Revisiting Taare Zameen Par and Ghajini

(two reviews from the archives to cap off Aamir’s birthday.. these appeared initially on NG)
Taare Zameen Par and the Incredible Aamir Khan

It would take quite a curmudgeon to argue against the merits of Taare Zameen Par. It would take even stonier human resources to remain unmoved by this film. Aamir Khan’s directorial debut is the most affecting Hindi film to come out of Bombay since Bachchan breathed his last in the final moments of Deewar. There have been other films in between but none as pure, as sincere, even as noble as this current work. That Aamir Khan chose this subject for his first (official) outing as director and made such a critical and (by now) box office triumph out of it is nothing short of heroic, given the prevalent norms of Bollywood.

Taare Zameen Par is not the tale of a dyslexic child. To suggest otherwise is to miss the larger pattern Aamir weaves here. The film is concerned with the trials of a dyslexic child on a literal level but the director uses this ‘example’ to paint with much broader brush-strokes. The narrative is a very unusual film that adopts the perspective of childhood from the perspective of its ‘little’ protagonist. It is not a work about adults looking in on childhood but about the former occupying the space of the latter. The viewer in this film is always on the side of Darsheel Safary and is forever looking ‘up’ at the film’s adults. Half an hour into the film it is very clear that this is in fact one of the director’s more remarkable achievements. This ‘authorial’ gesture creates a very immediate level of audience empathy with the major protagonist of the film. It is entirely fitting that the credits therefore list Darsheel Safary’s name before Aamir Khan’s!

But it is not a film ‘about’ dyslexia. It is really about the universal anxieties of childhood, the gap that exists between the reveries of childhood and the mundane everydays of adulthood, the split between the more perceptive and imaginative language of the child and the pragmatic, ossified one of the adult, it is also about the hope and possibility that childhood represents and the institutionalization that maturity does in its turn. Finally the film is about the adult who might embody the qualities of childhood by retaining those elements of dreamlike life, who might forever resist the tyranny of the norm, who might always be engaged with the truly ‘other’ and regard this encounter as life-enriching, who might always be willing to invest the quotidian with the miracle of genuine empathy. Taare Zameen Par is always on the side of the rich fantasies of childhood and those adults who would seek to be daydreamers in a similar vein. In the world of this film the ‘real’ can always be ‘magically’ so as long as one can be a bit of a child.

The film offers such transcendent pleasures that it is a bit hard to comment on any of the individual achievements here or single out impressive segments in the whole. Yet the work of criticism would not be complete without such a gesture. Darsheel Safary’s performance is the greatest by a child actor in the history of Hindi cinema with the possible exception of the three children in Shekhar Kapoor’s superb Masoom. Safary scarcely seems to be acting in the film and his work is a perfect fit for the naturalistic universe of the tale. Aamir Khan on the other hand summons up the most optimal kind of authenticity and sincerity for his part. His is not a great acting job because his role does not require this but it is hard to imagine another actor of his generation being more convincing in his shoes. In the second half the director Aamir Khan shifts perspective a bit and let’s the audience empathize with the child by way of the ‘adult’ and to this end Aamir Khan the actor shows up perfectly. With the initial portions the viewer always approaches the world of the film through the eyes of the child but in the second ‘movement’ of the film, after the identification with the latter is complete, the true ‘adult’ of the film is introduced with Aamir’s character and the viewer then operates from a double perspective. In other words there is a bi-focal element in the narrative from this point on and these beautifully combine at the end when the paintings of ‘teacher’ and ’student’ are unveiled. These eventually form two sides of the same book in what is perhaps the film’s most potent symbolic move. But the earlier scene when the student’s painting is first revealed followed by that of the teacher, one witnesses one of the very great transcendent moments in all of Hindi cinema. It is supremely moving and also genuinely surprising. This might seem like a bit of an ‘excursus’ at this point but Aamir Khan has to be in total control in the second half to make this moment and others work in the second half. It is worth stressing that there are sometimes very important performances that are not necessarily great ones and Aamir’s falls in this category. It is intrinsic to the film. Needless to say the film belongs to Darsheel Safary but it would also be impossible to imagine this without Aamir Khan.

The other actors in the film are also a very able cast and more significantly very right for their parts. From the parents to the somewhat stereotypical (though yet individualized) teachers at the boarding school the actors are fine complements to the main protagonists.

