Thursday, January 10, 2008

Notes on Taare Zameen Par

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.)


  1. I thought dyslexia wasn't curable. Is it?

    I agree with all your points on the movie... but I still thought it was a wonderful and sensitively-made film.

  2. i thought the the film was a bit slower in the start. then when it picked up pace when amir entered the scene and eventually slowed again in the drawing competition. finally i would like to say the brilliant film but a bit slow

  3. Unmana: thanks. Have changed it to "learning disability that can be appropriately dealt with".

    Rambhai: yes, I thought the drawing comptetition scene ambled a bit too.

  4. I enjoyed your imaginary murmurs!
    The trouble is that very often parents do simply react to an event without trying to hear both sides of the story (as the father did after the fight with the other kid, or the teacher's complaint etc.).
    And most parents expect the world from their kids, often not taking cognizance of the child's actual abilities. A valuable film, despite the minor irritants.( 'Bum bole'
    was majorly so!)

  5. Agree with all your comments, as insipid as that sounds!
    Though not a remarkable movie, but a valuable one. The preachy tones and Aamir's character didnt always sit well with me - lets not even go to the father's character.
    But one scene did stay with me - it freaked me out is more true - the bit where young ishaan runs around the basketball court while the parents watch.
    That was as good as it gets.

  6. Right on, Jabber, very right on. I agree with all your insights and critiques, except for a hesitation on the final-- I was very thankful for the fact that it wasn't just a film about dyslexia, that it managed to address far more important things, albeit as a romance.

  7. @Jabberwock:I disagree that Aamir was in it just to attach his big name to the cast. There were a couple of scenes where I distinctly remember him acting only with his eyes. Reminded me of the great Sunil Dutt in that scene in Munnabhai when he finds out his son is a fraud.

    I felt the first part was purposely made nonspecific to dyslexia just to prove that it is more common than we think it is and can happen to any child, which of course is contradictory to the sheer focus on the ailment, but needs to be conveyed nevertheless.

    The climax of the drawing competition was necessary. One of the measures of success to me is the emulation of your mentor. I still remember the feeling I had when I first defeated Dad at chess. The scene also serves to vindicate Ishan in the eyes of a society that predominantly associates its judgment of people with some form of quantitative victory, and thus, it is a slight dig at this incorrect perception.

    You are right about caricaturing the Dad, but then they didn't do that with the older sibling which can happen more often. So I think the makers were trying to showcase different reactions to Ishan's dyslexia.

    The film or its makers should not be held responsible for reactions of over ambitious parents. I agree that it is a message film, but we have to draw the line between conveying a message and creative freedom at some point.

    PS: Lol about Spartacus. That was funny!

    @Dipali: Bum Bole was meant to be irritating to an adult. It just showed how Nikumbh was able to relate to children's minds unlike his senior colleagues.

  8. I had my doubts too. But not at school level. At College. I was frequently failing in the cycle tests(somehow managed to pass the university exams - was always wondering if the valuation comitte has some minimum target on passed candidates?). I can now see clearly that I was not good at electrostatics or wave-guides. I cannot sure put the blame on dyslexia. You are right, Jabberwock :-)

    Destination Infinity.

  9. Dipali, Sumit: oh, no question at all that this is a valuable film (or an "important" film, if you want to sound ponderous). I'm glad it was made, and made with maturity, and with the lead so brilliantly cast.

    Vivek: No problem with it addressing other important things, but it's been touted as a film that's about dyslexia specifically, and that's where the issues can get confused.

    ArSENik: Good points, especially the bit about Ishaan's comfortable relationship with his older brother (that definitely was one of the film's strengths) and the "Bum Bole" being meant to appeal to kids rather than adults.

    I'm not saying Aamir was in the film just to attach his name to the cast - he probably felt he could do justice to the role, and his performance, looked at by itself, was very good. I'm just making the old point about the star persona and its effect on the audience - it was inevitable that once Aamir made his entry (complete with the strategic, anticipatory placement of the film's Intermission), the film's focus would shift to him. I thought that happened to a greater extent here than it did in RDB, for example, where he was in the film from the very beginning but didn't have a much more pivotal role than the newcomers.

    But like I said, it's easy to see the rationale for his playing Nikumbh.

    Destination Infinity: glad to help! It's very important to accept that all of us can't have an aptitude for electrostatics or wave-guides.

