“Taare Zameen Par” - by Aamir Khan (2007)

Taare Zameen Par (aka Like Stars on Earth, 2007) is an award-winning drama about an eight-year-old boy struggling to find his way.  Although the boy comes from a nice, middle-class family, he is dismissed by both his parents and teachers as a lazy and trouble-making loser.  The film sensitively explores the boy’s experiences from his own subjective perspective, and that is what makes the film so uniquely rewarding.

Taare Zameen Par was produced and directed by well-known Indian actor Aamir Khan, who  also co-starred in this film.  Although Khan was considerably experienced as an actor, this was his initial outing as a film director, and he was considerably assisted in this effort by screenwriter Amole Gupte, who, together with his wife Deepa Bhatia, who was the film’s editor, conceived of the story for the film.  Gupte then went ahead and wrote the film’s screenplay and dialogue, and he assisted in various other aspects of the creative design. 

Incidentally, Khan, himself, has over the course of his career not only gained much fame for his roles in high-grossing films, such as 3 Idiots (2009) and Dangal (2016), but, in addition, has also drawn considerable attention for his activities outside the cinema in connection with his support of humanitarian causes and as a social critic.  As a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman (Kiran Rao), Aamir Khan has sought to bridge social divides in India and has expressed in this connection some criticism of sectarian activities on the part of Norendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat [1].  This has led to personal attacks from Hindu nationalists, who have organized boycotts of Khan’s films.  Nevertheless, Khan remains one of the most popular figures in Indian cinema.

Therefore it is not surprising that Taare Zameen Par has a social theme and an associated cause that is likely strongly supported by Aamir Khan.  That theme, especially in terms of its wider scope, which I will discuss below, is naturally an underlying key to the film’s popularity, but there are other aspects of the production that are also of great importance.  The film’s superb production values, notably the cinematography by Setu (Satyajit Pande) and the music by Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy, as well as the remarkable performance of child actor Darsheel Safary,  have been woven together here into a uniform fabric of compassion and feeling.  As a consequence, you will likely find yourself uplifted by the telling of this tale, as have a range of critics [2,3,4,5,6,7]. 

The story of the film is actually quite simple and straightforward, and what extends the running time to more than two hours and forty minutes is the manner and degree to which various moods and feelings are lingered over.  Some viewers might become impatient over these passages, but here is where the heart of the film dwells.  The film’s story is composed of four segments.

1.  A Schoolboy Failure
The viewer is introduced to Ishaan Awasthi (Darsheel Safary), a seemingly typical eight-year-old boy with a shy smile that winsomely reveals his buckteeth.  But Ishaan is not so typical, because he is soon revealed to be a failure in school – he is in the process failing his whole third-grade year for the second year in a row.  This is odd, because Ishaan seems to come from the right upbringing.  His father Nandkishore Awasthi (Vipin Sharma) is a successful businessman, his mother Maya (Tisca Chopra) is a loving and caring mom, and his older brother, Yohan (Sachet Engineer), excels as a student and as an athlete.  But Ishaan can’t even read or write.  When he looks at a printed page, he says that he only sees letters and figures dancing about on the page. And so for fifty minutes of screen-time, we see Ishaan constantly being berated by his teachers, his parents, and his classmates as a lazy good-for-nothing. You might think this is too long, but this early portion of the film is crucial for establishing our empathy for Ishaan.

2.  Boarding School
Ishaan’s parents are convinced that the boy is just lazy and lacks discipline.  So to toughen the boy up, they ship him off to a boarding school, where the bywords are ‘order’ and ‘discipline’.  If you don’t measure up, you get punished.  And all the teachers seem to be strict disciplinarians.  We know by now that Ishaan is a sensitive boy and that this environment is only going to further alienate him.  He is befriended by a crippled classmate, Rajan (Tanay Chheda), though, and it is only through Rajan’s timely intervention that Ishaan’s suicidal thoughts at the top of a tower wall are interrupted.

3.  The New Art Teacher

Finally, halfway into the film, a new, substitute art teacher, Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan) is appointed at the school.  Mr. Nikumbh also works as a part-time teacher at the Tulip School for handicapped and retarded kids and is used to regarding every child as special.  Mr. Nikumbh is enthusiastic and caring, and he tries to entertain and reach out to all his students.  But by now Ishaan is so alienated that he is constantly sulking and withdrawn.
 
However, Mr. Nikumbh, unlike the other teachers, cares, and after carefully reviewing all of Ishaan’s old assignment workbooks, comes to the conclusion that Ishaan is suffering from dyslexia.  Dyslexia is a neurological condition, but it does not mean that the person afflicted with it is retarded – it only means that the subject has difficulty distinguishing symbols (well-informed viewers had probably already figured this out about Ishaan).