It goes without saying that Aamir Khan is formidable as director here. The film runs close to 3 hrs which is a remarkable length for this sort of subject and yet not once does the interest flag in the subject. It is possible to underrate the director’s skills here. In the first half the camera movement is much more dynamic as one is drawn into the world of the child and the child’s necessarily limited attention span. The viewer is treated to sights and sounds and all things ephemeral by way of quick cuts and pans and zooms and in general all manner of rapid editing. The tour de force here is the song in the first few reels when Safary plays truant and walks through a chaotic Bombay. This segment is in some ways all of the film in capsule but also one of the most effective odes to the city of Bombay in Hindi cinema. One is reminded a bit of Basu Chatterjee’s 70s classic Piya Ka Ghar and specifically a song video there titled ‘Chal Bambai shehar ki’ which also ‘explores’ Bombay in like fashion. The song in Taare Zameen Par is also a good illustration of Aamir’s techniques in the first half of his work to the extent that he privileges ‘process’ more than anything else. This is a cinematic lesson at least as old as Hitchcock but it is one that naturally heightens narrative interest (if not always suspense) and it serves Aamir well given that his story is not really plot driven in this half. One is therefore treated to closeups of puddles with a child’s foot about to land in it or another one of an Italian ice with the syrup being poured on it and so forth. This focus on ‘process’ renders fascinating what would otherwise make for a static narrative.

In the second half when the director gets into the real crux of the work, the camera-work also becomes relatively sedate. There are longer takes, the camera moves around less. Therefore in the most emotionally charged moments of the film the audience’s focus remains intense. But again towards the end when the two paintings are unveiled Aamir uses a gorgeous pan, fuses the paintings, and really condenses the entire film into one dazzling moment. At another level Aamir’s treatment on dyslexia is very imaginative. The attention to detail is marvelous through in this sense but at the same time he uses the right tools to illustrate it for his audiences and educate them along the way. The ‘dancing letters’ visual cue with which the film opens and which is explicated at different points in the film is a masterstroke. Taare Zameen Par is not an auteur’s work in a cinematographic sense but it involves some very efficacious artistry on this level.

A word on Aamir’s ethics might be in order. This is a narrative that takes great pains to introduce its audiences into the travails of a learning ‘disorder’ such as dyslexia (it might be worthwhile to note that such a disorder can only come about in a culture of writing and would more or less be irrelevant for an oral one), that enlightens them in profound ways about the contours of the issue, and finally ties it to larger concerns of stigmatization and exclusion. Revathy’s Phir Milenge in recent years also did the same for HIV patients and ‘disease’ in general. A similar ethics occupies both works though Aamir’s is the superior effort. The scene here mentioning the great luminaries from the past who also had ‘dyslexia’ is a brilliant move to the extent that it serves to entirely erase any possible prejudice the audience might have despite the film’s message to the contrary. To wit, if Einstein and Edison and Da Vinci could have started out as dyslexics and then become what they did one could hardly ’stigmatize’ the problem in absolute terms! And in a somewhat lighter, more populist vein Aamir introduces the Abhishek Bachchan example, which would of course be the most accessible one for his audience. Bachchan himself should be commended for allowing his example to be used in the film even if the juxtaposition with those greats of history offers complimentary possibilities!

Lastly it would be impossible to exit such a piece without commenting more generally on Aamir Khan’s incredible career since his career defining (and career re-inventing) Lagaan. A sequence that begins with this film and goes through Dil Chahta Hai, Mangal Pandey, Rang De Basanti, Fanaa and now the current film is the richest one of all of Bombay’s current actors, commercial or otherwise. Within this series the actor has combined critical and commercial success in stunning fashion. Even more importantly he has set the pace for the rest of the industry by really consistently being involved with seminal films or films that have had the longest shelf lives. One thinks of Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai and Rang De Basanti and now Taare Zameen Par as four films that would easily make the cut. These are the films people have talked about the most. Aamir Khan has made bold moves throughout his career but what has really stood out in this current run is his absolutely commendable dedication to meaningful cinema. Taare Zameen Par is an extraordinary film but it also offers equally extraordinary commentary on it lead star and director. Aamir Khan is a bit like his child protagonist and his film’s adult lead — always hoping for a better Bollywood, always willing to take genuine risks to achieve this ‘dream’. As long as Aamir can dream and inspire other stars to follow his lead one can always hope for a brighter Bollywood. It would not be fair to call Taare Zameen Par the year’s best film for it is one of the best films of our time and really one of the best of any time in Bombay film history…

(I should add as an afterword that I found the film so overwhelming on an initial viewing that I found it impossible to write on it right away. I now write this after the second viewing…)

The Memory Palace of Ghajini

This is a potent memory palace. An old masala cinema of violence and catharsis. Of traumas and trials. Of final reckonings and poetic justice. All of this will have been ’short term memory’. To be kindled and rekindled through the length of the narrative and then forgotten once again. Between these two forgettings the film conjures up an entire heritage. One engages with it on the condition of a recognition that one is at a mausoleum.

