Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Taare Zameen Par (Stars on Earth)

Synopsis: 8-year-old Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) is a wildly imaginative kid who goes about enjoying the small things in life — minnows in a fountain, for example — but failing academically. He cannot study or focus, something that leads to him being picked on and knocked around by bullies, his teachers and even his father. Eventually it gets so bad that Ishaan’s father ships him off to boarding school, where Ishaan finally encounters someone — teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan) — who takes the time to understand.

I struggled a lot to write this post because much of what I felt and thought about the movie is difficult to put into words. Even after writing this, I've struggled with whether to post it because I don't know if what I seem to have expressed is what I wanted to. (To give you some idea of this struggle, I watched this movie before my resolution to drop a dependence on subtitles.)

Perhaps I should preface much of this post by saying I am the sister of an 8-year-old with learning disabilities. My youngest brother has auditory processing disorder (sometimes called “dyslexia for the ears”) and, yes, a form of dyslexia. Excepting time, place and parental compassion level, my brother could be Ishaan.

So at many points in the movie, I couldn’t help but see my brother in Ishaan. But at other times, I saw anything but.

Unlike Ishaan, my brother is vibrant and outgoing. He is bold, hyperactive. My brother (despite his auditory processing issues) does not avoid talking like Ishaan does; in fact, my brother will excitedly talk your ear off at the slightest provocation. And if you don’t notice he pronounces V’s as B’s and don’t ask him to read anything, you might never know he had a learning disability.

Me, my brother James and my sister.
Coming from a background with such a similar but different child, part of me wonders what was the need to make Ishaan  so isolated? “Different” does not need to equal troubled. Nor does it equal loner. Not even academic failure (so to speak) equals these things; plenty of kids who don’t do well in school have plenty of friends. Yet while Nikumbh argues for his academic inclusion in a regular school (and I’ll come back to that later), Ishaan is very clearly socially segregated from the rest of his classmates — except the boy who has a physical disability.

And the film’s idea of ultimately including Ishaan (socially) is to put him on a pedestal above the rest by having his classmates all applaud his winning the art contest and then putting his face on the yearbook. While celebrating Ishaan’s talent is great, that is not inclusion.

Lovely painting. Lekin inclusion nahin hai.
Yes, every kid is different and special — including the kid who does stare off into space as he imagines another world in his mind, the kid who does not have a disability, the kid who is goofy with no root cause, the kid who secretly struggles with not understanding. While it endeavors to be, this film — with the tagline “Every child is special” — doesn’t feel like a true celebration of children of every sort. Where is the celebrating for the fact that the physically disabled Rajan is always academically tops? It earns a passing mention only because one of Ishaan’s teachers feels the need to subject him to Ranjan’s positive academic influence. Where is the celebrating for the fact that Ishaan’s older brother Yohaan excels at tennis? There is, I believe, less than none: Yohaan fails in a major match while Ishaan is left at boarding school.

And what are the odds that Ishaan is the only one in his entire school — in both schools — who has a learning difficulty? Practically nonexistant. Dyslexia alone is believed to affect 5 to 10 percent of any given population. I think it would have been possible to celebrate Ishaan’s triumph without making him the lonely outcast only one who suffers from this problem.

Nooooot your best look, Aamirji.
Part of me is also dismayed that Aamir still has to play the hero — because he does. While Ishaan may be the focus, it is Nikumbh’s swooping in — wearing a clown costume no less — that saves the day. (Though while I was bothered by the heroicness of it all, no one can hate Aamir because he always performs wonderfully.) It is his efforts that lead to a happy resolution. Nikumbh (who also admits to being dyslexic and therefore like Ishaan) is the only positive effort in the whole film, something I couldn’t help but be bothered by.

Somehow everyone in Ishaan’s life, despite noticing some of these problems for years, hasn’t even taken the time or effort to ask a question about why he’s having trouble in school. Even his mother, who is portrayed as compassionate, never seems to ask why he has trouble in school. Or even utter that phrase so common of mothers: “What’s wrong?” Are we really to believe not just his teachers (who aren’t paid to care/other excuses about poor teachers) but also the people who love him are all that oblivious? Not, I mean, oblivious to the dyslexia itself because it may be hard to pick out; but oblivious to the fact that there are problems not likely caused by mere laziness.

Okay, yes, let’s assume for the sake of peace in filmidom that they are all utterly oblivious. Still, it would’ve been nice just to see someone else care, even if they didn’t know how to help Ishaan.

Although on that note, it was incredibly satisfying to watch Nikumbh tear down Ishaan’s father for pretending to care while not really acting on any genuine care for his child.

Now, all of that complaining aside, there were things about the movie that I would love to praise.

Aamir apparently has only one way to talk to kids.
One would be the pretty remarkable performance of the child artist himself. The young one more than holds his own among all-around solid in the film, dazzling as a boy filled with quirks and wonder. One has to wonder if anyone could have brought Ishaan to life more than he did. I somehow doubt it.

Another is the pretty accurate depiction of dyslexia as we know it. Like I said, I couldn’t help but see my own dyslexic brother in Ishaan. (I understand several scholars who are much more familiar with this than the average person also praised this aspect of the film.) The one nitpick in that is that Ishaan seems to also suffer from dyscalculia, which is unfortunately lumped into his dyslexia though they are in fact different.

Another is understanding the issue itself enough to argue for academic inclusion (even if, as aforementioned, social inclusion seems to have escaped the filmmakers). Inclusion is a battle hard-fought across many if not all school systems. The state of Florida (where I live) just defined “inclusion” in a new law to combat the very issue that no one knows exactly what it means.

