Read me pretty

This was a post I had written when I was back in India. I had watched ‘Taare Zameen Par’ [It’s a Bollywood movie, translated to stars on earth] upon the insistence of some friends as it would appeal to the psychologist in me. The thing is, I did watch it from a psychologist’s perspective. And I ended up with this:

Dear Aamir Khan,

Firstly, I must thank you for bringing to light the issue of learning difficulties in a country like India where knowledge about it is close to nothing and everyone is expected to perform at a high level. However, I have a number of issues with what has been presented in terms of the reading disorder (read: I will not get into how horrible the teachers and the father were).

1. Teachers DO NOT diagnose a learning difficulty. And for good reason. I have nothing against teachers (hell, I admire them!) but depicting that teachers can diagnose kids with dyslexia is a bit too far-fetched. They can identify that a child has problems but the rest is up to psychologists or speech pathologists to assess and diagnose (depending on the disorder)

2. You have depicted the central character as having difficulties making friends. Individuals with reading disorders are NOT socially inept. You seem to be confusing that with someone with an intellectual disability or an autism spectrum disorder.

3. You have portrayed the boy has having motor-coordination difficulties. Motor-coordination problems are NOT one of the symptoms of individuals with a reading disorder. They are not even an indicator of a reading disorder (to those that don’t know the movie, the kid is shown as a baby who had difficulties when learning to walk etc).

4. You have shown the character as having difficulties with executive functioning such as being disorganised, difficulty in time management, difficulty planning etc. Executive functioning problems are actually seen in kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder/attention-deficit disorder.

5. Young children with reading disorders do not have difficulties in basic maths. This means maths without the word problems but rather just addition, subtraction, multiplication, division sums. They may have problems later on in maths in terms of word problems but that is because they cannot understand what they are reading. The child you have depcited could have learning difficulties in all areas or below average intelligence but is unlikely to have dyslexia in that case. And this brings me back to the point that teachers do not diagnose learning difficulties.

The reason the last point is particularly important is because this aspect of the movie probably gives the message to parents that “if you can do well in maths, you should be able to do well in other subjects”

I wish you had looked up the DSM-IV for a clearer idea on the criteria for a reading disorder and how it is distinguished from a general learning difficulty, attention-deficit disorder and autism spectrum disorders. It would have added a lot more realism to the movie.

But, then again, it is Bollywood. And I guess I cannot expect too much. I should be happy that at least you have tried to put the message out there. But as always, I question everything.


Psych Babbler
A psychologist that has diagnosed children with reading disorders.

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  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 3:47 am

    Those are some glaring facts and big loopholes in the basic script and am glad u posted this. I just wish that this post is read by more people because unfortunately in India we don’t question and believe what we are easily told.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 4:30 am

    PB, only a psychologist can do this !! Cool analysis and identification of the misfits of the movie.. why not publish on Aamir’s Blog ?

    I like the crystal clear way of presentation because of which a lay man can also understand what you wanna point out πŸ™‚ I just did understand πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 7:50 am

    I remember watching the movie awhile back. And it’s always good to see Bollywood presenting movies of a different genre – the accuracy of how though, is always debatable. Not sure if you’ve heard of the movie “Black”, with Amitabh Bachchan & Rani Mukherjee. It handled a similar delicate subject, but I think in a better light. It was released in ’05 sometime I think.

    PS – I think most of my blog readers would assume I’m in the US, because of my writing style, etc. I definitely have a huge American influence in my life, been studying at American International Schools since I was young, so that would explain it. πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Psych Babbler
    August 26, 2009 at 10:10 am

    @ Smita: I’m going to take your comment as a compliment. πŸ˜‰ So thanks! But yeah, most individuals are going to take things as it is presented to them and unlikely to question it. And that could be detrimental to the kids out there with any LD or ADD or ASD.

