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Taare Zameen Par: Demystifying Dyslexia

WARNING: This post contains spoilers from the film Taare Zameen Par.

Taare Zameen Par (released as Like Stars on Earth to English-speaking audiences) is a beautiful 2007 Hindi film directed by and starring Aamir Khan. It tells the story of Ishaan (Darsheel Safary), a nine-year-old boy from Mumbai who experiences challenges in many areas of life. At school, he is frequently in trouble for getting poor grades, being distracted and not complying with the rules and expectations. He is also frequently teased by classmates due to his learning difficulties and associated challenging behaviours, and they often call him an “idiot”, with little intervention from his teachers. At home, Ishaan is bullied by neighbourhood kids and told off by his parents (Tisca Chopra & Virendra Saxena), who are frustrated with his low marks and regular negative feedback.

We see Ishaan do whatever he can to avoid the classroom because it is the source of so many negative experiences. He will often making excuses to leave, such as asking to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, and at one point he just leaves the school entirely and wanders around the city daydreaming (which he much preferred to being in class). He also uses “class clown” behaviours to mask his difficulties, such as blowing a raspberry at his teacher when asked to read aloud in front of the class.

What Ishaan and his family learn later on in the film is that he actually has an undiagnosed learning disability called “dyslexia” (now referred to by health professionals as a “specific learning disorder with impairment in reading”, though because this is quite a mouthful, I’ll continue to use “dyslexia” here).

One way that Tare Zameen Par demystifies dyslexia is by providing a realistic depiction of the common signs that a child might have dyslexia:

  • Ishaan often misreads even simple words, and has trouble understanding what he reads.

  • He finds it difficult to write words correctly, having trouble forming letters.

  • Ishaan struggles to learn how to spell words correctly, even after being taught multiple times.

  • He finds it hard to pay attention in class, and often fidgets and zones out.

  • Ishaan experiences challenges with following directions, especially long or complex ones.

  • He struggles to organise and present his ideas to others in an easily understandable manner through writing and speech. However, he can express his ideas in more abstract forms such as through painting and drawing.

  • Ishaan often seems emotionally reactive, overwhelmed or low, for instance, after yet another challenging day at school, he throws his school bag over the balcony due to feeling frustrated with himself. On another occasion he locks himself in his bedroom due to feelings of depression and failure.

Taare Zameen Par also gives a realistic depiction of the common experience of dyslexic children pre-diagnosis – adults around him often attribute Ishaan’s difficulties to laziness, naughtiness or a lack of discipline. This means that his challenges are usually met with reprimands from teachers and the school principal, punishments and adults expressing judgments about him. For example, we see his teacher giving him “five raps on the knuckles so (his) attention never wanders” after catching him daydreaming in class. These experiences, along with many others depicted in the film, are not only common for dyslexic people, but also for those with other forms of neurodivergence, such as autism and ADHD.

At one point in the film, a meeting occurs between Ishaan’s parents and school, where his parents blame the teachers for not teaching him well enough, and his teachers blame his parents for not disciplining him strictly enough. Adults assigning blame is another common experience for families of dyslexic and other neurodivergent children, when their needs and diagnoses are not well understood by the adults supporting them.

When Ishaan’s school principal decides that he is beyond help, his parents send him to boarding school in the hope that a stricter and more immersive environment will force him to focus and progress his learning further. However, Ishaan continues to be misunderstood by his new teachers and struggles to keep up with his classmates. This, coupled with now being isolated from his family, leads him to sink into depression. At this time, the only person who seems to care and show him compassion is his one friend at boarding school, Rajan (Tanay Chheda), a physically disabled classmate.

Eventually, a shred of hope appears for Ishaan in the form of a new art teacher, Ram (Aamir Khan), who takes a kinder and more curious approach to education. As a dyslexic artist himself, Ram relates to Ishaan’s difficulties and is able to recognise his brain’s unique strengths.

Given Ram’s deep understanding of dyslexia from his own personal experience, he is quickly able to identify that Ishaan, too, is dyslexic, and goes to great personal efforts to help explain this to Ishaan’s parents in the hope that they will take a kinder, more open-minded and patient approach with Ishaan, and get him the right support. Initially, Ram is met with some resistance from Ishaan’s parents, however, they eventually shift their perspective, as we can see in the below clip, which is one of the best explanations of dyslexia I have come across.

Ram assists Ishaan to find ways to harness his strengths to figure out how to learn, and he takes a more inclusive and engaging approach with his classes. He also finds ways for Ishaan’s artistic and creative skills to be recognised and used more often, so that his self-esteem and mood improves. For instance, he displays Ishaan’s impressive painting publicly at the end of year student showcase, and Ishaan wins an art prize for his work, which the whole school community, including his family, celebrates.

Taare Zameen Par has been praised widely by Indian film critics and disability advocates alike for raising awareness about dyslexia across the country, as it is a condition that is generally not well-understood or supported within the Indian school system. It even received a lengthy standing ovation when screened at the International Dyslexia Association headquarters in Seattle in 2008. The film takes a compassionate and strengths-based approach to portraying Ishaan’s experience of dyslexia, and presents a hopeful picture of what it could be like if more teachers understood how to identify and support learning differences.

I strongly encourage everyone to watch this film, which is available to stream on Netflix at the time of writing. I especially encourage those who work in the education system to view the film, along with the parents and therapists of neurodivergent children, and people who are, or suspect they might be, dyslexic.

As a clinical psychologist who has supported many dyslexic children and adults, I found the film validating of the many experiences that my clients and their families have shared with me. Aamir Khan’s portrayal of an inclusive teaching style also gave me hope that positive change is possible, as the film contributes to educating people not only on some of the needs of neurodivergent students, but it gives an example of how to adjust teaching approaches to meet these needs in a fun and engaging manner. This type of modelling is an essential aspect of disability advocacy, as it not only points out what isn’t currently working, but provides a path towards positive change.

If you suspect that you or your child may be experiencing the signs and symptoms of dyslexia or another form of learning difference, I strongly encourage you to engage with your local general practitioner to discuss a referral to a psychologist specialising in neurodevelopmental assessments, to gain a deeper understanding of what may be contributing to the challenges being experienced.

Images courtesy of Aamir Khan Productions, 2007.


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