The comments section here turned into a part-discussion of Taare Zameen Par, so thought I’d move some of that to a separate post. I wasn’t planning to blog about the film, because I didn't have to review it officially (that’s usually the pretext to write an expanded piece for the blog) and things have been very rushed lately. Also, if a film has been extensively written about (as TZP has), I prefer not to add my two bits unless I badly want to make some points that I haven’t seen made elsewhere.
The other thing is, I wasn't as hugely taken with the film as most people I know were, but at the same time I wasn’t comfortable writing something that would over-stress its weaknesses. Because for the most part, those weaknesses (the occasional preachiness, the shift in tone in the second half, Aamir Khan’s star persona briefly threatening to dominate proceedings) were almost unavoidable given what this film was trying to accomplish. “Message movies” that reach out to a mass audience can’t afford to be too understated – they sometimes have to spell things out – and Aamir probably needed to be in the film to draw that large audience in the first place.
Besides, though I was annoyed by a couple of things (the caricaturing of Ishaan’s father, the validation of Ishaan after he wins a competition at the end), there was nothing that seriously put me off. Given the film's subject and the way mainstream Hindi cinema has handled these things in the past, it was restrained and tasteful. Darsheel Saffry was superb, as was the music and the way it was used. And on the whole, Aamir and Amole Gupte managed to sensitively convey their empathy and concern for children, without rubbing it into the viewer’s face. (Clarification: if I was reviewing TZP officially, I wouldn’t refrain from stating my view that it played like a public-service documentary in places – but as things stand, I can afford to suspend the critical faculties and appreciate it for its good intentions and other pluses.)
One thing I found interesting was the association of dyslexia (which is a specific learning disability that can be appropriately dealt with) with symptoms that could arise from general introversion/shyness. The first half of the film, seen mostly from Ishaan’s perspective (his imagination-driven interior life being more compelling than most things in the real world around him), isn’t really about a dyslexic kid at all, despite the scene where he tells his teacher “The letters are dancing”. It’s a much more generalised story that would be recognisable to just about anyone who ever felt isolated as a child or had problems with the staidness of formal education.
And I wonder if this could be problematic – whether it might end up providing false hope to parents whose children are reticent or distanced for reasons other than a tangible medical condition. After watching this film, the uninformed (and overambitious) parents of any child who happens to be a loner or deeply sensitive might think he has dyslexia, and when they find out he doesn't, it could be even more confusing for them and worse for the kid. (As if we introverts don’t have enough to deal with already, both as children and as adults!)
[Tasteless humour alert]
Watching the first half of Taare Zameen Par and noting how often something occurred that either my wife or I could relate to from our own childhoods, I drifted into another of my short reveries, where I imagined the following murmurs rising from different parts of the hall:
“I used to be fascinated by the way gobs of paint ran into each other on a palette! I must have been dyslexic too!”
“I failed Math when I was nine! Now I know why!”
“I would get up late and spend my time staring out of the window at flowers and birds! I must be dyslexic!”
And so on. Like the famous scene in Spartacus where the rebellion leader’s loyal men stand up one by one announcing “I am Spartacus!” when the Romans ask them to give up their chief. In my reverie, everyone in the theatre shouted “I was dyslexic!” so that the chorus rang through the building and out on the street, each voice trying to drown out the others. (Ironic, considering that one of the film’s points is that dyslexics see things differently and aren’t part of the competing herds.)
P.S. Remember Dawkins’ suggestion that atheists were the new gays – coming out of the closet, bringing their beliefs (or disbeliefs) into the open? In India, if you looked at newspaper supplements in the days just before and after TZP’s release, it was possible to wonder the same thing about people who had dyslexia as children. Or people who thought they had dyslexia as children. They were tumbling out of closets everywhere, hardly a day passing without some minor celebrity (a TV actor, a sports personality) spilling the beans about his own traumatic and misunderstood childhood. I wonder how many of these cases were simply people who...just weren’t that good at Math. (No disrespect meant to those who genuinely struggled with dyslexia, etc etc.)