  10. ...(As if we introverts don’t have enough to deal with already, both as children and as adults!)

    Haha!! How true!! :-)

  11. Hey Jai, could I request you to do a social service? Please do write film reviews regularly on your blog (though you won't be paid). At least, we'll a trustworthy reviewer in India and get rid of jerks like Raja Sen and Khalid bhai and morons like Kazmi

  12. 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”.

    How true!!!! I kept telling my friend throughout the first half that I don't sympathize the kid because he is like any naughty, rebellious kids who don't want to study. Not that kids should study 24X7, but I felt any Indian parent would react the way Ishaan's parents would for his behaviour irrespective of whether he has dyslexia or NOT! And his behaviour was not justified with any symptoms of being dyslexic. He never even acknowledges his problem except when he says "The letters are dancing!" which could MEAN showing unwillingness to study to an observer.

    If Aamir delayed his entry even by a second, I would have slept away to glory or left the theatre.

  13. ...I don't sympathize with the kid because he is like any naughty, rebellious kids who don't want to study.

    Sangeetha: good heavens, you seem to have a very high opinion of formal education! My own sympathies are firmly with any kid who's uninterested in his textbooks, and I can say that despite doing consistently well myself throughout school (something that was achieved purely through my powers of rote, not because I was genuinely interested in most of what happened in the classroom).

  14. Kaushik: Me? Social service? Nah! Incidentally, from what little I've seen of Raja Sen's writing, he's quite okay, though I was annoyed by this silly little piece of kneejerk anti-intellectualism where he ranted about people "reading meaning that isn't there" into certain films - thereby implying that everyone experiences every film the same way, and that anyone who takes seriously a film that Raja deems not worth taking seriously has to be pseudo or over-analytical.

    But I confess to not reading all his reviews in full, because I'm so eager to get to the readers' comments at the bottom! (As I've mentioned before, the comments on articles are the closest we'll ever have to proof that Darwin was right.)

  15. I haven't seen the film, but on your point about people suddenly starting to feel validated or excused in their...err, lack of interest/ability in the classroom after watching a film like this and thinking they might have been dyslexic, I'd say that's not such a bad thing. An over-emphasis on classroom achievement and competition is what makes school miserable for so many Indian kids and if sympathy with a dyslexic kid is going to make people go easier on themselves or on their kids or other kids they know who might not be good students, I don't know if it matters so much that they might be "wrong" (besides, learning disorders are hideously under-diagnosed in India compared with the US, so perhaps they aren't wrong after all).

  16. >> wonder how many of these cases were simply people who...just weren’t that good at Math. (

    Heh, that's funny. On the flip side, I think that the film does touch on how Indian education system is so weighted towards functional learning (his father says, what will he do for a living...) and so it may have touched a chord with those who felt they were not in synch with the expectations of mainstream education in India.

    The jumpy cutesy Aamir was quite irritating - but I watched my son and I found the antics came as a big relief to him. It isn't really a kid's movie, is it? The first half was quite nightmarish for a child.

  17. Okay, I should probably start by saying that I haven't watched the whole film through - watched the first half and stopped, though I did discuss it with a friend so have a fair idea what happened in the second half.

    Agree with a number of the points you make. Two things struck a false note with me. First, I'm not sure I was happy about the kid having artistic talent. I can't help worrying that a lot of people are going to come away from the film with the impression that people with dyslexia are good at art, which obviously isn't always true. And I dislike the implicit message (with the art contest win at the end) that it's okay to not be good in one thing if you're really good at something else - I would have been happier if the message had been it's okay not to be an 'achiever' at all. I worry about parents of kids who don't do well academically pushing them to just as hard to 'perform' and 'compete' in other things.

    The second thing that struck me as strange in the first half of the film was what I saw as the kid's blitheness about the problems he was having. Maybe it's just the Bergman fan in me, or maybe it's just the schools I grew up in, but I couldn't help feeling that the kid wasn't frustrated enough with his difficulties. The few people I do know with learning disabilities are unlikely, I think, to have sat through a maths test dreaming up spaceman spiff like fantasies, cutesy as they might be. From what they've told me they're more likely to be frustrated and distraught about their inability to make sense of this stuff, and more generally upset by the constant belittlement they face and the fun that other kids make of them. The kid in the movie, at least in the parts I saw, just seemed very guilt-free and unconcerned about the whole thing, never seeming to have any doubts about whether there really was something wrong with him. I may be wrong, but I've always thought self-doubt and the trauma of social censure is a big part of what makes learning disabilities particularly hard for children. And I didn't see that kind of internal stress hitting the kid. Which made the whole thing a little too fairy tale for my taste.

