Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Taare Zameen Par - A Child's Review

There are films that make you laugh, and there are films that make you cry terribly. Having grown up in India, a country reputed for a film industry churning out either mindless laughathons or melodramatic sob-stories, it's difficult to get to watch the genuinely funny, or genuinely emotional film. And Aamir Khan gifts us both! Taare Zameen Par gives one lots of reasons to both laugh out loud and feel extremely sad. It's a story that relates to everyone of us in the world who have biologically grown up and yet never cease to look at the world through the eyes of innocent children: we can all see the Ishan Awasthi in ourselves, and with more or less intensity, we have all felt the same emotions cross our mind. And that is where TZP succeeds: it brilliantly connects with the viewers. While the antics of Ishan are sure to draw many a laugh (not through spurious rib-tickling humour, but the eccentricity which defines a fantastic childhood), his sobs are also quite certain to melt the hearts of those who have even a tiny morsel of love left in themselves.

To put the theme quite simply: this is the story of a dreamy boy. A boy who had the courage (and I don't say 'courage' because I don't find a better word) to look at the world through different eyes. Someone who could spend his day staring at a puddle of mud stuck in the craters of a road, or the birds flying high in the sky. Or even the little unknown fishes swimming in the drain by the road. This is a story of how the boy, inspite of his markedly different attitude towards life, still managed to attract criticism and wrath for being different. This is a tribute to the Apu-s blossoming in the jungle of bricks and amongst the 'racehorses' running life's 'race' in the cities of India (even if you think the parallel to Pather Panchali is too much, kindly wait till I end this post!). This is the story of Ishan Awasthi.

[Warning: I am revealing a lot of details about the film. So, forgive me for the spoilers!]
The story starts with all the teachers reading out the marks that the students have got in class tests held in Class III, St Xavier's School, Mumbai. And each time Ishan Awasthi manages to score the least of the lot! But no, Ishan isn't worried even a bit about his marks. The day at the school ends, and Ishan is by the drain outside his school, catching little fish using a homemade net, and putting them inside his water bottle! Ishan reaches home, discovers his favourite couple of dogs in his garden and without a bit of hesitation feeds them his test-papers! And that's just a little fun that Ishan has all throughout the day. And so he carefully pours out the fishes from his waterbottle into his personal collection of guppies, and then deliberately annoys his mother. Ishan's life is in complete contrast with that of his brother Yohan, the class-topper, avid sportsman and in short, Mr. perfect-son. But inspite of their differences, Yohan has a soft corner for his brother, whom he dearly loves. The only member of the family not happy with his less-than-genius freaky boy is Ishan's father-- who can't bear to think that while his elder son is everybody's favourite, his younger son is at the end of everybody's complaint: from teachers to neighbourhood parents. And while everyone in house is running about preparing for another day of hardwork, Ishan sleeps peacefully and blissfully in his room amidst an assortment of colours, paintings and toys.

Inspite of Ishan's mother's best efforts, she can't help her son with his studies because he easily forgets everything he learnt the previous day. Ishan can't follow his teacher's orders of opening page no. such-and-such and chapter no. such-and-such, which annoys her-- she thinks that the boy is deliberately pretending not to be able to follow her simple instructions. Worser still, Ishan can't read a word out of his English book! He's ordered out of the class, but given the 'bindaas' boy Ishan is, he takes the opportunity to indulge in his childish pranks. (Needless to say, punishments never perturb Ishan: he has grown both used to and rather fond of them!)

On the day his test-papers are distributed, Ishan cuts his classes-- roaming around in the streets of Mumbai by himself; staring at the pigeons flying, the ice-candyman spraying brilliant colours on balls of crushed ice, and even the most ordinary and common man making his way through the street. That night he cajoles his brother Yohan to write a false absence note for him. But Ishan's misdeeds are discovered by his parents, and when they visit school, they find a barrage of complaints against Ishan waiting for them. And hence Ishan's father decides that he'll have his son sent to a boarding school, in which one of his friends is a trustee. Ishan, of course, is quite angry with his father (brilliant expression of anger from Darsheel, by the way!), but nothing can dissuade his father now.

