Ishaan Awasthi is an eight-year-old whose world is filled with wonders that no one else seems to appreciate; colours, fish, dogs and kites are just not important in the world of adults, who are much more interested in things like homework, marks and neatness. Ishaan just cannot seem to get anything right in class. And so, he gets into far more trouble than his parents can handle, and is packed off to a boarding school to ‘be disciplined’. Things are no different at his new school, and Ishaan has to contend with the added trauma of separation from his family. One day a new Art Teacher bursts onto the scene, Ram Shankar Nikumbh, who infects the students with joy and optimism. He breaks all the rules of ‘how things are done’ by asking them to think, dream and imagine, and all the children respond with enthusiasm, all except Ishaan. Nikumbh soon realizes that Ishaan is not happy being at school, and sets out to discover why. With time, patience and care, he ultimately helps Ishaan find himself.
Born on 14th March 1965, Aamir Khan completed his schooling at Bombay Scottish High School, and his HSC from N.M. College of Commerce. An enthusiastic sports person he represented his school and/or College in Lawn Tennis, Cricket, Football, Field Hockey, and Table Tennis. At the young age of 18 he began his career in films as an assistant director to one of India’s most successful directors Mr Nasir Husain. After 4 years of training as an assistant he acted in his debut film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. QSQT released in 1988 and was a huge success catapulting Aamir to overnight stardom. In a career now almost 20 years Aamir has acted in over 30 films and has consistently been one of the biggest stars of the Indian screen. His films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Dil, Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, Andaaz Apna Apna, Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, Akele Hum Akele Tum, Rangela, Raja Hindustani, Ishq, Ghulam, Sarfarosh, 1947 Earth, Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, Mangal Panday, Rang De Basanti and Fanaa have been huge successes both with audiences and critics alike. Lagaan, a film that he both produced and acted in , was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 2002 Academy Awards.
His film Rang De Basanti, was nominated at the 2006 BAFTA Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2002 he was awarded the Padma Shree by the President of India, one of the highest civilian honours.
His directorial debut Taare Zameen Par (2007) has gone on to become a great success and has received both critical and popular acclaim.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you first encounter the subject of Taare Zameen Par and how did you come up with the idea to make this film?
Aamir Khan: Well, I first came across the script when the writer, Amole Gupte, narrated it to me. When I heard it for the first time, I fell in love with it. I found it to be very moving and I cried right through it. I felt that it sensitized me towards my children, as well as children in general. What I felt at that time was that I wanted to share this with other people, so I decided immediately that this was a film I wanted to be a part of. In mainstream Indian cinema though, it is very unusual to make a film like this because it is a story about childcare and education, which is not something that the market would take to kindly. But I loved it so much and that’s how I started on this project.
Bijan: What were the reactions of the Indian audiences to Taare Zameen Par?
Aamir: Well they just loved the film. It was really heartwarming to see people take to this film. Though the market doesn’t consider it to be a mainstream film that would appeal to a larger audience, it went on to be the biggest success of the year and one of the biggest successes in Indian cinema ever. Apart from the film’s huge success, it really did what we all hoped it would do. It really changed the way Indian society looked at childcare and education. It opened their eyes and they reacted in such a positive way. Teachers, parents, and children sent us letters. It was like a dream response. When you make a film and you hope that everyone just loves it, that’s the kind of response it had. It was really amazing to see that.
Bijan: Unfortunately, in that part of the world many people do not know how to help children with learning disabilities. I think that is why this is such an important film.
Aamir: Even in a country like the U.S., when I speak to people I find that, while there is a lot more awareness about learning disabilities, people still feel that a lot needs to be done. Two days ago I was in Seattle—I was invited there by the International Dyslexia Association. Some of the members had seen the film when it was released, and they showed the film and wanted me to speak afterwards. The kind of response the film got was absolutely unbelievable, and it touched the same chord it did in India. I realized that the film had touched a chord even here, with American audiences. These are people who are working in the field of learning disabilities. This is the first time a film has ever been made on childcare and education. I can see that it is a concern. The film, while it talks about dyslexia, is actually about much more than that: It is about all of us. All of us have some weakness and some strength. What the film is trying to say is that with love and care you can deal with any weakness, and that it is our duty as adults to give our children the freedom to discover their passion and support it and encourage it. The core message of the film is something that touches everyone.
Bijan: The subject of Taare Zameen Par is a universal one. How did you come up with the casting of the film, especially with the child?
Aamir: The casting was a very important process for us, because the film really revolves around the child, and getting the right performer was very important. We went through a lot of children in searching for the child who could play Ishaan. We had theater workshops, art workshops, went into schools and summer workshops. We must have been through more than 5,000 kids before we found Darsheel [Darsheel Safray], who plays the role of Ishaan.
Bijan: And yet so many other kids have roles in the film. How was it to work with the kids?
Aamir: [laughs] Quite amazing. I think at that age, around eight and ten, kids have no inhibitions. All of these kids were acting for the first time; they had never seen a camera. After the first fifteen or twenty minutes—because initially they were guarded because they know me and have seen my films (I am a star in India and they reacted to me as a fan)—they would forget that I am a star. They were extremely responsive to my directions. For them, it was like one big party and they had a great time. It was very enjoyable for me as well to interact with kids. We, of course, worked around the kids because children have a shorter attention span. Filmmaking is not conducive for them. I instructed my crew that I didn’t want the kids to be disturbed at all, and wanted their natural personalities to come through. We wouldn’t call them for a shot until we were totally ready so they didn’t have to do it more than once or twice. Since we didn’t overload them with work, their performances retained a sense of freshness. We would work with them in short intervals and outside of that we arranged games and excursions. For them it was like one big picnic.