Terminator-like, Aamir Khan straddles the film’s enigmas. He re-triggers a masala archive. He is an old school hero and yet he cannot remember too much. He is appropriately a bit like an automaton, a bit robotic in his movements. He is the machine of an older paradigm with the soul eluding him. The latter has long left the body. What remains is the shell, the remembrance, the trace.

It is also a tale of intrusions. The title suggests an old intruder. The film features a present one who must remove all traces of his intrusion. There is memory that must intrude for the story to take shape and then resolve itself. For those ghosts of the past to be summoned up, for the film to properly be a haunting the flesh must suffer all kinds of intrusions. The lead character is himself the ultimate intruder in a world whose coordinates have long become alien to him. He is the exemplary foreigner. What is most foreign to him is what he has always known.

This film is also a remarkable kind of copy. It remakes the Tamil original which in turn incorporates shards from Memento. Whatever the Tamil film means its essential mode is quite the norm in that cinema. The Hindi film however becomes a startling trope for the return of the repressed. An ambitious attempt to re-engender masala cinema from the ashes.

No one but Aamir Khan could have pulled it off. The actor puts his prestige on the line to convince a more than skeptical audience. He will be an actor in total command but also an interpreter of tradition. Of this malady. The forgetfulness of a heritage. The audience has for a long time been alienated from such an archive. Aamir re-opens the book. As he goes through his clues in the story the audience must also track these to remember what once was. As one gets to the final cathartic moments one realizes that this double move has worked all too well. No wonder the audience explodes at the end with cheer. The floodgates have opened. And yet.. perhaps the 15 min are up..

The Hindi film is superior to the Tamil original in very many ways ranging from visual style to narrative adjustments. If Aamir betters Surya in most ways Asin ‘copies’ herself equally effectively. Hers is a rewrite and she is up to the task in superb fashion. The first half depends on her comic timing and her infectious charm to maintain the film’s energy when the older, more subdued Aamir occupies center stage. Aamir magnanimously underplays things at this point and lets Asin take over for significant portions. He is nonetheless the film’s anchor in this star vehicle of a film whether in these segments or more obtrusively in the reels where he becomes the figure from Hell or the Hulk-like warrior, destroying everything in his path of fury.

But this is a beautiful couple we fall in love with and one we mourn when misfortune occurs. The love story offers the deepest emotional resonance because it is connected to a great moment of horror and inescapable, irremediable loss. This was always the truest lesson of masala cinema. Not everything could be redeemed or repaired — parents or siblings lost, childhood’s innocence wasted, friendships stained by love, life itself sacrificed to bring closure to the past. Ghajini is a very fluid narrative, always a bit of a thriller but it also provides truer catharsis than one has witnessed in an extremely long time.

As the film ends we are in claustrophobic bylanes and cavernous places where the final accounting must take place. The film’s arch fiend retreats from the ‘new’ to enter this ‘old city’ where there is a near physical representation of the story’s chief concerns. The pathways, the short circuits, the dead ends and blind spots of mind and memory. The film’s credits much like the Tamil original’s suggest these same neuronal networks. One encounters the known and equally the foreign at every turn.

Aamir Khan wisely chose the original director for this remake. No one in Bombay cinema today is perhaps capable of working with these commercial registers. The saccharine stupor of ‘Bollywood’ is all too potent. Murugadoss re-enters his earlier labyrinth to re-chisel and refine and the viewer almost travels the distance of an epic with this story.

A R Rahman’s music with its strong notes of melancholy and nostalgia on two of the key tracks here offers again better motifs for the film than did Harris Jayaraj on the original. Perhaps a couple of his catchier songs could have been given better treatment. One especially regrets the shredding of Lattoo. But these are minor cavils in a film where everything else works well.

