2007 saw many over-the-top hyped films (Partner, Welcome, Om Shanti Om)walk off with record-shattering box office returns. High budget entries this side of Mani Ratnam’s Guru rarely featured credible acting or memorable stories. It finally took Aamir Khan’s filmmaking debut, Taare Zameen Par, to restore the balance between a high budget, credible acting, and powerful story telling to polish off a winning film.
Khan’s film is seen through the eyes of Ishaan Avasthi (Safary), a feisty third-grader who is teased mercilessly for being slow. After repeated disciplinary run-ins at his local school, Ishaan’s desperate parents enroll him in a remote boarding school known for its “disciplinary” tactics. At the boarding school, the still-struggling Ishaan catches the attention of Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Khan), an art teacher who takes an interest in helping Ishaan.
Central to the plot is the give and take between the always-struggling Ishaan and Ram Shankar. To avoid hogging the spotlight, Khan’s Ram Shankar wisely stays off-camera until halfway through the film. Ram Shankar’s challenge is to gradually draw Ishaan out of his self-imposed cocoon while helping both Ishaan’s family and Ishaan’s school cope with his disability. The fact that Ishaan is naturally drawn to the world of drawing and that Ram Shankar is an art teacher helps, as does the mission-validating secret that Ram Shankar harbors.
Musically, the trio Shankar Ehsan Loy delivers what may be their best score since they got started with the late Mukul Anand’s unfinished Dus in 1997. The title track and a tune called Maa, both crooned by Shankar Mehadevan, are melancholy twin towers on a magnificent score. Mahadevan, whose vocal prowess often gets overlooked by his music writing abilities, finally gets his due .
Chopra’s supporting role as Ishaan’s mother is noteworthy as the pivotal mother-son connection is foremost to Ishaan’s pain. For his part, Khan is brilliantly understated. To act without making it look like one is acting may be Khan’s forte. And the camera loves him—from certain angles, Khan’s dramatic intensity is reminiscent of a young Dev Anand from the 1950s. While Shah Rukh Khan may be the bigger star, Aamir Khan is the best overall actor for his generation.
Here, however, it’s the wondrous Safary who steals the show. A natural before the camera, Safary gets right every mood and genuflect the role calls for. The ability to convey emotion at a level that elicits universal empathy for the plight of a nine year old is simply phenomenal. While Khan excels behind the camera, it’s Safary who steals scenes left and right.
The film uses colorful, eye-catching graphics to showcase the state of current special effects in Hindi films and to ride the surreal fantasy world imagined by a child. All this would be difficult for many other filmmakers. Not so for Khan. Yes, bring the hankies—you will need them. Yes, take the whole family, especially the young’uns, as everyone will enjoy. And yes, Aamir Khan successfully enters an exciting new career domain with the best Hindi film of 2007.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.