Yet another is that the film really isn't just about a boy with dyslexia. It has something of an overarching feel of commentary on the rat race (if you will), on such a crushing drive for achievement that no one stops to smell the roses (or in Ishaan's case, paint the space ships). Though I do have something of an issue with that as well considering that even Ishaan's artistic expression is put to the achievement race in the end, forced to be judged and ranked.

But anyway...

The filmmakers earn many brownie points for the willingness and know-how when taking on such an issue. But part of me hoped that a real problem would have been treated more realistically in other regards, such as the fact that Ishaan wouldn’t be the only dyslexic and struggling kid in the school. But if the film hadn’t been made and made so well, I would never have been able to voice such particular complaints about how it compares with reality.


  1. I loved this movie - though I think your points are valid - it would have been nice if he wasn't the only one. On the other hand, I saw this movie as a mother of a kid who only realized her son has dysgraphia because of seeing this movie.

    I think if they had tried to broaden and provide a larger sampling of experience with learning disabilities, it would have made the movie confusing. This is a entertaining movie first and foremost and they have a story to be told. It's humanist in it's objective certainly, but not reflective of reality and to get accomplish the social objectives through story telling, it is often best to focus onto a single person - and yes, make it an extreme case. They do the same thing in Guzaarish, and even Amnesty International does this in their appeals for support. Humanize it with an individual.

    Anyway - back to this movie - I think that the parent's response was very realistic. This is something that my husband and I have struggled with with our son. We are definitely supportive, but at the same time, we have a highly gifted child we are raising. And it's difficult to know what is disability and what is disinterest. Heck - it took us 6 months of frustration to realize that he was having absence seizures and wasn't just daydreaming in class or during homework sessions. These things aren't easy to diagnose and even the professionals at school who work with him aren't able to tease out what is going on exactly. We only realized he had problems with his handwriting a few months ago and even then, was the problem because he missed pretty much all of kindergarten because of uncontrolled seizures? Does he just have better things to do and so can't be bothered to write neatly? Or was something else going on? Keep in mind he's been in OT for handwriting since the beginning of kindergarten. So we are addressing it and have been addressing it, but we have been addressing it from the wrong angle. From a parent's perspective, I thought the portrayal of the parents as well meaning but clueless to be spot on because that is how both my husband and I feel most of the time and we both watched this movie and had a long talk afterwards because the notebooks look EXACTLY like what our son's writing is like. It never crossed our mind that he might have a dyslexia related problem because he reads wonderfully and with great expression and comprehension.

    Long story short, I forgive this film's short comings which are slight because I think it made for a more compelling movie, even if it wasn't entirely realistic and it also absolutely accomplished what it set out to do which is to help parents and educators get educated on these specifically very hard to diagnose disabilities and to understand it isn't laziness, it's disability - there is usually a very gifted child who isn't able to demonstrate comprehension of lessons as a result of their disability.

    I can say that our approach to helping our son with his writing has changed tremendously in the past 2 months because of this film and our son is finally making the progress he's capable of. It wasn't that we weren't compassionate or didn't care, we just didn't know how to help him because we didn't have an accurate diagnosis.

    The only thing that would have been more helpful is if they had somehow been able to put forth that there is a constellation of problems that can occur together or individually and that the character wasn't just dyslexic - but had a host of other problems as well.

    Otherwise, my husband and I were riveted by this movie and given that my hubby doesn't always like to watch Bollywood films with me that's saying something. It was a compelling movie for us as parents.

    1. I'm not necessarily saying that it should have included more detailed looks at other disabilities — just, maybe, that perhaps another kid SOMEWHERE could've had one even if they weren't focused on. Because as is really does beg the question that if Nikumbh is so focused on helping Ishaan, is he the same for every kid struggling?

      And I think you partly misunderstood me. I'm not at all angry at the movie that the parents didn't realize or seek help for Ishaan's dyslexia because yes, as you said, "it's difficult to know what is disability and what is disinterest" — even when you know the disability exists. I don't necessarily mean that his parents don't care academically — though it is kind of puzzling that they never check that he's done his homework, especially given he's repeating third standard, and just let him not answer a question about where his test results are. For example, anyone can see that he's getting beaten up by a much larger kid who then comes along with a sob story about the opposite, and the parents never even question it. His mom just patches him up and lets it go. Ishaan's dad blatantly cares more about achievement than his son, and that's fine since the movie works that way (and parents' thirst for achievement is very real) and he gets stubbornly rebuked for it. But another thing is that then the parents absolutely vanish. After not going to visit Ishaan because of his brother's tennis match, they're never shown visiting again, never talk to him on the phone... Even after Nikumbh comes to tell them he thinks Ishaan has dyslexia and that he'll help, they never seem to want to know anything else. All we know is that the mom looks up dyslexia on the Internet and the dad comes while on a business trip but decides not to see his son after getting a thorough berating. They only show up to pick him up at the end and see "WOW he's made progress! Let us cry happily about that."

      That is more of what I mean about them not caring.

      But yes, I agree that this movie is great for the fact that it helps spread awareness about a disability often mistaken for laziness.

      But also, does it bother you at all, having some experience with a similar thing as a parent, that Ishaan's dyslexia is basically portrayed as "cured" in a semester? My brother is Ishaan's age and Ishaan's dyslexia is definitely portrayed as more severe, and even with more than a year now of special techniques (including some of the same shown in the movie), he can't write or read nearly that easily. It might have been nice if it'd been acknowledged that dyslexia is something that is dealt with but doesn't necessarily go away.

      And despite the problems I had with it, I really am working to convince my mom that she needs to see it. But she doesn't care for Bollywood. How did you convince your husband to see it?