Catch a falling star

Print edition : January 18, 2008

Amole gupte and Deepa Bhatia.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Interview with Amole Gupte and Deepa Bhatia, creators of the film Taare Zameen Par.

TAARE ZAMEEN PAR (Stars on Earth), a film on childhood released recently, has been greeted with unanimous acclaim. Audiences have left theatres moved by the films sensitive portrayal of its protagonist Ishaan (played by Darsheel Safary), and his rebellion, mischief and creativity.

The couple behind the film is Amole Gupte (creative director and writer) and Deepa Bhatia (who envisioned the concept, researched and edited the film). They spent seven years in Mumbais schools, and the film is their labour of love. Frontline spoke to them about education and inclusion, the theme of the film. Excerpts from the conversation:

How did you start your workshops with children?

Amole: I have always shared a special bond with all children. It hurt me to see how they had to endure silently the idiosyncrasies and mood swings of adults. Yet, no allowance is made for their moods.

I have played Santa Claus in several schools. I wanted to continue that bond, went to various schools and used theatre-painting workshops as a way to spend time with children. Thats how I entered this magical world.

A lot of special mention is being made that I worked with children with alternative abilities. Actually, every child has an alternative ability, so its incorrect to classify children like this.

Have you seen any change in the way children behave in your workshops when they are given the space to be themselves?

Amole: In one of the schools, we saw a physiotherapy session being done in a very rigid way that would make you suspect the brightness of a child. A friend was watching and clicking his tongue and thinking how unfortunate.

Then, I started our session. I have understood that children are very embarrassed with their names. It happened to me too when I was growing up. So, at the beginning of any experience with children, I introduce myself as Amole Frog. The minute they hear that, they start laughing and the attention is diverted from the embarrassment of their own names.

Then, I started a memory game where we re-name each other. I called myself coconut, and made all these 30 kids re-name themselves mountain, strawberry, banana, et cetera. They were supposed to remember these new names. It baffled my friend, when he saw all 30 children could remember all the names by the third round. It was so effortless. Why? Because it was not daunting. It was not a judgment zone, it was a fun zone.

Why not fun in education? Why have a curriculum? You can learn in many ways. Putting marks to it and judging children is not the job of teachers. Let the judge do his job. Schools should not be courts. You dont have to look at a child and judge and think that he or she will not accept this much at this speed. Leave it to the child. Let him or her accept it at the speed that they are meant to.

Aamir Khan, director of Taare Zameen Par, with Darsheel Safary, who plays the character of Ishaan, the child protagonist of the film.-

So, we must give without expectation or without drawing lines. When we are making 30 per cent of the population insecure by setting the rules, then we are not being democratic.

How have you tried to work within the rigid system to change it?

Amole: I have no new system to offer. Its already happening in Scandinavian countries. Let us also follow a less aggressive system based on imparting knowledge, not on curriculum excellence. We should guide children but allow them to fly. We cannot assert our power over them.

People argue that it was possible in developed nations but not here. But we also had gurukuls and Rabindranath Tagores Shantiniketan or the Baroda School of Art.

Is inclusive education really being implemented?

Deepa: The first step is that people have accepted it. Inclusive education is a national policy under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. It is there on paper, but no one is implementing it because there isnt enough propaganda to make it happen.

We got a call from a school and the first thing that they said was that they are practising inclusive education. It has become a matter of pride. We have to make it an accepted and do-able thing.

Its being discussed, it is being tried, and it has even failed in some cases.

Amole: Inclusion cannot succeed with the same parameters of academic excellence. It does not mean to include that outsider. Inclusion means all-inclusive one group, all children together. In that, you cant start saying light-skinned, dark-skinned, downs, palsy, autism, dyslexia. Stop defining. If you think you are alleviating the pain by recognising the symptoms, then you will suffer more. It is not an illness. Please dont make the mistake of branding the child.

In Mumbai, there is no space for children. One family has four cars and one child. You have parking space for the cars, but no play space for one child in your building. You have 200 new malls, but not even one school for middle class children. They are using one school in three shifts because there are no schools.

And then people say children are hyperactive, when they dont have the natural space to expend their energy.

Deepa: In many schools, they compartmentalise kids from A to F, A is for the very best and F for the failures. This kind of segregation is practised in a lot of schools in Mumbai and it is being removed. At one of the schools where this was being removed, we saw a protest of parents who were fighting against it. They were parents of children from the A class who didnt want their kids to study with the rest. They are fighting against measures that would make for a fuller, more balanced society.

In schools where all children learn together, the results are much better because those with learning disabilities dont need anybody. Their own classmates teach them and fight to protect them. Everyone becomes more sensitive to others, and thats what makes this world a better place to live in. We are not doing the child a favour by including him, everyone benefits.

At one of the schools where we are involved, there was sports day. One of the kids was blind. But they tied a rope from one end to the other so that she could run the race with everyone else. That is inclusion. Its a matter of being ingenious as a teacher and thinking on behalf of the student. It doesnt take a lot.

Its just a matter of making little changes in the system to accommodate people.

Most parents would agree that the system is too demanding, but feel that eventually their children have to survive in a competitive world and so need the high grades.

Amole: But what do the children agree upon? Have they been asked? Why are there no open fora for children to talk about it? See it from their eyes.

Deepa: We are not willing to let children take a little more time than others. Theres panic because we want perfect kids.

Many children who dont have any learning disability are slotted as having one because parents think that is the reason why they are not performing well academically. It may just be that the child has other interests, dreams and aspirations.

We used to have this study group of parents and teachers, and their kids are doing five things in a day tuition, sport, dance, et cetera. There is no free space for children to do nothing; the space for thinking, exploring is not there. Free play is very important.

Have teachers been trained to deal with children with such problems?

Deepa: There is this whole concept of special within normal. They have resource rooms within the school that give the child more help, which is good. But at the same time, this makes them very conscious of the fact that they are different from others. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. We are trying to make them get better at academics instead of trying to find other things that may excite the child. That leeway is not given to children.

Its not like they wont be able to survive in the world without high marks. There are hundreds of people who have suffered in pathetic schooling but went on to do marvellous things.

Amole: Teachers often ask: how do we cope? They have to find their own answers. You cant wait for the system to change suddenly. If teaching is a calling, the answer is within you. We have great examples Tagore, Sane Guruji...

Tell me about the process of making the film inclusive?

Deepa: The physical dimensions of the characters came from our experiences with children. In the film, there is a painting by a child of a soldier digging a trench, and when you turn the page you see the soldier emerging from the ground and escaping. This was done by one of the children and the teachers didnt think much of it. They could not appreciate his idea. Which child would think of using the back of the page as a continuation of the painting? Small things like these were incorporated into the film.

Amole: When someone comes up with an idea, it is celebrated Sabeer Bhatia, Bill Gates. Why are we so blind to childrens ideas?

We want them all to sing in the same note, have one step when they are marching, one answer to the question.

Deepa: A lot of the scenes were visualised in the script. In the climax, where there is an art mela in the school, it was important to show the sports teacher not able to draw. When adults are put to test, they also fail. So why test children?

The real triumph of the film is that it is real, everyone can connect to this film. In many ways, it is re-visiting your own childhood.

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