    That said, I'm obviously not the target audience for the film, and I can't overstate how great I think it is that someone is getting the issue out there and making it part of mainstream conversation and I'd forgive Aamir & co. every cringe-worthy stereotype and overplayed scene, just for the minor miracle they've accomplished in pulling that off. If someone had told me six months ago that millions of people would be going to watch a film about dyslexia and learning disabilities, and enjoying it, I wouldn't have believed them. I'm delighted to be proved wrong.

  18. An over-emphasis on classroom achievement and competition is what makes school miserable for so many Indian kids

    SP: no argument with that, as you might have gathered from my other comments here. I had a fairly unhappy time myself in at least the last 3-4 years of school. But with ref. to
    ...and if sympathy with a dyslexic kid is going to make people go easier on themselves or on their kids or other kids they know who might not be good students...

    I can't be so optimistic about that. Knowing what one does about most parents' expectations of their kids and the constant stress about the competitive world outside, I doubt that the parents of a non-dyslexic kid who doesn't fit in/take well to classroom teaching would be so patient or understanding. Actually, I also don't know how much patience or understanding one would see from most parents of dyslexic kids who didn't go on to "prove themselves" in some other sphere, the way Ishaan does. (See the second paragraph of Falstaff's comment, about how competitiveness can be just as strident outside the classroom.)

    Radhika: yes, I would be interested in knowing how children felt about various parts of the film - I had a feeling that the first half, despite being the child's-eye view, would be too dark for many young viewers.

  19. Falstaff: the last para of your comment pretty much sums up why it's so difficult to write even a part-negative review of this movie. If someone with your exacting standards can approve of TZP's existence irrespective of the film's weaknesses, simply on the grounds that it's brought dyslexia into mainstream conversation, what chance does a softie like me have!

    Completely agree that it should have been possible for the film to deliver the message that it's okay not to be an "achiever" at all. But I think we both know that would have been way too downbeat for a mainstream movie.

    If you'd seen the second half, you would have seen Ishaan getting progressively more morose and withdrawn in boarding school, until Nikumbh came to the rescue. But that was more a function of his being sent away from his family than anything else - it didn't seem to be because of his own awareness of his learning problems.

  20. Good review :)
    I wasn't particularly impressed with the film's message.
    The film makes it very evident that dyslexic children are indeed different from the rest and their unique needs ought to be addressed in 'special' schools.
    Yet Aamir doesn't subscribe to this viewpoint and never ceases to chide the kid's parents for not letting the kid to continue in the city school.
    Isn't that self-contradictory?

    IMO, the main takeaway from the film should be that we need to increase choice for parents in primary education....
    Segregated learning makes eminent sense. By clubbing the laggards with the bright kids, we're not just hurting the former but also slowing down the pace of the latter's intellectual development.

    Aamir thinks otherwise :|

  21. Good points made. I was wondering about a few thing too when I was watchin TZP.

    In parts, the movie is politically incorrect, eg. showing teachers and the father in too negative light, too noble characters etc.

    But I was was wondering, do we need to judge a work of art on these rational contexts. More importantly, if a work of art is judged on the pretext of being beautiful/ugly alone, (and not on a political/social message), then isn't evaluating it on the social plane slightly unjustified.

    Can't we totally love a work of art doing away with all rational faculties. I feel that thinking too much has made me slightly blind to the beauty of a cinematic piece, and I can be right in asserting that a movie/art piece is beautiful and refuse to even consider evaluating it on any other plane.

  22. It seems Falstaff spoke his piece almost as an afterthought !!
    Jabberwock seems to contardict himself with his quasi-wanderer yearnings as a child juxtaposed with his self-confessed " rote-based success" at school. The typical double life of a chappie who claims to be the archetypal lotus-eater but paddling furiously beneath.

  23. @Ealstaff: 'I couldn't help feeling that the kid wasn't frustrated enough with his difficulties'.
    Quite often a child puts in an effort, doesn't succeed, and then simply tunes out, especially a child as young as Ishaan was in the film.
    Negative reinforcement adds to this aversive conditioning. Until they are at a level where they can move along comfortably with most of the class, many children subconsciously decide that since they can't keep up in any case, they may as well engage in what they enjoy. For someone who has generally been doing well, the frustration will be a major goad. For someone doing poorly over an extended period, it's just something to be endured, not necessarily rectified.

