I have always had a soft spot for the misunderstood, the outcast, the misfits, those deemed to have “special needs.” But when I think about how to help them, I’ve always felt, well, helpless. And there are two reasons for that: (1) I, myself, feel misunderstood most times, and (2) there are a lot of questions that come with “helping”. For example, do you try to help a “misfit” fit in? Would that entail wanting them to become “normal”? What is “normal” in the first place? Do you try to accept and love them as they are while helping them become part of the community… that might eventually criticize them if they were different and iron out their individual quirks in time? It is actually a frustrating and vicious cycle of conformity.
This is why I find the movie Every Child is Special (Taare Zameen Par/ Like Stars on Earth) very liberating and challenging.
Every Child is Special is the story of Ishaan Awasthi (Darsheel Safary), an eight-year-old boy who was imaginative and very gifted in the arts but who had trouble reading, writing, doing Maths, and just about anything that any “normal” boy his age could do. He was always scolded for being a troublemaker, for not taking his studies seriously enough, for always zoning out during class. When his parents and his teachers at his school couldn’t take any more of his mischief, they sent him off to boarding school. This caused him to feel depressed and dejected, even to the point of contemplating ending his life. All that was about to change when he met the boarding school’s substitute art teacher, Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan).
Nikumbh, being a teacher at a “special school”, himself, immediately sensed Ishaan’s sadness. In a sense, Nikumbh’s character represented all the dilemmas that came with helping those with “special needs.” He got very emotional while observing all the children around him. He’d always believed (and he was frustrated that everyone else was blind to this) that every child has his or her own capabilities. They learn in different ways and at different paces. It was the society’s preoccupation with numbers, with getting ahead of everyone else, that quelled this drive for learning and eventually for finding oneself.
The dilemma became even deeper for Nikumbh when he talked to Jabeen, his co-teacher at the “special school”. Nikumbh had just met with Ishaan’s parents to talk to them about their son. Nikumbh saw that the patterns in Ishaan’s reading/writing and Math errors were the result of dyslexia. Ishaan’s parents didn’t want to accept this thinking that their child was “retarded.” When Nikumbh went to talk to Jabeen, he was furious at how parents tend to pass on their dreams to their children and these become burdens that children have to carry. But Jabeen challenged this notion when she said, “And here we are, dreaming of one day, sending off these little ones into the mainstream.” What she’s practically asking is, isn’t the “mainstream” also a burden that is imposed upon children with “special needs”? And that these “special schools” are further widening the gap between the “normal” and the “special”?
The movie explores every angle of this dilemma of helping. It challenges the very definition of “special needs” or even of “normal.” But what I like most about this movie is that it offers a very simple solution: to treat every child as special, to care for each child as you would any other human being.
After their initial meeting, Ishaan’s father confronted Nikumbh in school and told him that his wife had been reading about dyslexia in order to help Ishaan. He further said that he didn’t want Nikumbh to think that they were uncaring parents. Nikumbh then went on to say:
Caring. It’s very important, Mr. Awasthi. It has the power to heal. Like a balm that soothes pain. The child feels assured that someone cares for him. An occasional hug, a loving kiss. Just to show that I really care. “My child, I love you.” “If you have any troubles, come to me.” “So what if you slipped? messed up? I’m there for you.” That assurance. Caring. Isn’t that how one would describe caring, Mr. Awasthi?