Taare Zameen Per, officially translated to Like Stars on Earth, happened to be the movie I saw last night (thank you Netflix). This movie came out in 2007 and when I first saw it, I took everything in like every other person: brilliant movie, story, and acting.
It is a story about one child, Ishaan, a nine-year-old who cannot adjust to his school life- cannot read, answer his maths test, doesn’t remember the alphabet, thereby frustrating his parents. To correct his “attitude” problem, he is sent to a boarding school. There he struggles with his new way of life, till one teacher connects with him and helps him overcome his learning disorder.
As I was rewatching this movie again last night, thirteen years later, the movie took on a whole new meaning for me. This movie is all about empathy. That’s all I could think about throughout the movie, and I have to admit a couple of scenes did make me weep.
I read up on some reviews of this movie – 90% on Rotten Tomatoes by the way – and there is something in this movie that we all connect to.
The first half of the movie essentially captures the daily life of Ishaan. His mind wanders off, he becomes distracted easily, he cannot focus and he fails to take instruction. However, he also has a very strong creative imagination – he is able sketch his imagination and is actually quite an adept artist.
His parents, however, are understandably frustrated, the father more than the mother. Ishaan’s elder brother does very well in school and he actually is very supportive of his younger brother, who he calls Champ. He’s the kind of child who gets the perfect grades. Yet, when Ishaan is talked down to and compared to his brother, Ishaan doesn’t really get it, but we the audience can see such a strong case of comparing siblings to each other. We feel bad for Ishaan.
The father is more frustrated because he is fixated on making sure Ishaan excel because he wants to see his son become an engineer or a doctor. The father also falls into the trap of comparing his son with other people’s sons. When confronted about his son’s amazing art skills, the father merely responds: “what good will that do?” He has already set out in his mind what role his child will play. He has bracketed his son into a pigeonhole. He leaves no room for exploration. The father indulges in mistakes some parents make: blame and shame the child. He shifts all the blame on to his son: “something is wrong with you,” he says to his son.
What is the child supposed to feel? Naturally annoyed, angry and disappointed and would take the blame unto himself. He makes the classic mistake of thinking something is wrong with him. How else can a nine-year-old process this?
The mother, on the other hand, has very strong maternal instincts and protects her son, despite being exasperated. Even when Ishaan gets into trouble for beating up the neighbor’s son, the mother protects her son.
The Boarding School
Failing his school year, Ishaan is sent to a boarding school midterm. This is where Ishaan suffers, and grows. Like they say, it is in moments of pain and hardship where growth happens.
He endures loneliness, hardships and trials, all without his parents and his supporting elder brother. Again, he suffers in classes, where he cannot read letters and numbers as they seem to “dance” around him. One of the teachers even punishes him by hitting his hand with a ruler.
The art teacher, Ram Nikumbdh, takes notices of Ishaan and knows something is up with him as he refuses to do any artwork during art class. Ram asks Rajan (Ishaan’s only friend who has polio and perhaps are connected because they both have a disability), about Ishaan but all Rajan says is that Ishaan is “frightened.”
Ram knows something is up, and he makes an effort to get to know Ishaan.
Empathy is basically defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In other words, putting ourselves in other’s shoes to understand where they are coming from. Here is a good article to help you understand empathy.
Ram does just that. He goes through Ishaan’s notebooks, and figures out that his writing is all jumbled up. He reverses the R and S, he mixes up the B and D, he misses letters when spelling words like “animal” and “enamal.” Ram understands that Ishaan is dyslexic.
So what does he do? He makes an effort to connect with Ishaan. He shows empathy. Empathy is not just experiencing being in the other person’s shoes, but it’s also wanting to be in the other person’s shoes.
First off, in class, he talks about other personalities with such a disability, (some of which I didn’t even know): Leonardo Da Vinci, Pabla Picasso, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. While sharing this with the class, something stirs inside of him- he feels like there are other people like him, who are hailed as genius by today’s standards. He feels not alone anymore. He feels connected.
