enveloped in the song sequence, since that’s all the space they deserved. While the rest of the film upholds the triumph of the little boy’s existence (even when he is heckled by the prosaic world around him) for critics like you and yours truly, the 4-minute long song does enough to satiate the success-hungry few, almost like a condescending sleight of hand. It is as if the filmmaker is saying “Here, my little star can not only paint and daydream like none of you can, he also has the marks to make you eat your words about him. Boo hoo! he can even tie his shoelaces himself! And you know what – I will give you only 4 minutes to vicariously enjoy this facet of his triumph, just so you can see how good he can be at things that YOU want him to be good at. But that’s not what my film is about, so don’t complain I have given it too little time.”

As to the finesse of the climactic part is concerned – I have already admitted that it is possible to see it as being a bit rough. Enough said.

8. Whether the film is an ambassador for all kids – You have given the example of some bullies etc to prove that the film cannot possibly be seen as a mouthpiece for childhood in general, as I had suggested. However, even a film that shows criminal bent in children and young adults (eg The Clockwork Orange) is still a film about childhood and what can go wrong with it; TZP has only a few nasty ‘uns in it, none of whom are murderous or rapacious but only unruly and insensitive at worst. Their presence in the film in fact serves to highlight how adult insensitivities can corrupt children too, therefore strengthening the plea for better treatment (which includes mentoring too) of children. And for every nasty kid, you have a character like Ishaan’s elder brother or his physically-challenged classmate.

Pity: It does not work with you. Possible. What would? What is your alternative? Anger? Stasis? I do not see any other way the movie could have ended positively had the ending not been preceded by some melodrama.

7. Textbooks: Nowhere does the film (Nikumbh) unqualifiedly denounce institutional education. He only seeks to filter it through more colourful fieldglasses and attacks the mechanical, soul-killing side of it. Illustrious examples of men and women who defied all odds to achieve success in life is as desirable in orally transmitted, colourful form as it is in textbooks, provided the transmission is effective and not overbearing. I luckily read some such textbooks when I was a child.

However, I maintain that even these examples are not a part of the filmmaker’s vision of what ‘success’ should signify for a child. Nikumbh’s dialogue in this particular scene makes it clear that these names are being thrown in to fight the adult, popular perception of ‘failure’. Later in the scene, when Nikumbh is alone with Ishaan, he talks about himself and says that his name was not in the list because he is not as famous as Edison or Abhishek Bachhan. However, Ishaan’s role model eventually is none of these famous folks but Nikumbh. THAT is the message – you don’t need to use big examples to motivate your child, a Nikumbh here and a Nikumbh there will do; but just in case you are fixated with celebrities, we have Edison and Junior B too.

6. Rounded or flat characters: Once again, if you read my comment carefully, this is what you will find – “It is possible for films to have perfectly rounded characters and yet drive home an idea. But if those films work, this film also does. Maybe not with you, but with that vast majority for whom the film was made.”

As regards the inherent lack of quality in works that do not feature round characters, I will pass that one for now and take it up when I comment on message-driven cinema.

5. Strawberry scene: Good! We have at least one point of agreement.

4. My point about children repeating their mistakes – Aha! Here comes the biggie, the potential clincher in your argument. True, there are differences between adult and child behaviour. So on the basis of this empirical fact, let’s dissolve my example for a bit. Now think about this: how many acts of oratory are really enough to wipe out taboos from people’s minds? How much drilling do you think it takes for even the most sophisticated orator to make an educated man see that AIDS does not spread by touching the infected? I can guarantee you this – each time you speak well, you might make an impact on an otherwise indifferent listener (resulting in some stock expressions on the said person’s face), but that impact lasts only the duration of your speech. Thereafter, convention, taboo and habit reigns once again. You have to keep talking again and again and again and again and again to create an enduring realisation. And here there is no difference between children and adults.

3. The mother – In one of your points you asked me whether i feel that the mother is a flat character: No, I do not feel that the mother is a flat character simply because she is given to crying, but that is not important at all.

You have yourself acknowledged the potential pitfalls of expecting ‘normal’ behaviour from such a character. I am at peace with that. I reiterate, ‘crying all the time’ is as much normal behaviour as ‘speaking up’ is. You have to either take my word for it or wait till you see it happen. I have a feeling you will find the latter easier. Till then, this point is all yours.

Central tension etc – You already sound a lot more correct and ’rounded’ in your reasoning. Compare “The film is a long, trite and preachy classroom lecture on dyslexia. The humour in the first forty minutes of the film, that showed some promise in terms of treatment of a serious social-medical issue, soon gave way to a good two hours of constant weeping.” with “…as far as the central tension and its delicate balance is concerned, I think that that is precisely the problem of the film, it has fixed itself in a way that it can’t move beyond this central structure, give space to any other character to move beyond the usual stereotype without losing ‘the focus’…” Had you reasoned this way in your original comment, I might even have agreed with you. This is far more credible, well-reasoned and moderate as compared to your previous aspersions about how it is a preach, weepy, terribly bad film. Fewer adjectives, more analysis. Almost there.

