I finally caught Taare Zameen Par yesterday. Having been a lifelong Aamir Khan fan (that is, having fallen in love with him when my childhood self first saw him on screen - and never having managed to fall out), I was a bit wary of the very enthusiastic reviews and responses the film received. I usually manage not to like something that is popularly acclaimed.
But the movie was as good as all the reviews promised. Cynical me sat crying through most of the first half of the movie, remembering my childhood, the angst of going to school and getting lost in a crowd, the fear of humiliation and embarassment that teachers so effectively played on. Humiliation was their most powerful weapon, and they used it unsparingly. I could remember the humiliation, the pain, the fear so vividly as I watched the movie. And I, unlike the movie's Ishan, was good at academics. I was in a school that was then accounted one of the best in the state. I cannot even imagine how much hell less academically-inclined students go through; I can hardly imagine the horrors of other, not reputed schools where teachers are less likely to fear the disapproval of parents. This movie brought home what many of us must have felt growing up: school - at least schools like the one I went to - isn't meant for sensitive kids. It's meant for bullies, for thick-skinned children who play rough and don't mind getting it themselves. Are there such children? I don't know. Maybe because I was such a sensitive, fearful child myself, I am apt to think of children as sensitive, with fragile self-esteem. Which makes me wonder if many of those who become teachers are sadists at heart; or do they put up the mask to save themselves, and do not realise when the mask becomes reality? Where are the teachers who become teachers because they want to work with kids? Where are the Ram Shankar Nikhumbs to guide children and help them flower?
All that rant must have made you realise that I was deeply moved by the film. It reminded me of how parents - while claiming to do the best for their kids - routinely stifle their growth and make their lives unhappy. This is actually a movie everyone should watch - as Aamir Khan said, it's for everyone who has ever been a child. Much as I admire Aaamir Khan the actor, this movie made me feel he should give up acting and focus on direction. All the performances were superb. Darsheel is brilliant. No one looks like they're acting: especially in footages of Darsheel, it feels like the camera is hidden, he is that un-self-conscious.
Having raved over the movie, I want to share a few quibbles. There were a few things I found unconvincing: one, how the father changes towards the end and realises affection for his son, how he cries and thanks Nikhumb. For the kind of character that had been depicted in the rest of the movie, I would imagine him proudly saying, "Now that's my son!" and conveniently forgetting that he had branded him a failure in the first place. He had been consistently insensitive throughout the movie: to show him break down and cry in public was a bit too much. I understand though, that this was probably a gimmick to make all those parents watching the movie feel reassured that they're not that bad; to encourage them to take something home from the movie and use it on their children. But personally, I feel nothing should be sacrificed to the story, and the story was marred slightly with that jarring note.
Another thing I found a bit unrealistic was that Ishan improved dramatically over just a few months. I don't know much about this, but I wonder if it's not too optimistic a view.
I see I have neglected to mention the songs. Much as I admire Prasoon Joshi's lyrics in Rang De Basanti, the guy has outdone himself this time. Not only are the lines poetic, every word feels like it's just apt for the movie, for the character. I can't remember any other movie that has songs so poignant, so much a part of the movie. I did not much like the Bum Bum Bole song, but that is just because I have a grouse against lip-synching. I loved how Aamir Khan shook his butt to "bum bum bole", I loved the pun! (And of course, a view of Aamir's cute butt didn't hurt.) But when the rest of the movie was so real and close to home, to show a bunch of nine-year old boys singing without prior practice in perfect tune was more than slightly unconvincing. (Trust me, I would not want to stay in the vicinity if a bunch of nine-year olds decide to spontaneously break into song.)
I almost wish Aamir Khan hadn't acted in the movie, at least not in a character with so much screen space. It is somehow so difficult to ignore the actor when he is a star like Aamir, and notice only the character he's playing. Even though Aamir acted so well that I didn't even notice his acting, I wonder if I would have thought any differently about the movie if the character had been played by an unknown actor. I liked the subtle touches about Ram Shankar Nikhumb. Something about him suggested childishness, a Peter Pan-like character who refuses to grow up because he finds the world of grown-ups too intimidating. It shows in the hairstyle, in the way he identifies with kids, in the way he has made a vocation out of working with them, as if by helping make their childhood happy he is erasing his own bitter memories. Which makes it so much more real that he is devoted to helping Ishan: he is not philantrophic, but a man fighting for what he believes in.