Aamir Khan’s directorial venture Taare Zameen Par is the story of a dyslexic boy and his struggle to fit in. On a deeper level, it is the story of all of us, an exploration of our feelings of inadequacy, our fear of failure and the things we do to hide it.
Ishaan (young Darsheel Safary, who deserves every one of the kudos that have come his way) lives a life that’s slightly out of whack. We first meet him as he sits perched by a gutter, carefully transferring tiny fish or perhaps tadpoles into his waterbottle to take home. He’s not just grimy in the usual kid fashion, but downright disgustingly filthy. But as you watch his face shine with excitement and fill with wonder as he captures life in a plastic bottle to admire it from close up, it’s a little hard not to fall in love with him.
Ishaan is charming little devil, up to all sorts of tricks, but study isn’t one of them. And this, we come to understand, is his Fatal Flaw. Everybody’s on his case – from his parents to his fellow students to the kids who live in his apartment building. To add to his misery, he’s not a particularly articulate child even though he feels things deeply; his emotions frequently seethe visibly inside him but can’t quite fight their way out. Not that anybody really cares what he feels – if he can’t express himself, other people have already expressed his feelings for him and the consensus is that he’s a bad lot.
Early on in the movie, we follow Ishaan through the crowded Mumbai cityscape in the song Mera jahan (My world) that perfectly illustrates the limbo which he inhabits. It is one that has it’s own beauty but exists somewhat removed from the rat race around him. His disconnect from the world, however, is doubled: the adults live in that magical realm that every child fantasizes about but can’t fully grasp, and the kids regard him more as a freakish joke than one of their own. He can’t inhabit either and when he tries, he always comes to grief. It’s no wonder he does so much better in the company of animals but it’s not like he can enter their world either – although he does his best in his own imagination.
Ishaan also suffers in comparison to Yohaan (Sachet Engineer), his elder brother, a Perfect Being, excelling at everything he so much as touches. Typically, this would be the character one loves to hate, just waiting for his comeuppance – but in addition to his other sterling qualities, Yohaan is actually a nice kid, trying to look out for his messed up baby brother. The bond between the brothers is as sweet as it is genuine.
To complete the family picture, there is the housewife mom and the strict dad, neither of whom can figure out where they went wrong the second time around. Mom (Tisca Chopra) desperately loves her sometimes indefensible baby and tries her best to understand where Ishaan is coming from; Dad (Vipin Sharma) loves his little boy too, but believes discipline is the cureall for Ishaan’s problems. And despite his wife’s protests and Ishaan’s palpable misery, he isn’t about to weaken his stand and ruin his son’s life.
Eventually, everything comes to a head and Ishaan is sent off to boarding school to be harassed some more and sink into an almost catatonic state before he’s eventually saved by a substitute art teacher by the name of Ram Nikumbh (Aamir Khan). This is where the story was headed all along – and where it stumbles.
Ishaan is the antithesis of the Movie Kid, that annoying creature of the perky, saintly disposition whose precociousness is so sweetly endearing that you walk out of the theater with a fresh cavity in your molars. Ishaan doesn’t have any bits of angelic wisdom to impart (the one time he tries to explain the philosophy behind a bit of poetry, he gets shot down double quick) and he comes across as sullen and withdrawn to most people who meet him. We love him because we’ve met him in his element – in the real world, you’d expect him to grow up and turn into one of those kids that Do Something and I don’t mean that in a good way.
He’s the kid who exasperates you because he demands that extra bit of attention and effort you simply don’t have that day. He’s the kid who can’t tell you what the problem is and makes you guess. He’s the kid who’ll stare at you like he saw you pick your nose with your best suit on, just before you shook hands with your boss.
He makes everyone around him uncomfortable because he reflects their failure – to raise a kid, teach, maintain discipline, impart an idea… except Ram Nikumbh.
When Ram sees Ishaan, he sees a mirror image but instead of fearing for himself, he fears instead for Ishaan’s welfare. This is not only a valid thing for him to do, it’s about bloody time somebody did it. When a nine year old spends his time staring meaningfully into an abyss, it’s time somebody gave a damn.
But bit by bit, starting with Ram’s overlong introduction (Bum Bole – and no, his bum doesn’t actually speak even if it’s mega cute and shakes quite expressively throughout the song) to the very end of the movie, his care and concern for the kids in his charge, especially Ishaan, and his correct diagnosis of Ishaan’s woes, begin to take on alarmingly Messianic tones.
If Ishaan is the very opposite of the Movie Kid, then Ram is an old fashioned movie trope: the Guy Who Knows Better. He’s the preachy do-gooder who’ll come into your house and lecture you for half an hour on things that are none of his business. And instead of kicking him out of the house, you’ll listen gratefully to his spiel because he is Good and Cares and Knows Better.
Ram is, of course, all of these things. (And mighty cute too! This must be my year for liking bad hairstyles: I also thought that other Mr. Khan, dare I speak his name, looked very nice in his Lhasa Apso do.) And yes, he is required to be just this preachy and Public Service Announcement-like as he tells people about the rights of the disabled and explains that dyslexia isn’t the same as being mentally challenged. The story’s clarity depends on it. But the thing is, I don’t really care about Ram and his tortured soul or his compulsions. This is Ishaan’s story; he is the one with whom I’ve forged an emotional bond and everytime he steps out of the frame, I keep waiting for him to come back.
Ditto with the climax – there really was no other way for this movie to have a truly “happy ending” but that painting competition rocked all kinds of moldy cheese and the decision to give everyone from the teachers down a personality transplant at the end of the movie didn’t quite do it for me. Until I saw the final scene of the film, with that smile on Ishaan’s face that Ram has only ever imagined… and everything is worthwhile again.
Just like this movie.