I never claimed that this is the best film ever made on childhood issues. My problem was exclusively with the tone of your attack. I am happy with what I got from you now. Problem solved.

1. Everything else – Stereotypes: Perfect, I see the same stereotypes as you do, except that I am not quite ‘celebrating’ them. I am only saying that they fit the mold, that they are expedient for message-driven cinema of this kind (and it is the example of only ONE kind of message-driven cinema), and that it is possible to not perpetually treat them as eyesores. But what is message-driven cinema?

I will give you a crude example – take a short film on drug abuse or alcoholism. Does the viewer ever remember the contours of the lead actor’s face , his/her expressions or his/her emotive powers? Is a typical viewer likely to resent the film because it does not have ’rounded’ characters? No. The filmmaker does not even want the viewer to remember all that. S/he just wants the intended audience to remember the message – drug/alcohol abuse is bad. And such messages work, which is why such films are still made.

Now take a similar message (the need for sensitive treatment of children), stretch the duration from 5 to 120 minutes, throw in Aamir Khaan and a few heart-touching songs, a weepy mother, a callous but eventually remorseful father, some syllabus-hardened teachers, some bullies, a physically challenged angel of a classmate and a smartass but innocent elder brother, and you have a mega-message that will definitely work for its intended audience. Flat characters notwithstanding, or in fact, helped by flat characers. And I will retain my smugness about understanding grey better than ‘they do, thank you very much.

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The whole point of my first comment was to sensitise you about the possibility of a different reading. This is not a critic’s film, unlike Truffaut’s 400 blows that also deals with the pressures on childhood and is ‘cerebral’ enough to be made or marred by criticism. That’s why a critic has to pay paramount attention to understanding how a film like TZP might work for certain sections of viewers before jumping to the conclusion that it does not work at all. You did not say ‘it does not work at all’ in as many words, but ‘two thumbs down’ was a bit extreme. You say it could work in some other way as well – 1) that still does not imply that this way it does not work and 2) what is this other way? I am curious to taste it.

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Overall, thank you for the engaging debate.

5 tanmoy goswami { 03.23.08 at 7:45 pm }

Advance apologies for all the typos above.

6 Kishore { 03.23.08 at 8:19 pm }

If the critic is reading too much (negativity) into the film, then isn’t the comment poster reading too much of a positive message here. I think that deserves to be unpacked.

Doesn’t the argument about masses vs elites reveal a different kind of elitism (They are not good enough for a bicycle thief, so we should give them something pitched at “their level”).

7 Kuhu { 03.23.08 at 8:54 pm }

Tanmoy, when did Aamir Khan tell you this bit “Here, my little star can not only paint and daydream like none of you can, he also has the marks to make you eat your words about him. Boo hoo! he can even tie his shoelaces himself! And you know what – I will give you only 4 minutes to vicariously enjoy this facet of his triumph, just so you can see how good he can be at things that YOU want him to be good at. But that’s not what my film is about, so don’t complain I have given it too little time.”

8 tanmoy goswami { 03.24.08 at 6:05 am }

Lol! Kuhu, he called me up right after he read your review 🙂

I did not expect you to ask such a mundane question, but even so…well, it is an INTERPRETATION, even an appropriation, but only as much as your views are. You punch him, I defend him. That’s all. Debate closed, court adjourned.

@Kishore: Of course I am saying “They are not good enough for a bicycle thief, so we should give them something pitched at “their level”. I do not wish to be politically correct, and it might be an ‘elitist’ stance and all of that, but I am only pleading for a brand of filmmaking that has decidedly worked for the larger part of society, which is ‘the masses’, the intellectual non-snobs, non-critics. I am calling a spade a spade, AND with due respect for it. I have no doubt The Bicycle Thief would have bombed in India, no matter how well made a movie it might have been. I am only acknowledging the eternal divide between popular and cerebral cinema – some movies do well in theaters, some only in multiplexes or film festivals, this is the undeniable reality of (Indian) cinema. So my position is not elitist but realistic.

You have noticed my elitism, but the original critique is itself full of elitist theoretical expectations from the film. While the critique proclaims that stereotypes and flat characters are abominable, I say they must have worked for the masses, which is why TZP is a smash hit after all! While the critique offers two thumbs down, I am saying ‘Hang on! It is making waves at the box office!’