And hence inspite of all his wishes, the little boy is sent to a boarding school. Ishan can't bear the pain of separating from his family, and especially his mother (the person he loves most). The scene where the family leaves Ishan behind is brilliant and full-to-the-brim with emotion: the viewer can feel, almost tangibly, the pain wrenching Ishan's heart. The song 'Maa' brilliantly brings out the emotions that swirl around in Ishan's heart-- and kudos to Prasoon Joshi, the lyricist, for immortalising the feelings of a child towards his mother (I think Shankar Mahadevan also deserves special mention for his excellent and soulful vocal performance on the track).

It's too much for a little child to resist the heart-break of staying away from the family, and when that is compounded with a feeling of desperation and extreme loneliness, Ishan starts feeling that his mother deliberately left him back. He cries every night in the hostel bathroom, but no one can help him. Ishan's reception at his new school is the same as his old one. He still can't follow lectures, obey instructions, or for that matter, even read out a few lines from his reader! During the hindi class, the teacher orders Ishan to sit beside the topper of the class Rajan so that the company of a 'good boy' may help Ishan with his studies. That, quite incidentally, is a blessing in disguise-- for in Rajan, Ishan finds a confidante and a friend who understands his needs. Moreover, Rajan realises that Ishan has an inherent ability to see beyond the ordinary-- the only problem with the boy is that he cannot properly comprehend or express everything. Ishan is still regularly punished by his teachers, most notably the one teaching arts, which of course complicates matters for the already gloomy and depressed boy.

All until one day when the arts teacher leaves for New Zealand and a stand-in man named Ram Shankar Nikumbh is brought in to temporarily fill in the role. And Nikumbh is none other than Aamir Khan! (Aamir shows us that he is more of a dedicated director in this movie rather than an actor, and that is why he chooses to enter the scenario only at intermission, placing the huge responsibility on carrying the first half almost entirely on Darsheel's shoulders: of course, a job that Darsheel more than ably accomplishes.)

Nikumbh is vastly different from the other teachers in the school. He is originally one of the teachers associated with the Tulip's school: an institution for the mentally retarded and physically challenged. While the other teachers are engrossed in their 'duty' to make 'racehorses' for life's 'race'-- Nikumbh understands that children must be allowed the freedom to imagine and make their own decisions. The role of the teacher is limited to that of a guide only-- children cannot simply be spoonfed some knowledge, or dry facts, and be expected to really shine in life! But above everything else, it's his attitude towards the students in which he is most different from others: he lets the kids have their share of fun, laughter, music and dance (another brilliant song 'Bum Bum Bole' actually expresses Nikumbh's feelings about education, Wordsworth-style!). The children are overjoyed to have such a friendly teacher, who not only lets them sing and dance, but also gives them the freedom to express whatever they want, in whichever way they wish to! But Nikumbh notices that a boy sits quietly throughout the arts period. Through his interactions with Rajan, Nikumbh comes to know about Ishan's problems with dyslexia and loneliness. Having been a dyslexic in his early life, he realises how suffocating the world must seem to Ishan, and therefore he sets foot on a mission to save the boy from emotional collapse.

Through a thorough study of Ishan's notebooks, Nikumbh spots a distinct trend in the mistakes the little boy commits. Since such a delicate matter needs the counsel of parents, Nikumbh himself reaches Ishan's house. Upon reaching, he is clearly dumbstruck. Firstly, he discovers the avid interest in art that Ishan has, and yet failed to show in the previous few weeks. And secondly, also more sadly, Ishan's father just refuses to believe that his son has learning problems: he still opines that Ishan must be seeking for excuses to skip studying. Nikumbh is much disappointed after his conversation with Ishan's parents, and especially his father: he discovers another one of those pathetic parents who are so concerned with (quite literally) cultivating/growing geniuses in their homes, that they forget the basics of human understanding and compassion. But Nikumbh does give a cheeky reply to Ishan's father before he leaves for his return back to school.