For Aamir Khan this film adds another chapter to the astonishing chronicles he began with Lagaan. A glorious masala moment of ambition but more importantly of courage and conviction, not only in his selection of the subject but also in terms of his masterful execution as performer. As with everything else he’s done in this decade this most unique of star-actors currently working makes yet another bet, offers another chance to the industry. Ghajini is a major work, the year’s best film but also one of the best films this decade. One hopes the clues it offers are read correctly and soberly…

20 Responses to “Revisiting Taare Zameen Par and Ghajini”

    • For the very first time in his career Aamir has really done it all. The biggest grosser, topping the Filmfare list (despite the fact that he disses them quite regularly with the awards). The prestige was of course never in question but now he’s got this other stuff. At 44 really at the peak of his game and it’s a pretty remarkable achievement for any star. In other words it’s one thing to be very successful at 30 and at 40 and what have you. But here’s a guy who in absolute terms is doing better at 44 than he was at 40 and he was better at 40 all things considered than at 30!


      • That’s true, he is getting better with age. Aamir is definitely a unique star overall though. He’s not where he is today just on starpower. Most superstars unique selling is just themselves, the magnetic strength of starpower, the wooing of audiences to see “you”. Aamir’s carved a new kind of superstardom, based mainly on content – audiences feel with Aamir in the film or associated with the film, its got to be good. And its probably why he has turned into the ultimate marathon runner at the box office because his is a career, definitely this side of the decade that is not only relying on star signature but script selection. It’s that devastating combination that will keep him up top as long as his nose smells good scripts.


    • I find it slightly odd that these actors celebrate their birthday with the media.
      They even turn their birthdays into media events!


      • K: A lot things that Aamir is doing is just plain annoying nowadays. He keeps calling a press conference for every damn thing.


  1. ideaunique Says:

    agreed satyam, i wish he does GD and KK biopics…..and then look at his films-to-come…..3i, DG, GD, KK…….does any badshah or king or superstar have this range in their upcoming films??????


  2. ideaunique Says:

    btw, thnx rational for posting that ibn interview link – lot of things get cleared here from the horse’s mouth 🙂 and ya, he’s right abt that srk stuff…..during biloo promotions and also during that tag-heur promo event, srk said “i don’t need anything written on my chest to promote stuff…” something like that….i am so very happy that aamir gives him back his own recipe…..bravo aamir, lagey raho…..:-)

    reg. the other projects…..vow! he’s already having 4 interesting projects…..


  3. ideaunique Says:

    any video link for the latest aamir-tata sky – sardar ad?
    it wud be gr8 to know the link for a site where all the ads. done by aamir for all the products so far are stored……


  4. Satyam: It’s difficult not to get goosebumps reading your take on TZP. I’ve read it before but just to tell you that this has to be the most illuminating take on the film.

    On Ghajini, well, I don’t have much fondness for the film and don’t think it will really get spoken about in the time to come, beyond its boxoffice exploits., but well…it helped Aamir to become number one – something he wanted.


  5. Satyam: I’m wondering if I can make corrections to my comment, or is it only possible when the post is mine?


  6. ideaunique Says:

    sandy, when r u planning an interview with aamir? here are few questions, if you feel like including in ur list of Qs…

    1). What about the Kishore Kumar Script?
    2). When are DG, DB and anushka rizvi films releasing?
    3). Why doesn’t he tell Ashutosh G. to write/direct a film about LORD KRISHNA when he is quite eager to paly the role?
    4). is the shooting of 3i over?
    5). is DB going to be released only in foreign countries?


  7. deepshikha Says:

    Mr Khan
    I really hope you go through all the comments.TZP was undoubtedly a great and special film.I am sure you have not only worked for the film but also have done a lot to bring about a change in the lives of special children
    And now its your turn todo something great for ordinary students and children.Please sir get associated with some of the educational boards of the country as they too need a change.Children are under a lot of stress and surely like a wizard you can bring a huge change in our lives too.Sir you are very influential and can do lots for us.


  8. TZP DVD release finally in the US:

    There’s already been an excellent 3 disc set available in India. This might just be more or less the same deal.


  9. Both Wonderful Pieces Satyam. As rightly put above at 44 he is doing better than at 40 let alone 30. Now add 3i to the equation. Gosh, god knows what else this man has in store of us in the next few years.


    • And ofcourse Dhobi Ghaat and others that he has produced.
      Off topic though, Read somewhere that he is going to launch Jackie Shroff’s son with his production. Not sure if its true, but if it is. Tiger Shroff is gonna learn quite a few things from him. Have you seen the guys pictures? He looks bigger (muscular) than Hrithik at his peak (and he is only 21)


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