This is popular culture, my friend. Certainly not beyond criticism, but not made or marred by criticism either. A critic has to remember and respect that and be mindful of alternative readings. Express your opinion, sure, but don’t write it off altogether. At any rate, that’s my view.

9 Kishore Budha { 03.24.08 at 10:23 am }

Tanmoy: First of all, welcome to Subaltern Cinema. It is heartening to note a fiery debate. I support the critic here. She has clearly formulated her position from a philosophical standpoint and is sticking to her stance and has argued her position very clearly with no ambiguities. Your argument on the other hand contradicts your position. For example, you say Kuhu is hunting for stereotypes. Fine, that is a valid critique. But then you should avoid that yourself by desisting from stereotypes yourself, such as what a “critic ought to do”, what “mass vs elite” art is.

The critic should have no responsibility but to her/his philosophical position (and philosophical positions can be ordered). The danger of your argument (and your style of argumentation) is that it is difficult to distill what is going on. It is one thing to argue that critique of popular culture should not be excessive (for the reasons you have given, which I respectfully dismiss) and it is another to personally attack the critic. Your argument implies reason (coherently) but not over and above any bilious personal characteristics. Given your persistence in locating some sort of motive in the critic and the rather pedantic style in expressing it, it is difficult not to conclude that this is what you are doing.

I disagree, respectfully, with your sweeping statement about mass vs elite art. Such a line stems from the ideal vs pragmatic argument. Pragmatism does not operate in a vaccum. It is always the ideal that defines pragmatism. I don’t take the lay person for granted. Responding to the difficulty of speaking through the mass media in an “inaccesible” language, Brecht (the man who worked with art and the masses!) had remarked: If an essay, no less than a work of art, speaks the truth then, even if it does so in unusual, unconventional or high-flown terms, ordinary people will sense it, and be both willing and able to understand more of it than bourgeois ‘people of culture’ think.

The critics’ argument may collapse under the weight of the evidence, and we may disagree, but at least it opens up a new line of thought. I appreciate your sideways glance of the mother in the the film. I think it is very interesting. To ask — nee order — others to look, think, analyse in a certain way is position we should avoid. I do not agree with (what I view, not that it is by itself) your solipsistic analysis, but I would not discourage you from that.

Why should there be a thought policing of what critics “should” do. Don’t you see the danger of such a line of argument. It is one thing to say, well I don’t agree for such and such reason. It is another to ask the critic to toe a certain line.

10 tanmoy goswami { 03.24.08 at 2:02 pm }

Thanks for the welcome message, Kishore.

Let me assure you that my ‘bilious personal characteristics’ have been noticed before by the ‘intelligentsia’ when it comes to my absolute discomfort for straitjacketing theoretical viewpoints. You invoke Brecht to deride my pedantic ignorance of cultural stereotypes and my indulgence in them – I admit to my ‘pedantic’ demeanour in the face of theoretical onslaughts. My response was not meant to be a ‘scholarly’ amble, much less a tolerant one, since what I was responding to came across as a wee bit too intolerant and aristocratic to me. I know you will say I myself am guilty of certain aristocratic ideas, but hold on and stay with me.

Your example involving Brecht – there is no denying that refined ‘ideal’ art forms can strike a chord with the populace, but when they start doing so with alarmingly decreasing frequency, surely something needs to be plugged in to refine our understanding of the ‘ideal’. What I am alluding to is the guaranteed commercial failure that meets most cerebral artistic attempts in India. (I say ‘most’ , not ‘all’.) Commercial success or failure remains the only benchmark to judge the ‘popular’ merit of cinema in our society. Whether this is desirable or not is a different question, but it is undeniable that a ‘hit’ is a hit because it works for the masses and a ‘flop’ is a failure because it fails to get its message across. And if you look at what kind of movies generally succeeds and what kind fails (though this latter category may include ‘critically acclaimed’ works), it will be clear that there is a clear, ‘pragmatic’ rejection of a certain idiom of filmmaking. Examples are too many to add value here. Is the ‘ideal’ itself changing in such a cultural context? Is it time then to accept that what ‘works’ (for the larger community) IS BOTH pragmatic AND ideal? That what have been held ‘ideal’ and ‘pragmatic’ for ages, bolstered by reverential references to Brecht and the like, are being rapidly rewritten such that ONLY what ‘works’ stays?

