A child’s learning disability forms the focus of an earnest, well-crafted drama that’s not entirely successful. Plus – yawn! – another Akshay Kumar comedy.
DEC 23, 2007 – ONE OF THE REPORTED REASONS THAT AAMIR KHAN decided to take over directing duties on Taare Zameen Par (after differences with the original director Amole Gupte, who is now credited as writer and creative director) is that he was afraid the actor he’d chosen for the central role of Ishaan Awasthi would grow up – and seeing the film, you can understand his concern. Darsheel Safary, who plays Ishaan, isn’t the kind of kid we usually see in the movies – a precocious brat producing instantly cute reactions on demand. He has one of the most open faces you’ve seen, without a trace of artifice in it, and he carries the film with hardly any dialogues, merely with close-up after affecting close-up. It’s a beautiful performance, and it’s only right that Safary gets top billing in the opening credits.
Ishaan is no doubt a composite of various real children, but he has in him the traces of three specific youngsters from imagined worlds. Like Antoine Doinel from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Ishaan is the classic alienated kid, a misfit-dreamer. Like Babla in Gulzar’s Kitab, Ishaan is a misunderstood child who’s not fond of school. (Ishaan’s playtime scuffle with a bigger boy reminded me of Babla entangled with the school bully on the playground. And speaking of Gulzar, is it he who coined the phrase “taare zameen par” thirty years ago, when he wrote the lyrics for Do deewane shehar mein in Gharonda?) And, finally, Ishaan is like Calvin, from the comic strip, whose hyperactive imagination helps him negotiate the tedious everydayness of daily life. Aamir generally goes overboard in his use of computer graphics elsewhere in the film, but he gets it absolutely right in the brilliant scene where Ishaan transforms into a character like (Calvin’s alter ego) Spaceman Spiff upon encountering a pesky math problem, clearly convinced that the only way to tackle multiplication is by hopping into a spaceship.
But slowly it becomes clear that the problem with Ishaan is not just alienation or a lack of interest in studies. When he’s singled out by a teacher to list out the adjectives in a sentence, he looks at his textbook and announces, “The letters are dancing.” He is dyslexic – though this pinpoint diagnosis doesn’t occur until well into the second half of the film. The truly remarkable thing that Aamir Khan (as director) has achieved in Taare Zameen Par is an unhurried, even meandering, pace that sits you down and urges you to absorb the externals, the outward manifestations both physical and psychological, of this learning disorder. These portions are so exquisitely realised, so attuned to the poetry inherent in the child’s-eye-view of a world where everyone else seems different, that it’s perhaps inevitable that the film turns dully prosaic when it gets down to the actual business of “curing” Ishaan (and hurriedly at that, all during the course of one song).
And you begin to see that Taare Zameen Par is structured along the lines of Kaushik Roy’s Apna Asmaan, which was about parents seeking to cure their autistic son (who was also a painter, like Ishaan here). Like Shobhana, who played the mother in Apna Asmaan, Ishaan’s mother (Tisca Chopra) has given up a career to look after her son. Like the mother and father in the earlier film, Ishaan’s mother and father (Vipin Sharma) appear to be setting goals for their child that he may not necessarily be equipped to achieve. The desperate hand-wringing of the parents, the arrival of the miracle cure (here, in the form of art teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh, played by Aamir) – we’ve seen it all in Apna Asmaan. But where Taare Zameen Par becomes its own film, distinct from Roy’s, is that it packs off the child to boarding school – which is, oddly, its biggest strength as well as the beginning of its undoing.
In terms of commercial considerations, the boarding school hook is a stroke of genius – because it sets the stage for Aamir Khan, The Performer (sincere and affecting as always). With his hair done up in a style that resembles a Mohawk crossed with the swirl at the top of an ice cream cone, the actor infuses a 200-volt jolt of electricity into the film. He makes his entry with a song sequence – Bum bum bole – that’s such a blast of raucous energy, he seems to be hinting to the audience that their patience so far is going to pay off. And sure enough, from this point onwards, Taare Zameen Par turns less individual, more crowd-pleasing. And that’s not a bad thing at all, for if a big star can use his big clout to get big numbers of audiences to watch something they otherwise wouldn’t touch with the proverbial bargepole (case in point: Apna Asmaan), that alone is a completely valid reason for a movie’s existence.
But Aamir Khan, The Performer, becomes a bit of a problem for Aamir Khan, The Director (in the same way that Kamal Hassan, the actor, often becomes an albatross around the neck of Kamal Hassan, the director) – because, around interval point, Taare Zameen Par stops being about Ishaan and starts to chronicle Nikumbh. Though this is understandable in a common-sense way – you can’t have a huge star and not use the very things that people like about this huge star – you can’t help feeling that the stage has been cleared to train the spotlight on Aamir Khan. In the earlier half, Ishaan’s mother comes across as a genuine presence in her son’s life. When he roughs up a kid and breaks a neighbour’s flower pots, his father slaps him, but his mother kneels down and gently tells him to go and have a shower, after which she’ll apply Dettol on his wounds. He gives her hell in the mornings as she tries to get him ready for school, but just as she puts him on the bus and just before the bus takes off, she kisses him goodbye.
She’s endlessly exasperated by Ishaan, but she loves him endlessly too – even if, strangely, there’s little protest from her when her husband announces that he’s sending Ishaan to boarding school – and it leaves a huge vacuum on screen, and in Ishaan’s life, when she practically vanishes during the second half. Whenever there’s a child (or an adult, for that matter) who’s “different,” it’s not just this child who suffers, it’s also the others around. I guess I’m thinking about Mani Ratnam’s Anjali, because that was a film about a child with problems, and you felt the impact of this child on these others – on the mother, on the father, on the siblings, on the neighbours. But because Ishaan is in boarding school throughout the latter portions of the film, the only person in his life, after a point, is Nikumbh – who becomes not just teacher, but also surrogate mother and father, and friend and philosopher and guide.
