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.”  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 andâ€¦virtual participants in what modernist theorists once called mass culture” 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.