Taare zameen par (2007) was Aamir Khan’s début movie as director; and for a “beginner’s” movie, it’s a rather good one. Does this sound rather bland? Yes, I admit, from the point of view of universal cinema quality. It’s probably because the story is just too predictable, and the perspective too well-known. An ill-adapted schoolboy who faces exclusion because of his difference, and who finds a defender in the person of an open-eyed teacher. Nothing we’ve not seen a number of times! But in fact, the film surprises because of its continuous attention to detail, and that’s something I’ve rarely seen in Indian cinema, where a lot of what is filmed doesn’t cost much in terms of thoughtfulness. Why is this? Perhaps because of the industrial nature of cinema in India? But also because of the need to lengthen what could be told in half the time. I don’t mean that Taare zameen par is short; it isn’t, it’s often too long, in fact. But Aamir Khan’s touch is pleasant and precise; there are the animated bits at the beginning; he doesn’t weigh down his film with a useless love-story, and even if some characters are rather simplified (the father, the teachers, the headmaster), his main character, Ishaan (Darsheel Safary), is truly good, as well as Aamir himself. A special mention to Tisca Chopra, the torn mother of the story. So all in all, a solid movie considering the odds.
A beautiful lady, to boot.
Much of the enthusiasm for the film (there are 24 pages of ecstatic appreciation on Imdb!) probably comes from this approach: “Only when Aamir reveals after the first half of the film that the child has Dyslexia, I realized the complexity of the poor child. Yes, I was ignorant of the symptoms until then. I'm sure most people were before this movie.” (Altaaf Jaffer on Imdb) Indeed, if for you, dyslexia was a sort of mystery before you watched the film, perhaps you will share this spectator’s feeling; but over here in the West, this educational difficulty is rather well known, and if parents might be ignorant about it, no teacher in any primary school in Europe would react the way the teachers do in the film. Such an attitude reminds us of Dickensian practises, but it is simply impossible today. So obviously, the film, whose suspense is partly dependent on the revelation of Ishaan’s disorder (cf. the scene where Nikumbh tells Ishaan’s dumbfounded parents), fails to create the effect it was made to create.
And predictability is also an issue: what can be achieved artistically by filming such a conventional story? I do not criticise the film’s intention as a social and moral awakener, if indeed the targeted audience needed this. But from an artistic point of view, it has much to lose, and that’s what happens. A few commentators go as far as to call the film manipulative: well, before I answer, here’s one of them:
“There was a perceptible manipulation from the very beginning to make the audience go through the emotional ride, which was made to climax in such a way that most people would not be able to help control their tears. But exactly how honest and true was this film in its endeavor? (…) Trust me, although I found a film like Om Shanti Om absolutely disgusting, meaningless and stupidity epitomized, looking back I think the makers of OSO were more honest and genuine in their approach. They made it absolutely clear that they were making a completely melodramatic, over-the-top, loud and exaggerated 70's spoof. TZP, on the other hand, is also loud, melodramatic and over-the-top in the garb of being sensitive, delicate and intellectual. (…) Aamir is no doubt one of the best we have, but if we are truly looking at using the wonderful medium of movie-making to tell stories, and not just a method of proclaiming our intellectual capabilities - we should probably start being a bit more matured at using it.” (Imdb’s strawberryclouds)
This user is no doubt right if we take into account the simplistic storyline, which is based on the child-victim factor: innocence + suffering + righter of wrongs = tear-jerker = success. Aamir Khan might film well, his turbo-charged movie rides for Kleenex tissue paper. In spite of its rather subtle management of the character-spectator relationship (Aamir-Nikumbh doesn’t smile to indicate his superiority when he’s right, for example), the film cannot be called anything else than melodramatic. One good thing that could have saved it is Ishaan’s character: Aamir did not choose an all-lovable child whose “only” problem would have been his dyslexia, neither does he isolate him completely at that boarding school. The teachers there are normal, if standardised; and the other children do not victimize him unduly. A certain balance is kept. Nevertheless, emotionality as a resource is subtly present, and it works all the better. So yes, manipulative.
Yet my perspective is that there is no dishonesty. The commentator above asks the question: “But exactly how honest and true was this film in its endeavor?” Well, I believe it is almost always true in its endeavour, even if it uses emotionality and a simplistic perspective. What shows this is its desire to focus on the child’s world, its particularity and its difference from the more logic and accessible adult world. Not everybody is capable of filming Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece of childhood understanding. But when Aamir Khan shows us Ishaan, with his head upside down (with his hair touching the water unknowingly), in his observation of the tadpoles in the jar he has managed to catch them in, he’s displaying that rare talent of giving children’s world the intensity it deserves. And filming (recreating) childhood truly means leaving the comfortable assurances of accepted realism, accepted usefulness, accepted pleasure norms. A child’s world is at once original and banal, and Ishaan’s is perhaps too magnified, too clever in a way. Still, I appreciated it because it is an honest attempt at picturing the singularity of a child’s mind, and the consequences he and his relatives face when this singularity is misunderstood.
There are some good reviews of the movies, Carla’s (who lucidly underlines the melodramatic dimension) or Beth’s, for example, but others cannot always extract themselves from exaggerated appreciation, the heart-breakingness, etc. I find myself in unison with Memsaab, when she says “ anything exceedingly earnest makes me want to run away screaming. When people have an “important” point to make, usually any kind of nuance or subtlety is tossed away in favor of heavy ammo. I hate being hit over the head with a blunt object.” A round of applause for her great screencaps, too.