Aamir Khan’s “Taare Zameen Par”

This article is published in the January’2008 edition of the education magazine “Educare”

Aamir Khan’s latest film raises very crucial questions

The film Taare Zameen par is a sensitive portrayal of the ordeal of a dyslexic child, Ishaan Awasthi, whose abnormal behaviour is misunderstood and mistaken to be something else both by his teachers and parents. Unaware of dyslexia, they think that he is lazy, stupid, naughty and even arrogant on occasions. Dyslexia is a neurological language processing disorder that affects a student’s ability to process written and spoken information. Students with dyslexia have difficulty pronouncing words, repeating phrases that are spoken to them, understanding the meaning from spoken phrases, and following detailed instructions. They particularly have difficulty in distinguishing similar sounding words and letters.

Ishaan’s agony and ordeal is reduced and gradually overcome when, in the form of Aamir Khan (Ram Shankar Nikumbh in the movie), he meets a teacher who has himself suffered from the problem as a child and is therefore, able to guide him correctly. He is able to draw the attention of both the parents and other teachers on the right focus – on what Ishaan can do or his strengths, rather than his weaknesses. After building his self- confidence by drawing out the painter in him, he gradually manages to reduce the child’s weaknesses through other unique teaching techniques.

Aamir Khan’s first directorial venture does a very good job of highlighting the real and ideal direction of education – drawing out innate potential rather than blindly stuffing facts. Since the film brings that out very well, Azim Premji’s words in my earlier article “Teacher, educate thyself” are worth repeating:-

“The primary purpose of a school is to guide the child’s discovery of herself and her world and to identify and mature the child’s talents. Just as each seed contains the future tree, each child is born with infinite potential.” In the article, he suggested that many teachers and parents try to be potters instead of gardeners in moulding their children’s future. Imagine a school which sees children as seeds to be nurtured – here the teacher is a gardener who tries to bring out the potential already present in the child.
In that article, I had mentioned some famous dyslexics in passing reference, which are mentioned as examples in the movie. Their details are engrossing:

Loenardo Da Vinci: a great painter, designer, scientist, futurist and thinker. Most of the time, he wrote his notes backwards, which is exhibited with a mirror in the movie by Aamir. Although unusual, this is a trait shared by many left-handed dyslexic people. Leonardo’s spelling was also considered erratic and quite strange. He also started many more projects then he ever finished – a characteristic now often considered to be ‘ADD’ or attention deficit disorder. However, when it came to drawing illustrations, Leonardo’s work is detailed and precise. Loenardo’s words are revealing: “You should prefer a good scientist without literary abilities than a literate one without scientific skills.”

Thomas Edison, the famous inventor: he was noted to be terrible at mathematics, unable to focus, and had difficulty with words and speech. He was unable to read until he was 12 and his writing skills were poor throughout his life. His teacher thought him to be mentally ill. His mother withdrew the child from school and taught him herself. In his own words “My teachers say I’m addled . . . my father thought I was stupid, and I almost decided I must be a dunce.”

Albert Einstein, history’s most prominent scientist: he could not talk until the age of four. He did not learn to read until he was nine. His teachers considered him slow, unsociable and a dreamer. He failed the entrance examinations to college but finally passed after an additional year of preparation. He lost three teaching positions and then became a paten clerk. In his own words “Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater.” He also said, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”

Pablo Picasso the famous painter: his dyslexia made school difficult, and Pablo never really benefited from school or learning. Dyslexia troubled Picasso for the rest of his long life. Pablo’s father taught art, this got him interested in painting. Picasso also painted because he was born with an ability to see people the way they wanted to be seen, the way they were seen, and the special way Picasso saw them. In his own words, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” That is possible only if children realise their innate potential or essence as very few have multi-dimensional talent.

Picasso’s story is closest to what is shown in the movie. Ishaan is shown to be a very good painter despite being a severe dyslexic, a fact that is highlighted when Aamir joins the school as a temporary arts teacher. The manner in which Ishaan is shown staring out of the window on occasions reminds one of an extract of Osho’s discourse:

