In the last fifty years, only a select few of mainstream Indian cinema’s glamorous star elite have been able to distinguish themselves in terms of the quality of the films they have made. Whilst Bollywood continues to struggle with the ridiculously below par barrage of films they churn out each year, some of the mainstream film stars like Aamir Khan have tried to limit the number of films they make each year in an effort to maintain some degree of artistic consistency. Unlike the majority of the A list Bollywood film stars who have all aptly learnt the art of product endorsement, Aamir Khan’s position and star image is singularly unique, particularly in his life-long boycott of redundant Award ceremonies that rather than celebrate artistic achievements, descend into farcical and spectacular re-enactments of a romanticised former cinematic glory.
Though Aamir Khan has always been cautious not to completely disassociate himself from mainstream Indian cinema, his star image has gradually shifted from his early poster boy image in films like ‘Jo Jeetah Woh Sikander’ that made him a household name in India to the mature, socially conscious actor in challenging films like ‘Lagaan’ and ‘The Rising’. Whilst ‘Rang De Basanti’ confirmed the ideologically leftist political agenda that has shaped much of the anger in his recent films, he also in 2006 offered his fans a mainstream ‘masala’ offering as a troubled terrorist in ‘Fannah’, a Yash Raj production that teamed him up with Kajol. Imitating the Yash Raj formula, ‘Fannah’ was a blockbuster in both India and overseas, reiterating the continuing popular appeal of Aamir Khan and that he could still compete with the likes of the most bankable stars.
2007 saw the release of his directorial debut, ‘Taare Zameen Par’, and the film went on to make a clean sweep at the major Award ceremonies with many praising Aamir Khan’s continuing commitment to addressing difficult social issues, which in this case was the flawed education system and it’s incapacity to cope with the problem of a child’s severe dyslexia. Aamir Khan took over the directorial reigns from the original writer of the film, Amole Gupte, who initially came to him with the project so that Aamir Khan would function as the producer. Nobody can really question the motivations behind such an important film, but I was surprised that Aamir Khan who directs and also stars as a sympathetic and inspirational teacher, never questioned the unjustified running time of three hours.
After a gloriously imaginative first hour that largely takes place through the eyes of the young boy, the film falters once we reach the intermission and once he is left alone in the boarding school the film becomes less interesting and altogether more stagnant. The first hour shows real restraint in terms of resorting to outright uses of sentimentality, but as the second half begins, the narrative loses real momentum and is eventually reduced to becoming an extended ad campaign for promoting wider awareness about dyslexia. I’m not sure if the film loses some of its convictions by the casting of Aamir Khan as the school teacher or if it mistakenly shifts the attention away from the compelling story of the disillusioned young boy to one about the contrived personal crusade of a liberally inclined teacher trying to come to terms with his own educational experiences.
Whatever the reasons, the film relies on far too many melodramatic plot contrivances and dated stereotypes to try and sustain interest in a story that seems to reach its conclusion once Ishaan is sidelined by his family and berated by his evil, Hitler like father who subsequently lives up to the archetype of the bullish patriarch with great sincerity. Taking its influence from Hollywood films like 'Dead Poets Society', cinematic representations of teachers tend to be limited to either conservative, authoritarian creatures of disdain or self proclaimed liberators who are prepared to sacrifice their own professional position in an attempt to radicalise the minds of those being conditioned into the banal rituals of conformity.
The world seen through the perspective of the child has been a popular narrative tool used by many cinemas around the world, and film makers continue to find new and original ways of using children in movies as an allegorical means of addressing realist concerns, and though Aamir Khan's directorial debut falls short of much of his recent work, it succeeds brilliantly in bringing to life the colourful imagination and emotional conflicts of a child who matters as much as any other in today's increasingly competitive and dehumanising new Indian society.