Bijan: How was it to work with Darsheel? Did you have to work with him before you started shooting? How did it go?
Aamir: Darsheel is an immensely talented boy; he is really gifted. What was amazing was that in real life he is completely different from the way Ishaan is. He is full of life and has a lovely family, and is very secure in his world. He has a very sharp mind, and I found that when I was working with him he would actually take instructions better than other adults who acted in the film. His understanding of story telling and playing a character was amazing to see. So in fact with him I had very little to do, he was so good on his own. The one area in which he had trouble was with crying. He couldn’t cry, because he is a happy kid. So that was a challenge with me, and I really had to work with that because Ishaan is quite unhappy right through. I actually taught him the mechanics of crying, and told him not to worry about crying. I said I wanted to see what happens to my face when I cry, observe my muscles when I cry, and my breathing. Just imitate the way I look when I cry, and imitate my breathing. So he began by just imitating, and we would do exercises. And gradually, when he became comfortable with imitating, I said now don’t worry about imitation, just feel it and do the shot. That’s how I got him to cry, and he did rather well.
Bijan: Did you study about children with learning disabilities while in pre-production?
Aamir: Yes. I did a lot of research. We also had two experts helping us. I spent a lot of time with them, and spent time meeting children with dyslexia and other disabilities. I also met with a lot of parents and teachers and special educators.
Bijan: The music in the film is also very interesting. It is very different than the music we would hear in mainstream Indian cinema. How did you work on the music for this film?
Aamir: The script was written with the specifics of the songs in mind. The composer, the lyricist and I knew exactly what every moment of the film was trying to say. I have always found that music and song sharpen the emotions of the moment, and if you do it well it can really add to the storytelling. We were fortunate enough to have three composers: Shankar Mahadevan, Loy Mendosa and Eshaan Noorani, and they really did a wonderful job and understood what the film was trying to say, and what each moment was trying to say. The lyricist was amazing as well. In a subtitled film it is very difficult to accurately convey what the lyrics are, but we tried our best. That was a creative process. Even the background score was developed with a method that I don’t believe people have used for decades. Usually, when you do a background score, you time the piece, create a grid and then compose to it. You mark where the music should change and certain things should come in. I told my team I didn’t want to do that. I said that I wanted them to play what they felt, and not to time it. I told them that I would tell them where I want the music to come in and where changes should be, so we can watch the scene as they were playing. So the three of them actually composed and played live music to the scene as it was playing without any markings. They didn’t have any physical reference points other than what was happening in the scene. There was no fixed tempo, so the pacing was dependent on how they were feeling when they were watching the scenes. That was a wonderful experience, and I am glad we did that. If I didn’t like something, we would do it again. We did everything live and en masse, and that kind of recording for background scores used to be done way back in the silent era, when you would have live musicians playing to a film in the actual theater. Once recorded music was introduced, they always timed it. This is something we did that had not been done for a long time.
Bijan: Is the film’s soundtrack sold separately?
Aamir: Yes, in India that is how it works also. We sell the music soundtrack as an album, which is sold a month or two before the film is released.
Bijan: One issue that has been raised by some critics is that the film is only addressing a certain class of people in India. I don’t think this is true because the issue the film is bringing up relates to everyone.
Aamir: I think it relates to everyone. The writer of the film more or less wanted to depict an average family, which is middle class. But this issue of childcare is relevant to everyone irrespective of his or her economic background. If you are super rich or very poor, either way you have children. Connecting with children, understanding them, recognizing what their fears and dreams are, is something that is common across different families irrespective of cultural or economic backgrounds.
Bijan: : I think a lot of this criticism comes from people who are not aware of the economic changes in India during the past two decades. Technology has brought a lot of financial success to India. Will the film have a theatrical release in US?
Aamir: Well we have had a theatrical release in theaters in India. It had a very successful run in the United States. However, all our films are targeted to the Indian Diaspora, and the marketing of the film is done towards that audience. The rest of America doesn’t even know that the film has played here. All Indian films go with this distribution route in the U.S. The Disney team has seen the film and liked it and acquired the home entertainment rights, so the film will be released on DVD for home audiences [in America]. This will be a much more mainstream release, and will increase exposure to the average American.
Bijan: Has the film been submitted for the Academy Awards?
Aamir: Yes it has been.
Bijan: Any new projects in the works?
Aamir: Currently there is another film of mine that is almost ready for release called “Gahjini”, which will come out on December 25th. It is completely different from “Taare Zameen Par”. I am only acting in that. It is an action thriller. It is very much a mainstream Indian cinema film. I have not done a film of that genre in India for quite a while. For me it is the first time I am doing an action film.
Bijan: Will we see you again soon as a director?
Aamir: I hope so. I haven’t decided what I am going to do next yet. I am still looking.
Bijan: What is the best translation of “Taare Zameen Par”?
Aamir: I would say “Like Stars on Earth”.