“The teacher goes on telling to the small children, ‘Give attention to me. Be attentive.’ They are attentive. But they are attentive somewhere else. A cuckoo is crying his heart outside the school building and the child is attentive. Nobody can say that he is not attentive. Nobody can say that he is not meditative. Nobody can say that he is in deep concentration. He is. In fact, he has completely forgotten the teacher and the arithmetic that he is doing on the board. He is completely oblivious. He is completely possessed by the cuckoo. The child is attentive. It is happening naturally. Listening to the cuckoo he is happy. The teacher is distracting and the teacher says that you are not attentive. He is simply stating a lie. The child was attentive. The cuckoo was more attractive to him. The teacher was not so attractive. The arithmetic has no such appeal. But we are not all born to be mathematicians. There are few children who will not be interested in the cuckoo.The cuckoo may go on madder and madder and they will be attentive to the blackboard. Then Arithmetic is for them. Then they have a meditation, a natural meditative state

Since every weak child is hardly likely to become an Edison or an Einstein, there should be special education on how they fit in. Since many of these great people struggled in humble skills, humble talents should not be taken for granted. The Gallup corporation in its book “First, break all the rules” highlights examples of waiters, bartenders, housekeepers, nurses, data entry operators etc as to how the best were different from the rest even in minor jobs and were compensated highly without necessarily being promoted, if they did not have the talent for man management. The best bartender was someone who remembered names of 3,000 guests and their drinks and the champion data entry operator was four times faster than the rest. Even something like housekeeping is studied in great detail so that the rest (poor housekeepers) learn from the best.

Though the movie shows the child making some headway in overcoming his weaknesses, real life does not always turn out to be like that. Apart from Picasso, there are several famous dyslexics, who have had similar problems throughout their lives – General George Patton, President Woodrow Wilson, President George Washington, writer Agatha Christie etc. Another famous dyslexic, Tom Cruise, despite being a success in his chosen field, can learn lines only by listening to a tape. If one googles for dyslexia, one comes across sites with a message like “famous people with the gift of dyslexia” Lesser-known celebrities also have severe reading difficulties but are yet successful in their respective fields. An extreme case is that of Ronald Davis, author. “At the age of 38 I could score 169 on the IQ test but I couldn’t read a menu in a restaurant. What the average person could read in 5 minutes would take me an hour,” the author once said about himself.

The lives of two famous dyslexics not mentioned in the movie – Henri Ford and Winston Churchill. Henri Ford: His father, a farmer, had only that career in mind for his son and tried to equip him with all the relevant skills – tending plants, eliminating pests and weeds, ploughing etc. Henry occasionally went with his father to the farm, but, his mind hovered around the hoe and the mechanical plough, the tools of his trade. His father, often exasperated, pleaded, cajoled, shouted and screamed. These had only a temporary impact. Henri’s heart was not in farming. In the movie Aamir Khan says, “Bachche ka hunar kya hai?”. His “hunar” or functional talent may not be necessarily reflected in his qualifications, which is why it is said, “Choose your career not on the basis of what you know but who you are”. It is very hard to believe that a mentally disabled child can do well in a field not of his liking. If that were so, they would not have so many problems with conventional education. Can one imagine Henri Ford achieving the same success in farming or any other field?

Churchill failed grade VIII, did terrible in math and generally hated school. In his own words, “I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.” Being in the right occupation is probably how the problems of some of the dyslexics got neutralised and how they were able to sustain their success despite suffering for a lifetime. On the other hand, being in the wrong occupation can entail a lifetime of suffering despite having no mental disability.

Since some psychologists try to identify childhood interests to solve this problem, the views of the other great mystic/intellectual J Krishnamurthy are worth noting: “In building enormous educational institutions and employing teachers who depend on a system instead of being alert and observant in their relationship with the individual student, we merely encourage the accumulation of facts, the development of capacity and the habit of thinking mechanically, according to a pattern; but certainly none of this helps the student to grow into an integrated human being. A large and flourishing educational institution can turn out bank clerks and super salesmen, industrialists or commissars, superficial people who are technically efficient but there is hope only in the integrated individual which the small school can bring about. If the classes are small and the teacher is able to give his full attention to each child, observing him and helping him, then compulsion or domination in any form is obviously unnecessary. It is intelligence that brings order, not discipline.” This can be witnessed in the movie when Aamir starts giving individual attention to the Ishaan and is able to help overcome his difficulty. Both Osho and Krishnamurthy have stressed the importance of helping the child find his right vocation in their discourses.

Since Aamir’s role fits into Krishnamurthy’s description of an ideal educator, his comments on the teacher’s role are worth mentioning “ If the teachers are not sure of their own vocation and interest, there are bound to be superficial bickerings, jealousies, misunderstandings etc, which can be passed over only if there is a burning interest in bringing about the right kind of education. To observe each child’s tendencies, his aptitudes, his temperament, his attitudes, to understand his difficulties taking his heredity and parental influence into account requires patience, alertness, intelligence, skill, interest and above all a sense of affection. To produce educators endowed with these qualities is one of our major problems today.”