Nikumbh talks to the principal about the boy's weaknesses and personally requests for separate examination procedures for the boy, at least for the time being. He persuades the principal with strong arguments: showing him Ishan's brilliant paintings, surely the sign of a boy with above-average intelligence! And finally he personally undertakes the responsibility to train the boy in developing good language and mathematical skills. Somewhat hesitatingly, the principal agrees. And hence begins Ishan's journey towards overcoming the problems that threaten to destroy the very essence of his life. As the days pass by, Ishan slowly and steadily progresses until he can read and write for himself. Meanwhile, Ishan's father comes to 'visit' Ishan: actually meaning to remind Nikumbh that as a parent he was doing his part-- how? He proudly declares that his wife has read every article about dyslexia on the net. To which Nikumbh gives a tongue-in-cheek reply: something that is too much for the shameless man to stand. As he is about to leave Nikumbh's art-studio, he discovers Ishan quietly reading out a notice from the pin-board. The man is so moved to tears at his own foolishness and insensitive nature towards his own son that he can't bear to stand there for even a second.

Meanwhile, Nikumbh arranges for an Art Mela. Open for everyone, especially for the school staff and students, along with the Tulip school-children. The teachers do attend, most of them with a wish to just show the principal that they had attended the mela, but something forces them to stay back (Shan't reveal what, for that'll take away half of the fun regarding the Mela!!). But Nikumbh can't spot Ishan. The boy arrives after a long time and willingly chooses a lonely corner of the place. And Nikumbh starts his portrait of his own reflection, a student he had seen grow up before his own eyes in a certain sense: his dear Ishan. Funnily enough, even the initially unwilling teachers have their share of 'art' (You'll laugh till your stomach aches as you see them draw, and that's a guarantee!!). Both Nikumbh's and Ishan's paintings are shortlisted as the best but Ishan is ultimately awarded. Ishan can't bear the emotions overwhelming his simple mind, he breaks down and embraces his teacher! And all I can say is, that was brilliant!! The film ends with Ishan going back home with a happy family with the promise that he'll return to school later. I think it wouldn't be unjustified to say that the footage accompanying the end-credits was truly excellent: an honest portrayal of childhood in all its innocence and glory.
Darsheel is the best child-actor seen in Bollywood in decades. I shall miss him in case he doesn't do more films henceforth. On the other hand, I shall also eagerly wait for Aamir to direct more films. This man never ceases to outdo himself as the days pass by! Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy get their due credit with a mighty nice soundtrack-- the songs were touching and very relevant to the essence of the movie.

Now the inevitable comparisons with Black. Aamir himself is much critical of the film, and going by the recent trend of comments on other blogs I visit, most people have rated Black as the 'greatest ham-movie of all time'. I disagree. Black shall still remain one of my most favourite hindi-movies inspite of everyone's verdict against it. For one, I believe in my own heart; and Black moved me really well (perhaps, more on the defense of Black later!). And so did TZP. The two stories compare because at the core of the matter, both are about student-teacher relationships. And both are about the triumph of human spirit against all odds: and as such, both are brilliant in their own ways.

Wait, I remember saying something about Pather Panchali back at some point in my post. I don't take that one back! Yes, Ray was much more accomplished a director than Khan is, but in both their debut films, these two men chose to deal with different and sensitive subjects: that of children losing their identity and imagination in this big, bad and insensitive world. Apu was born in Nishchindipur, Ishan in Mumbai: and yet both were kings in their own worlds of imagination. Both loved the mysteries of nature, and both were enchanted by the colours of life. And in that sense, Apu and Ishan are just two names for the same person: only the time and place have changed, nothing else has changed much! Interestingly enough, Aamir himself graciously accepts the superiority of Ray over himself: and if you ask me, I have no problem in embracing such honest and hard-working (should we also add 'perfectionist'?) an actor and director as Mr. Khan.
And finally let me end with an observation of mine. I'd been to the cinema to watch this movie and the guy sitting next to me went out with his cellphone ringing at least ten times throughout the whole duration of the film. At the end of two hours, he asked his girlfriend an all-important question: "darling, what is this film about?" :) And finally forty minutes before the film ended, the couple left altogether for good. That's what Indians come to the cinema for! :D

P.S.-- You may also like to visit the film's official site,