Now to the implied aristocracy of my penchant for ‘the elite VS the mass binary’ – Both the critic and you have misread, consistently, my line on stereotypes. (I respectfully attribute this to a predisposition to thinking in essentialist theoretical terms, which convert any debate involving stereotypes into an opportunity to batter them to death.) When I accuse the critic of stereotype hunting, I DO NOT deny that the film is full of them. If you reread my comments, you will see that I have in fact admitted that there are several ‘flat characters’ and ‘types’ in the film. My problem lies with the critic’s act of positing these stereotypes as the film’s perdition. She says these ‘types’ ruin the movie, I say they partly make it the ‘success’ it has been. I have even given the example of short films to support my argument, which has again escaped your critical radar. I reiterate – TZP IS full of types, like a fable or a parable is, and that’s part of the reason it has moved a million people. I therefore do not feel any ethi-critical obligation to desist from using stereotypical tropes in my argumentation, since my principal objection was not the use of stereotypes per se but the way they have been handled or even understood. My way of understanding them may not be the best one, but it IS one of the valid ways. The original critique lacked this tolerance, hence the bile in my repartee.

I think much of your discomfort at my objections stems from the fact that my stand has been a bit too stern and unequivocal. Is an apology in order for that? I think not. You say that the critic need not have any other affiliation apart from the one she owes to her ‘philosophical’ stand. Maybe, but a reader of criticism is not obligated to give her that leeway. Any absolute praise or denunciation, no matter how ‘philosophically integrated’ it is, runs the risks of an equally absolutist reception. Theoretical escape routes are not strong enough safeguards against this.

I request you to reread the whole exchange in the light of this comment, and hopefully you will see some of that integrity in my arguments too. Contradictions? Only if you choose to undertake a ‘creative misreading’ of my posts, invoking hallowed names from the corridors of critical authority. That we can attribute to an irresolvable difference of opinion and sight.

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This is an excellent site. A big ‘thank you’ to the creators and moderators of this space. And Kishore and Kuhu, thanks a lot for the debate once again. I will be away from the Internet for a while due to professional obligations, but I have had a most engaging time here. Thank you very much.

11 Arnab Mukherjee { 03.24.08 at 2:08 pm }

“There was nothing in my comment to suggest that I am fundamentally opposed to you expressing your opinion. The problem was with the ‘kind’ of opinion you had chosen to air.”

Tanmoy, you contradict yourself in your criticism of Kuhu’s review over and over again but the one that made me laugh the most was your statement above. I think you need to rewire the way you think and the way your understand your own thoughts and writing because the above statement is a classic oxymoron. Your innate hypocrisy is also quite apparent as you are making an argument for the sake of making one when you probably don’t actually believe most of what you have to say, nor do you have anything original or substantive to contribute towards the discussion.

12 tanmoy goswami { 03.24.08 at 3:22 pm }

Arnab: Your understanding of the lack of originality in my comments does nothing to alter my stand. Also, my theoretically challenged ‘processor’ is only capable of this one kind of ‘wiring’. If opposing a point of view is an oxymoron, then every such opposition to criticism is oxymoronic. I can write against a point of view WITHOUT necessarily opposing the act of expression itself. There can be only one reason to explain why you found it so difficult to see that – you got carried away, possibly by the polarities at work in this thread. Also, the ‘discussion’ that you allude to was started by yours truly, and let alone anything ‘original’ or ‘substantive’, your contribution to it has been precious nada.

I am not going to start labeling people as hypocrites or juvenile or short-sighted here. As far as ‘contradictions’ in my arguments are concerned – I have attempted to address some of those in my response to Kishore. I have said what I had to, your provocation will I am afraid only meet a Colosseum of condescension. As will your prophetic insight that I do not believe what I say.

13 tanmoy goswami { 03.24.08 at 5:51 pm }

After the various different charges of contradiction in my posts, I revisited the entire discussion and have located one area where I could admittedly add more clarity and consistency – my take on whether TZP is realist cinema. I noticed that although I say TZP features many stereotypes, I call it realist at times. Even so, I argue that Nikumbh’s ‘unrealistic’ engagement with two schools at the same time is a ‘visionary’ insertion. So yes, there could be a discernible problem with this line of argumentation, akin to ‘contradiction’, but not quite.

I will clarify – TZP is ‘realistic’ in so far as some of the limited reactions that its lead characters display are, as I have frequently argued above, quite plausible. However, it is possible to see such realism as merely the essence of the stereotypes that it employs (a ‘convention-hardened’ father WILL lack emotive range and WILL make the same behavioural gestures etc). My overall view, once again, is that this ‘limited’ realism and its vehicle, the stereotypical characters, work for the film.

As regards, Nikumbh’s multiple jobs, it might not be a ‘real’ scenario in the strictest sense of the word, but I am open to believing that he is some sort of freelancer, a roving evangelist who is beyond the ‘one job for one man’ paradigm prevalent in the ‘real’ world. It might not be a ‘real’ possibility yet, but it is definitely an ‘out of the box’ way out of the current crunch when it comes to finding sensitive mentors for our children. While I stated before that there is a crunch of teachers for children with special needs, I now argue (finally) that this crunch affects ALL our children.

So to the extent of the clarifications in this comment, I stand modified.

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