So Mr. Nikumbh goes to visit Ishaan’s parents and tells them about what he has discerned about their boy.  At their residence in Ishaan’s room, Mr. Nikumbh discovers that Ishaan has a gift for art, and he notices that Ishaan has even created a sophisticated flipbook that symbolically describes his alienation from his family. However, Ishaan’s parents are still convinced that their son is just lazy.

4.  Finding a Way Forward

Back in the art class, Mr. Nikumbh lectures his students about dyslexia and tells them that dyslexic people can be very bright and talented.  He tells them that some famous geniuses in history have been dyslexic – Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Pablo Picasso.  Then Mr. Nikumbh goes to the school principal and gets permission to start giving Ishaan special tutoring that can help the boy catch up with his third-grade classmates. 

During this period, Ishaan’s father stops by the school, and Mr. Nikumbh takes him to his office and gives the man a demeaning lecture, scolding him for being a bad father.  This is the weakest moment in the film.  Although Ishaan’s father had the wrong ideas about his son, there is no point in belittling the man and expressing resentment towards him.  Hatred and contempt gets you nowhere.  A more positive message ought to have been conveyed. 

Nikumbh’s tutoring of Ishaan continues, though, and eventually the boy’s grades improve enough for him to pass his third-grade requirements.  Ishaan’s parents are thrilled by their son’s progress.

At the end of the year, Mr. Nikumbh organizes a school-wide art fair with a painting competition having a single prize for all staff and students.  One of the judges, by the way, is noted Indian artist Lalita Lajmi, in a cameo role.  You can guess whose painting wins the grand prize.  Ishaan has finally come out of his shell and joyfully thanks his art teacher, Mr. Nikumbh, for opening up a wonderful world of opportunities for him to express himself.  He is now a regular (and therefore special) kid.


Taare Zameen Par has earned many plaudits, but it has drawn some criticism, too [8].  Some reviewers have complained that the film is too long and too slow.  However, I felt that the first half of the film, which is just devoted to showing Ishaan’s unhappy condition, was the most affecting and invaluable part of the presentation.  It was only in the second half of the story, when Mr. Nikumbh appears and gets things moving toward a solution, that I sometimes found some scenes to be repetitive or a bit overextended. 

Another criticism has been that some parts of the film are unrealistic.  This may be associated with the misapprehension that the film belongs to the neorealistic tradition [7].  But I would say that despite the participation of numerous nonprofessional actors (mostly students), Taare Zameen Par is definitely not part of the neorealistic genre, however that term might be interpreted [9].  In fact the film is more of an impressionistic rendering of various affective states of mind.  Thus, for example, actor Vipin Sharma was chosen to play the role of Ishaan’s father,  Nandkishore Awasthi, not for any purposes of realism, but primarily for his ability to exhibit a fierce, emotive scowl towards his beleaguered son.  Indeed, it is that moody impressionistic flavour, conveyed by both the cinematic mise en scene and the intermittent musical numbers, that is the great virtue of this film.

As for the ultimate message of the film, some people might say that it advocates for a greater concern in our school systems for the proper education of students with dyslexia (whose occurrence is greater than you might think – perhaps 5-10 percent).  Yes, there is that matter of concern present in the film.  But the film’s ultimate message is one of wider scope – that every child, no matter what characteristics he or she may have, is special.  We need an education system that moves beyond the mechanical inculcation of discipline and “The three Rs” and engages with every student in the most appropriate (i.e. special) interactive way in order to teach a much broader spectrum of skills and values that can help him or her to be a better person.

The implication here is that when we say someone is ‘special’ in this context, we are suggesting that that person has unique features that may deserve our most considerate attention, perhaps even our love.  When we have people trained with that perspective, we are on the way towards developing a society where everyone can be seen as special and deserving of our compassion and love [10].  Taare Zameen Par points us in that direction.
½

Notes:
  1. “Aamir Khan”, Wikipedia, (1 November 2019).    
  2. Gautaman Bhaskaran, “Film review: Taare Zameen Par”, The Hollywood Reporter, (31January 2008). 
  3. R. Paul Dhillon, “Taare Zameen Par”, Straight, (2 January 2008).   
  4. Raja Sen, “Aamir's Taare is a nice watch”, Rediff India Abroad, (21 December 2007).   
  5. Will Kouf, “Like Stars on Earth (2007)”, Silver Emulsion Film Reviews, (19 June 2010).   
  6. Meeta Kabra, “Tare Zameen Par”, Wogma, (n.d.).   
  7. Jen Johans, “DVD Review: Like Stars on Earth (2007)”, Film Intuition: Review Database, (18 January 2010). 
  8. Derek Elley, “Taare zameen par: Every Child is Special”, Variety, (28 December, 2007).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: ‘Open City’ and ‘Paisan’", The Film Sufi, (18 November 2008).   
  10. Paranahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, Self Realization Fellowship (1946).

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