  24. J'wock: Oy! I'm as soft-hearted and concerned about children as anyone else.

    dipali: Fair enough. I can see how that kind of escapism could evolve. But the point isn't whether the kid's reaction was plausible. The point is that for a lot of kids, specially kids growing up in a system that puts a strong emphasis on academic achievement, having a learning disability can be a deeply frustrating and bewildering experience, plagued with self-doubt - frustrations that are internal and not driven purely by what their parents / teachers are saying. Given that the film seemed to have few compunctions about overplaying everything else to get its message across, I was surprised and a little disappointed that it chose to underplay that aspect of the problem. The challenge in dealing with children with learning disabilities isn't just getting parents / teachers to recognize that the child isn't just lazy / stupid, it's also getting the child to recognize that, and I just felt that the film focused too much on other people's judgment of the kid and not enough on the kid's judgment of himself. Though maybe that's asking for too much.

  25. @Falstaff: What you say does ring true. I thought his perception of himself as 'different' came through in the early scene when he's outside the group playing in/near his building. And when, after the fight, he goes up to the terrace just to be alone.
    Also, the richness of his interior world perhaps minimized the impact of and his failures in the external world as long as he was at home.
    A child rarely has the inner resources to seek help by himself. (Look at most victims of childhood sexual abuse- they are far too scared to speak up). Which is why we need sensitive and observant teachers and parents.
    I think I need to see TZP again.

  26. awesome movie ..hats off to aamir for making this should go to the oscars .. the way a childs world is shown is lovely a parent i hope after this movie i listen to my kid more usual the pseudo intellectuals are running it down ( btw the same pseudos who liked the crappy no smoking )

  27. Jabberwock seems to contradict himself...

    Anon: yup, my life is one big contradiction alright - full of glaring loopholes and inconsistencies throughout...

    Can't we totally love a work of art doing away with all rational faculties...

    SK: of course we can, and of course you can assert that a movie is beautiful and refuse to even consider evaluating it on any other plane. But it's equally possible for someone else to disagree and not find the movie as beautiful as you did.

  28. hehe..... I didn't mean that. What I intended to say was that this kid is no special. He is like any other kid....resistance towards books, wishing everyday is a sunday so we could play and run around.... these are all traits of any kid. No special qualities of a dyslexic kid. And hey, I share your feelings about the formal education system in India.

  29. I have not seen this type of movie before in bollywood.Really TZP is different from other movies.Every parents should watch it.Darshaal (Ishan Avosti) was stunning in his role.Thanks to Amir for delivering a magnificent educational film.

  30. Quite a few dyslexics are good at maths - there's no apparent connection between the two.

    I know of at least two dyslexic chaps who swear that computers help a lot at mitigating the recognition problem - one's the guy who owns Virgin, the other is an IIT-ian who headed quality control for Levers before he decided to get into innovative signboard design(!)
    Neither Branson nor KS (the aforementioned creator of signs) had any problems with maths.


  31. ---(Ironic, considering that one of the film’s points is that dyslexics see things differently and aren’t part of the competing herds.) ---

    I dont think there was any such point made in the film, I think it just meant that because 'Ishaan' wasn't good at acedemics his parents refused to see his other talent (IN this case it was art). It also meant that if someone does have Dyslexia that doesn't mean he is mentally disabled. Ishaan happened to be talented at art and had the ability to see things differently , other dyslexic kids may have another talent , Or no talent at all...

    The point was that children are under too much pressure from parents and teachures to do good at academics.... Not all are like that but many are ... I watched the film with my parents , It did make sense to them I think thats an achievement

  32. I agree that TZP has some drawbacks, but on the whole it is a nice film, courageous try. I would like to congratulate Amir for his try and time.
    Breakdown Recovery

  33. (Ironic, considering that one of the film’s points is that dyslexics see things differently and aren’t part of the competing herds.)

    a letter by Harvard neuropsychologist
    and main article in NYT

  34. Something that is unnerving about the film, and that is precisely because of Aamir Khan's star status, is the rapport that is shown with the child(ren)!
    Only the songs can save this film from going down the Hollywood format of one man on a saving crusade!!