At the end of the class, Ram stops Ishaan and tells him that there is one more name he didn’t take. Ishaan becomes scared. He thinks the teacher will take Ishaan’s name. Instead, the teacher takes his own name. This moment is such a strong, pivotal moment in the movie because there a point of connection is made between the teacher and student.
Ram makes a trip out to see Ishaan’s parents, in an attempt to help them understand what the issue with their son is. Ram tries to help them understand that their son has dyslexia, and the father’s instant reaction is, “are you calling my son mentally retarded?” This is such a common, knee-jerk reaction when parents are told such a thing.
While Ram shares with them about Ishaan’s artistic genius skills, the father is still defiant. In a powerful moment, Ram hands the father a box with Chinese writing on it. He asks the father to read, but the father says he can’t. Ram pushes him to the point where the father shouts back in anger. Ram replies: “See, this is exactly how your son feels when you force him to read.” Empathy: trying to understand what the other person is going through.
This was an attempt to get the father to empathize with his son- which he still doesn’t at this point. There are two more instances where the father meets up with the teacher but still doesn’t connect with his son because the father has just made an attempt to understand what the problem us. “That’s not enough- what you need to do is connect with your son. You need to say you love him. You need to give him a hug. You need to call him to you.” This is the moment when the father breaks down and realizes what he had not been doing with his son.
See, the thing is that while the parents are able to see what the problems are, they don’t see what the source is. This is where Ram comes in to help them identify the source of the problem- which then sets them to understand their son and reconnect with him on a different level.
My Own Connection
I deeply connected with Ishaan on a personal level. As I was diagnosed as a hard of hearing child, fitted with hearing aids, I felt that need to be validated by others. My own parents and my two siblings were awesome with me. I can still remember when my parents would take me to the best clinic in London (because Saudi Arabia, where I grew up, didn’t have a proper hearing aids center in the 80s), where I would be treated by one of the best doctors for hearing, Dr. Monty at the CUBEX Clinic. I knew my parents loved me because they went all out to empathise with me, and never let me feel that there was anything different about me.
Yet, in the world outside of my home, I was bullied, made fun off, called four-ears, and so on. The world was cruel to me. There are so many instances where I felt bullied and shamed because of these “things” fitted inside both my ears. When I look back on those moments today, I can understand that all these people merely didn’t understand my hearing aids, and failed to empathize with me. They were not educated enough about hearing aids.
I do remember my French teacher in my school, Mrs. Thakur. She called me in class after school and sat me down. She helped me understand that I am no different to others. “Some students wear eyeglasses to correct their eyesight. Other students wear braces to correct their teeth. You wear hearing aids to correct your hearing.” She truly empathised with me, and from that moment on, I remember I had gained some strength to face on the people who failed to understand me.
What Can We Do
We live in a world where people judge very quickly. We live in a world which is running out of empathy. At the most, people will sympathise, but not empathise. We don’t have to be a teacher like Ram to empathise. Whoever we are, we can all take the time to empathise with each other. Here are some articles on how to be more empathetic.
At the end of the movie, Ram organizes an art competition at the boarding school where Ishaan is studying. All students and teachers are encouraged to produce any artwork. Displaying his genius artistic skills, Ishaan comes up with a very insightful painting of him sitting by the local pond, surrounded by nature. He wins the first prize, and when he receives the prize, he breaks down in tears and runs over to his teacher Ram for a hug. (yes, I wept!)
This scene demonstrated that all it takes is just ONE person to make that sort of difference. It takes just one person. Just one. That’s the power of empathy. We may never know how much of a difference we can make in other people’s live. We may think we are not doing enough, but we will never know. The point is to just do it anyway.
Empathy. If you have an opportunity to be kind, be kind. If you have the chance to help someone, help them. A little empathy from your side may mean the world to the other person.