Perhaps the fact that Aamir Khan is in the movie necessitated these decisions. After all, if he were just teacher and nothing else, what would he do on screen as the film focussed on the others? But that’s perhaps why an actor with less wattage may have been the solution – for we would have then had ourselves a film that worked through its story with the help of an ensemble low-profile cast, whereas Taare Zameen Par eventually turns into a hero-centric movie. I couldn’t shake away the nagging feeling that the story wasn’t any more about Ishaan overcoming his problems so much as Nikumbh helping Ishaan overcome his problems. And that’s a big shift in tone.
Towards the end, there’s a moment when Ishaan climbs down a few stairs and he stumbles just as he nears Nikumbh, who – of course – steadies the child. It’s the capping-off visual metaphor for their relationship, one that’s somewhat like the relationship between Rani Mukerji and Amitabh Bachchan in the melodramatic Black, another story about a student with a handicap and a teacher with radical ideas. But where that film was heavily stylised and impossible to read at a real level – if you had an engagement with it at all, it was at a hyper-emotional level, for nothing in it resembled anything around us – Taare Zameen Par is set in a world that’s recognisably lived-in. We know these teachers, these students, these middle-class homes, those parents and neighbours. So when this film veers into melodrama, the manipulation is hard to digest.
The layered textures of the first half gradually give way to an uncomfortably black-and-white universe: the rest of the world in black versus Aamir in white. Every one of the teachers at boarding school is an offensive cartoon painted in the broadest of strokes, and cruel too – like the instructor who raps Ishaan on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Aamir, by contrast, laughs and sings and clowns around (literally; his entry into the film is in a clown suit). Ishaan’s father is so insensitive to his children’s needs that he can’t handle something as small as the elder son losing a tennis match. Aamir, by contrast, is so sensitive, he cries at the mere sight of children. He sees differently-abled kids perform in an Annual Day celebration – and his eyes well up with tears. He sees a kid mopping up tables at a roadside eatery – and his eyes well up with tears. He sees Ishaan’s paintings – and his eyes well up with tears. It’s no wonder that, at some point during his visit to Ishaan’s house, he asks for a glass of water; you’re not surprised, considering his constant loss of fluids.
I realise that came off a trifle mean-spirited in the face of a mainstream film so generous in wanting to tell a story that mainstream audiences are not used to – but the attempts at reconciling these realities were part of the problem for me with Taare Zameen Par. So Ishaan’s father is insensitive – but how about showing us where he is coming from, how his own overachieving childhood, say, or even a high-stress career has left him with no patience for an underperforming son? Instead, we get the scene where Nikumbh gives the man a lecture about natives in the Solomon Islands, who – when they want to get rid of a tree – gather around it and curse it, so it withers away. The crash of discordant chords in the background leaves you in no doubt that this insta-sermon has made Ishaan’s father see the error of his ways. (At least, this is better than the tinkly, fairy-dust music that’s liberally sprinkled everywhere else, apparently to provide soothing uplift but really just smoothening out every interesting rough edge into sentimental blandness.)
Still, considering that he gives us a great first half and an intermittently interesting latter half, Taare Zameen Par should go down as a success for Aamir Khan. He has a real flair for the small, slice-of-life-moment – for the head of cabbage that rolls down from a vegetable vendor’s cart, for the dab of white paint that falls from a hoarding-painter’s brush, for the dog resting its head on Ishaan’s lap as the other, “normal” kids play cricket. And he gets a huge amount of support from composers Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, who map out in admirably abstract terms the very things that the non-musical portions of the film end up laying out in (inevitably) concrete terms. Mera jahan, Bheja kum, Maa, Jame raho and Kholo kholo are the closest that Hindi film music has come to channelling the indulgent, rock-fuelled angst of Pink Floyd – and it’s a great touch that Maa (which is about Ishaan’s state-of-mind after being abandoned at boarding school) is sung by Shankar Mahadevan and not a child. After all, the fear of a parent leaving you all alone isn’t exclusive to childhood.
IS THERE ANYTHING MORE DEPRESSING than seeing a filmmaker being handed big bags of cash, a sprawling cast and dream locations, and then churning out something that comes off like it was written on a paper napkin in fifteen minutes, while reminiscing about key moments from Mickey Blue Eyes? Apart from a few laughs (mostly in the second half), the only point of interest for me in Anees Bazmee’s Welcome was an early scene where Akshay Kumar barges into a fire to rescue Katrina Kaif. You expect him to do what every dashing hero does and save the girl, but after a while, it’s she who walks out, with an unconscious Akshay slung over her shoulder.
It’s good to see that our cinema today can spoof our one-time staple of macho heroism – but, otherwise, what a waste of an interesting cast that includes Anil Kapoor, Feroz Khan and Nana Patekar! The story deals with the complications that ensue when the hero falls for a girl from a mobster family, and these complications somehow end in a seesaw-house climax right out of Gold Rush. Akshay Kumar and Paresh Rawal, once again, do what they’ve (profitably) been doing in their Priyadarshan comedies, and their shtick is beginning to wear really thin. Their Hera Pheri buddy, Suniel Shetty, makes a special appearance, as if to remind us how long it’s been since we’ve had a really good comedy.
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