Aamir has shown basically what talent management is all about. There are people like Dhirubhai Ambani, Bill Gates and Jack Welch, who have been able to see the latent talent and been able to draw that out, despite different degrees and qualifications. The focus always has to be more on uniqueness of the individual – what the individual does with the knowledge rather than knowledge per se, or what he can do uniquely. All life is talent management. If that were not so, books like Working identity would never be written. Since it explains how tough career transition can be, special efforts should be made to help people who may have made the wrong choice. In a recent article in Readers Digest, the great mathematician Hardy says that he may have mentored maths genius Ramanujan but he learnt much more from Ramanujan then the other way around. This is what happen when teachers see their role as educators- just as Aamir has directed the film so well, they have to provide the direction in real life.

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The sentences in bold above should also have been included. Though the editor omitted this paragraph, I personally feel that after the para in which Osho describes the child obsessed with the cuckoo, this should have been added:-

Though Osho probably said this in the context of detecting the different kind of child, it has to be taken in the right perspective. Just as television is considered to be the “chewing gum” or “idiot box” , too much idle day dreaming without applying brains at all can be a case of “Use it or lose it”. The brain also needs other exercises apart from imagination for an evenly balanced growth.

These views of eminent dyslexics also deserve a mention-

It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction- Picasso

“Working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation”- Winston churchill

“I never worked in my life. It was all fun”- Thomas Edison

This is a humorous story that on Sir Issac Newton that could also have been added:-

Apart from Einstein’s comment on Income tax , there is a humorous story of the great inventor, Sir Issac Newton and his cats. Whilst studying color and the order it came in a prism, Newton used to go up to his attic where there was only one window and in order to control light, he needed to black out the room. His cat loved to be with him, and she constantly nosed the door open, which would then let the light in – thus spoiling his experiments. Not wanting to upset her, he decided to cut a small opening in the doorway which he then covered with felt attached to the top of the opening Now cat and master were happy – the cat could come and go at will, and Isaac wasn’t disturbed by her comings and goings, and could continue his experiments in peace. It is said that all geniuses sometimes have a blind spot and when his cat had kittens, so anxious was he to please them, that he cut several smaller holes alongside the original one so that they could come and go whenever they wanted to. It didn’t occur to him they could use the existing one! As they say, “common sense is most uncommon” and even geniuses are not immune to that.

Former International HR consultants Morgan and Banks had expressed the view that niche individuals who were good at only a few things had the worst time in the wrong profession. Dyslexics/ADHD children have high IQ but often have such one dimensional intelligence.

Mission impossible? (Movie Apna Aasmaan)

This article is published in the November issue of the Education magazine “Educare” under the title “Mission impossible”. The portions in bold are dialogues from the wonderful film “Apna Aasmaan” which furthurs the casue of real education and human resources management.

With parents not letting the child discover his calling in life, a majority of people are stuck up in wrong roles. This is the theme of movie Apna Aasmaan

Though largely a work of fiction, the movie Apna Aasmaan is based on the real life story of Onko (character Budhdhi in the movie), 16, who was mildly autistic and suffered from minimal brain dysfunction due to his problem of epilepsy. He was not able to attend school and until the age of 11 had severe motor control — he was not able to hold a pencil to write a sentence. Later, Onko displayed a talent for drawing pictures. He had a successful exhibition at the Nehru art Gallery in Bombay, which can serve as an inspiration to people with similar problems. It reflects the real meaning of the term “education”, which, based on the word ‘educare’, implies to draw out what is already in. Or in the words of Erichch Fromm, “Education is helping the child realize his potentialities.”

The movie is actually insightful for those people who have faced such problems. According to its website, http://www.apnaaasmaan.com, the basic theme of the movie is, ‘How far would you go to make your child a genius?’ In the movie, they show an autistic child, who cannot do anything except draw. He is given some kind of magic injection to convert him into a mathematics genius. He does become a maths genius but as a side effect, he also suffers from amnesia, forgets to draw and in contrast to his original, lovable, jovial self, becomes obnoxiously rude and monstrous. His parents realise their folly and want their original child back, which they manage to do with an antidote. The fictional magic injection and the antidote may seem somewhat far-fetched, but the movie succeeds in conveying a strong disapproval of the obsession of Indian parents to mould their children according to their whims and fancies rather than let them do their own thing, which the word ‘Apna Aasmaan’ implies.

