Date:03/02/2008 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2008/02/03/stories/2008020350030200.htm
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A leap of faith

GAURI VIJ

“Taare Zameen Par’s” brilliance had as much to do with the creative duo of Deepa Bhatia and Amole Gupte as with the child on whom it rides.

Weaving in the songs

With “TZP’s” scope being so similar to Gupte’s expertise as a writer-poet and artist, it seemed natural that he write the film’s songs. “While I had written the songs in English as part of the script, Aamir was keen on introducing Prasoon Joshi as lyricist.” A decision Gupte is happy about as “he took the songs to a different level.”

From the cacophony of the first “Toxic Track” to a slice of urban life in the family song to Ishaan’s quiet rebellion, it’s all been captured by Gupte’s vision and Joshi’s lyrics. “Mere Jahaan”, penned by Gupte, captures the dreamer Ishaan’s truant day out of school and deserves special mention. Explains Gupte, “It’s a cry of freedom with a lilt. It’s about a trapped boy watching the mundane: road diggers, building painters and a tiny drop of falling white paint. All this was woven into the film’s storyboard as I visualised it.”

Photo: Dionne Bunsha

Thought provoking: Darsheel Safary with Aamir Khan

Spinning a filmi yarn is easy enough, if your recipe is run-of-the-mill: glamorous actors, larger-than-life characters and foreign locales. When a more complex story must be woven, the yarn takes on a different hue. That’s what Deepa Bhatia, writer-researcher-editor, discovered when she began work on a story that seven years later would become the critically acclaimed film, “Taare Zameen Par” (TZP).

From a one-page short story titled “High Jump” to “TZP”, this has been an epic journey for Bhatia and her creative collaborator and spouse Amole Gupte.

Inspiration

Reminiscing on how it began, Bhatia unwinds, “The trigger for a story about a child who did not fit into the school stream came from the biography of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.” Kurosawa, not being very bright academically, recalls finding a new confidence in his otherwise non-athletic abilities when showered with praise by an art teacher who simply believed in him.

“It was this scene that became the inspiration for how a teacher could transform the life of a student,” says Bhatia. “Amole and I started work on a short story that we called ‘High Jump’.” Gupte later changed the working title to the more lyrical “Taare Zameen Par” in 2004 when prepping the film’s launch.

The creative duo realised that presenting their main character would be risky without a deeper understanding of their subject. What exactly was it that did not allow the character of Ishaan to conform to the education system? Bhatia puts it this way: “Amole kept posing issues like: what was wrong with the kid? Was he a slow learner? Was he disinterested, or incapable? All these questions kept coming up and we felt that there were not enough answers.”

Thus began an odyssey that would forever sensitise Bhatia and Gupte to the world of children. From casual surfing on the Internet to more intense sessions with teachers and parents, the quest led them to special educators like Kate Currawalla of the Maharashtra Dyslexia Association and Medha Loltikar of PACE (Parents for a Better Curriculum for the Child). “Both became beacons in our search for how to present “TZP’s” protagonist,” is Bhatia’s tribute to the key people who mentored the film project.

Focal point

Photo: Dionne Bunsha

Darsheel Safary with Deepa Bhatia and Amole Gupte

Eventually, dyslexia became a focal point when the initial interactions with Currawalla threw up a perspective on it. They also gained first-hand information on the troubles that kids with learning disabilities were facing in school. “We thought this was the way to address Ishaan’s story, as a child who has learning disabilities and nobody understands what the problem is.”

Soon art and drama workshops conducted by the experienced and sensitive Gupte commenced in earnest. And several ‘special’ stories began to emerge from the cobwebs and carpets. “We began with a small workshop with eight or nine kids. A fun session, this became a space to observe their anxieties and the way their mind was working through art, paper and colours. And it was clear that their minds were thinking ‘out of the box’. This had to be respected, honoured and clapped for,” Gupte recounts emotionally of their first workshop.

This three-way approach (children, parents and teachers) and the interactive sessions saw the duo build up a holistic picture of what a child with ‘special’ needs requires. As a result much of “TZP’s” characters, situations and, in some cases, even dialogue were built from these sessions. However, the couple have been extremely circumspect in camouflaging the identities of their ‘subjects’.

Searching for Ishaan

A polished draft in place, the producer-actor Aamir Khan’s nod obtained, the next logical step was casting. Which nine-year-old would play Ishaan? With their workshop approach being successful at the research stage it seemed sensible to extend the approach to the casting as well. Bhatia was clear that “we were not looking for someone who had the aspiration to become a child actor in the old fashioned sense”.

Gupte began hunting in earnest, scouring kids’ classes, schools and gyms to finally land up at dance guru Shiamak Davar’s Summer Funk sessions. And there they hit pay dirt. According to Gupte, “We were looking for a pristine energy in a certain child.” After three months of intense but ‘light’ encounters with many kids, four were finally short-listed.

Gupte continues, “The technique was very simple really: throw them a few lines about the story, about a boy who bunks class one day and goes all over the city. We would casually introduce the situations and then ask ‘How would you say this?’ That’s how we got various reactions to our script….and that was our audition!”

This was a hugely successful exercise owing to the absence of a formal audition or a classroom environment, and therefore no fear in the child when recounting the lines. And Gupte’s assistants would be recording discreetly from some corner without being intrusive.

This unique process continued until all opinions pointed clearly to Darsheel Safary. “It was a tough call. But Darsheel has the mischief in his eyes to be Ishaan. Everyone just naturally gravitated towards him,” the duo remembers.

Future projects

But it was not about winning or losing. As Bhatia aptly states, “Philosophies and processes should coincide.” Thus every child who participated in the “TZP” workshops got a certificate while the four short-listed kids got a letter of appreciation from Gupte and Aamir Khan.

What began as regular brainstorming sessions in search of a good story has culminated in a thought-provoking tale told from a child’s point of view.

For now the creative cauldron continues to brew in the Bhatia-Gupte household. The couple have two exciting film projects in the pipeline. One that deals with an underworld Don and his food obsession and the other, quite logically, about children and the great big rural-urban divide. We’re waiting for both.

The writer is Editor ,Special Projects of Infomedia Ltd

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