I watched Taare Zameen Par with my son in the first week of its release. Though I had read a little bit about the film, I deliberately stayed away from the reviews so that I could view the film with no preconceptions. Like every other adult I know, I enjoyed the first half more than the second for generally similar reasons: I liked the unhurried exposition, the ‘real’ situations and unprettified locations but most especially the child actor playing Ishan, Darsheel Safary.
My seven year old son, on the other hand, abandoning his popcorn and drink, spent the entire time until interval with his face half turned into my shoulder, sobbing and insisting that we should leave immediately because this was a terrible film. It appeared that other children in the theatre were similarly afflicted: I heard at least two other children in our row crying loudly from time to time. If the adults accompanying these children also felt teary, they were keeping a tight rein on their own emotions in order to comfort their children and not distress them further.
After the interval, though, everything changed. With the appearance of the art teacher Nikumbh, played by Aamir Khan, the turnaround from unbearable reality to easy denouement was rapid and clearly more palatable for my son. He laughed and clapped his hands and was aware – as he hadn’t been in the first half – that what tension there was, was temporary and that all would be well at the end.
Adults know this about representation: that what we see is at least once removed from reality; that though a film is set up to appear like the world as we know it, it is just a film; though when pressed we can rarely explain in greater detail what we mean by that statement. But this, in fact, is exactly what we offer our children as comfort: ‘It’s just a film. Please don’t cry - they’re just acting. It’s not real.’ And we say these things as a sort of short hand for what is, after all, a very complex mode of negotiating our ideas of reality and representation.
Classically, all dramatic art holds the suspension of disbelief in delicate balance with verisimilitude. Things should correspond with the world as we know it just enough so that we can accept other things we have never experienced for at least the duration of the act. The payoff is a graph of emotions along a path charted in advance by the director. At various points in our cultural histories one or the other of these two factors has been given greater valence.
But in the more fantastic films that are the staple for children of a certain age, disbelief is suspended with greater ease: talking animals and objects, the magical and the absurd are par for the course. They are asked not to recognise the duplication of the world in representations of it, but to see how the strange can be familiar. The bitterness of separation, rejection or loneliness is sweetened with the distance that fantasy offers in exchange for the time in which to process what is not pleasant. In the words of Mary Poppins, just a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down.
Two things made Taare Zameen Par interesting to watch in the company of a child. One: though the film is about a child, it is not made – at least in the first half – for a child to view. The experiences that Ishan goes through frequently cut too close to the bone for a child watching the film. How is a child, who has been harried to complete her homework or taunted by classmates, to know that what Ishan is experiencing is ‘not real’? In the eyes of the child, there is no ‘problem’ that has a ‘solution’ in such a film; there is only a world as incomprehensible and unmanageable as their real one. To be told, then, that what appears to correspond so directly with their lived life is ‘not real’ is a patent absurdity - a contradiction so large it is not easily digested.
After the interval, when Nikumbh helps to identify Ishan as dyslexic, it seems like a cheat to an adult because it fails to answer the question of what one is to do with children who are not dyslexic but in every other way like Ishan has been portrayed. To a child watching the second half of the film, however, this is an unexpected reprieve. It arrives on their horizon as information usually does to the very young: as entirely new but easily accepted and accommodated in their constantly expanding world. Ishan’s dyslexia and the astonishing (to an adult) ignorance of the condition displayed by the teachers and parents explain much of what has happened in the first half. For the child viewer, the film ends satisfyingly, with adult repentance, due acknowledgement of Ishan’s talent and his right to take his place in a world that has a place for him.
In this sense, Taare Zameen Par is actually two films: the first one is heartbreakingly ‘real’ in that it pushes the limits of verisimilitude; the second one demands that we suspend our disbelief with equal elasticity. The transition is not easily made but it would be a mistake to dismiss the second half of the film as a cop-out for this reason. At the very least it raises some interesting questions about how children view films differently than adults and how narratives need to be designed when both adults and children are the intended audience.