Some insightful dialogues from the film, before the autistic child becomes a monster:

Doctor: “Look, How Budhdhi’s sketching has improved. Very nice.”

Budhdhi’s mother: “Sketching karke kya banega? Main logo ko kyan mooh dikhaungi (What will he earn from sketching. How shall I face society?”)

The doctor: “His IQ is 70. He is a slow learner with few Autistic traits. Sketching ko encourage karne aur shortcomings ko accept karne main hi tumhari jeet hai”(It would be better for you to encourage his sketching and accept his shortcomings).

This conversation reminds me of a write-up by an Indian vocational psychologist a few years ago: “At least in India no one is surprised at children aspiring to become engineers, doctors, CAs or MBAs. Almost 60 percent think in terms of engineering or medicine and nearly 15 percent fancy their skills as CAs, but in reality only 10 percent become what they dream of becoming. Have you ever wondered why children do not want to be artists, dancers, singers, painters or carpenters and plumbers? The reason is not far to seek. These professions do not have the ‘class’ or prestige associated with it. When they actually start working, they realise that they don’t have the mental makeup for a particular type of job, despite being suitably qualified.”

The great mystic Osho’s views on people hesitating to take up humble occupations are equally profound: “Somebody is a great carpenter, somebody is a great shoemaker, somebody is a great scientist, somebody is a great money-maker — they are all contributing whatever their potential allows them to life, with totality, not holding anything back. Naturally they should have equal opportunity to grow, and they should have equal respect.”

In the film the doctor further explains:

“Har bachcha toh doctor ya engineer nahin ban sakta na (every child cannot become a doctor or an engineer). That’s why so many students are committing suicide. Why? Because their parents keep pushing them. Pata nahin parents ki kab samajh mein aayeega ki unki Lakshman Rekha kya hai. (God knows when parents shall understand what their Lakshman Rekha is).”

Though the doctor talks sense, the couple still persists in making him a genius but when he becomes a monster after the injection, his father remembers his original son. When the child had made a drawing in the pre- injection phase, this is what had been the conversation between the two:

Budhdhi: “Baba, I have drawn a monkey for you.”
The father: “Table yaad kyon nahin kiya (Why didn’t you remember the maths table?)”

The father then breaks down on recollecting how wrong and cruel he had been.

What the doctor fails to say is that even if the child succeeds in the wrong occupation forcefully, later on in life he may yearn for what his essence is, which can be gauged from the following examples of career switches reported in The Times of India on August 5, 2007 where most have shifted from their earlier exalted occupations to arts and sports:-

Srinjoy Banerjee – tyre technologist to classical singer
Dr Mahesh Chitnis- doctor to actor and film producer.
Jayesh Morvankar- advertising to adventure sports
Varun Khera and Manas Wadhva – Jet airways stewards to restaurant owners
Arun Pai- financial consultant to tour operator
Mrinalini Batra- engineer to marketing education
Sanjeev Chopra- engineer to theatre person
Sachin Patil – IT professional to winemaker
Sidhu- doctor to rock star

Osho had once advised a very successful surgeon to spend the last fifteen years of his life as a musician for personal fulfillment. This is what he had to say on the subject:

“Happiness happens when you fit with your life. When you fit so harmoniously that whatever you are doing is your joy. Then suddenly you come to know that meditation follows you. If you love the work that you are doing, if you love the way you are living, then you are meditative. Then nothing distracts you. When things distract you, it shows that you are not really interested in those things. It is deemed that happiness comes when one is meditative; it was just the other way around — meditation comes when you are happy.” This implies that one loses awareness of space and time in an occupation of one’s liking.

A couple of dialogues from the film are worth stating here:

When the child becomes famous in maths, he is asked, “What is superior, numbers or words”

Budhdhi’s reply: “Numbers woh signals hain jisse do intelligent brains baat karte hain. Words aadi maanav ki bhasha hai jinko poets ne romanticise karke human progress ko barbaad kar diya hai” (Numbers are those precise signals through which two intelligent brains communicate. Words is the language of the underdeveloped man, which have been romanticised by poets to the detriment of human progress)

It reminds me of what international HRD consultants Morgan and Banks used to say, “Are you comfortable with words, numbers (data), things or people?”

At this point let me tell you my own story. When I started studying seriously in high school (late Seventies/ early Eighties), I had a strange attention problem, which I could not properly understand or explain and this was more so with subjects such as science and maths, which I didn’t like. After 20 years of struggle and half a dozen psychiatrists I discovered what Osho had said, “When things distract you, it shows that you are not really interested in those things” Once my boss said, “There is nothing wrong with you. The day you find the work that you can do spontaneously and effortlessly, this attention problem will go away for ever”. He diagnosed correctly what half-a-dozen psychiatrists could not do or tried to hide from me. I came to know through a magazine of a particular type of depression, which affects writers and poets. Since all the symptoms were tallying exactly, I tried to confirm with another psychiatrist in 1998, who replied, “You are not a poet. You just rhyme”. Subsequently, during the same time, a publisher liked one of my poems on nuclear weapons and said that if I could write 25 more like that, they would publish all of them. This left the doctor stupefied and after 20 years of suffering and half a dozen doctors, that was the first correct diagnosis. A couple of my other poems also got recognition. Though not being formally trained in writing or being in a related occupation, I now have more than 15 articles under my belt, which is not bad for an untrained writer.

The issue is not of being superior or inferior but what you feel comfortable with. I have never been comfortable with numbers and I love the personal computer and Microsoft excel because it facilitates any task with issues like accounts and costing, which I cannot do manually. I hate doing anything manually with numbers. This reminds me of the maths suicides that one hears about from time to time, especially in the context of the board exams. I had a lot of difficulty in coping with maths and I had a full time tutor for that. He would tell me abruptly, “Haath chalna chaahiye; haath chalna chaahiye”. When I am in the mood for it, I can fill up a number of pages with poetry, which he may not be able to do. Should I also tell him, “Haath chalna chaahiye, sir, haath chalna chaahiye.” It is a great pity that teachers are not trained as vocational psychologists or talent scouts, or they could be real educationists. In the year of the board exam itself, I once wrote a very good essay, which my English teacher made me read out in front of the whole class. How was a child to know that this was a signal of his true vocation in life? Similarly, whenever I wrote to anyone, I was appreciated for my writing, but it took me a very long time to understand that that was my vocation in life. I considered writing to be a sidey thing and corporate management the real thing.

As for some occupations like writing not paying off well, poet laureate Amit Dahiyabadshah, who has started poetry readings in different parts of Delhi to enable poets to show their work, comes to mind. On being asked what he meant by the statement that he was a working poet, Dahiyabadshah replied that the term implied making a full-time living out of poetry, which is a rare exception. On googling for working poet, I found several who had written poems on how miserable they were in the wrong occupations. Another transparent platform is television, which through programmes like Boogie-Woogie and Indian Idol is revealing singing and dancing talent to enable artists to express themselves and have emotional and financial fulfillment.

When children are assured of their talents and proactive attempts are made to improve the commercial profile of their occupations like poetry above, the root cause of their problem is removed. Dealing with symptoms may work in the short run, but is not likely to last or work with most, if not all people. Some people should pursue two paths with equal seriousness till one of them bears fruit.

The crux of the movie is in this wonderful comment:-

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life longing for itself. You may house their bodies but not their souls. Their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow which you cannot visit.”

In another great movie in recent times Iqbal, this is what Mohit sir (Naseerudin Shah) tells the child’s father to convince him to let the child play cricket:-

“Mera yakin hai ke ham sab is duniya mein ek khaas kaam ke liye bheje gaye hain. Zyaadatar log zindagi bhar bhatakte rahte hain, yeh jaane bagair ke unki
zindagi ka maksad kya hai. Kuchh hi khushkismat hain jo is khazaane ko paa jaate hain. Aapka ladka cricket khelne ke liye paida
hua hai. Cricket sirf khel nahin hai uske liye . Uski zindagi ka maksad hai. Cricket
khel ke usko zindagi ka salika milta hai.
Saas lene ki koomat aati hai. Yeh sab aap chheen lenge usse.”

Translated:-

“I am certain that we all have come into this world for a special purpose. Most of the people struggle throughout their lives without knowing what their purpose in life is? Only a few fortunate ones are able to tap this treasure. Your son has been born to play cricket. It is not just a sport for him. It is his life’s purpose. His zest for life is supplemented through cricket. Would you like to steal all that from him?”

Would you like to steal his very life away from him? When you actually study the lives of those people, you realize the magnitude of that statement.

Thomas Carlyle says, “The person who has found his vocation in life is a blessed human being. Let him ask for no other blessedness.”

Benjamin Franklin says, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond and to know oneself.”

It is as much Apni Zindagi as Apna Aasmaan..