    @ Nu: Thanks! Aamir Khan has a blog? Didn’t know that. And not sure about publishing on his blog (social phobia!!) And glad I’m able to present it to the lay person…it means the parents I write reports for, do understand what I am trying to say! πŸ˜›

    @ Archana: I haven’t seen ‘Black’…it released just the week I was leaving India for Aus in 2005. So never had a chance. Re your location, how come you don’t include it in your profile? πŸ™‚ My cousin’s kid is apparently going to start studying in one of those schools out there. So I guess she’s going to be Americanised as well.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    I like to leave most of my personal info ambiguous on my blog, hence not having it on there. πŸ™‚ Plus I’m not always here for that long, tend to fly in and out. Though considering everyone has widgets that track who signed on, from what country, etc etc, I’m sure most people can take a stab at guessing whereabouts I am – that is, if they felt the need to stalk me, haha. πŸ˜›

  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Nice analysis. Why dont u post this at his blog or email him?

  • Reply
    August 26, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    This is a useful post. I agree. Nobody realises (or cares) that the mis-information could be misleading…
    The movie was also successful because for the first time they showed in a movie that coming ‘first class first’ was not the only thing to live for.
    Another thing that bothered me was that in the end the child manages to be successful and be a prize winner… the message seemed to be that there was no hope in this world for an average child, who is not recognised for some special talent…

  • Reply
    Legal Alien
    August 27, 2009 at 4:53 am

    I agree Smita, you’ve written it so well that its easy for us non-psychologists to understand as well. I liked and disliked Taare Zameen Par for the same reasons as you. In fact when I first moved to Aus, I noticed the awareness people had about physical and mental disabilities and I really love how society here does not attempt to marginalise them but tries to integrate them into this world. I worked with some mentally disabled children in India and they were so creative but now it makes me wish they had the opportunity to do stuff with their creativity because having observed other people with similar disabilities here in Aus, I realise those kids could also lead semi-independent lives but they were simply being mollycoddled into becoming totally dependent on their caregivers.

    Great post as always! xx

  • Reply
    August 28, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Yay! Yay!
    I found one more person who was not as “moved” by the movie as every one else.
    For me it was not even the technical reasons.
    There was just something missing.
    The Father for one, he acted like he was doing theater. Too loud and artificial for a movie. There are uninterested fathers, there are strict fathers but how can you be so distant…
    You know other movies that didn’t do it for me RDB and Dilli6.
    In RAng De Basanti- everything was so black and white!!!
    Anyways, so did u start the book yet?

  • Reply
    Psych Babbler
    August 30, 2009 at 1:46 am

    @ Archana: That explains the Singapore dot by the way…and all this time I thought it was one of my friends who lives there was reading this! πŸ˜›

    @ Reema: Didn’t know he had a blog…and a bit nervous about posting stuff like this on his/emailing him.

    @ IHM: Yep…that bit bothered me too…because not all kids with reading disorders are artistic. In fact, there’s some kids with no particular ‘outstanding’ talents but that doesn’t mean they are doomed for life!

    @ Legal Alien: I toally agree in that in India, we are not exposed to mental and physical disabilities. There was aboy with an intellectual disability that lived in the building next to us and most of the young kids were scared of him. That’s because we don’t integrate kids with disabilities over there. Here fortunately there’s a lot more inclusion and I’ve learnt so much more. Glad the post was easy to understand! πŸ™‚

    @ Tearsndreams: Oh…don’t even get me started on the father…had a major issue with that! I actually haven’t seen RDB or Dilli6 so can’t comment. And no, haven’t started the book yet. You will find out when I do…I’ll update my currently reading section on my blog! πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    September 2, 2009 at 12:37 am

    Psych, I do appreciate your insight as a psychologist, but as a layman and viewer interested in the subject of disability in India, here’s a slightly different perspective, if I remember the film correctly:

    a. Teachers don’t diagnose learning disabilities: True, and the teachers did not/could not. Amir’s character could and did. And his character was shown to be a dyslexic himself and someone who has been trained to teach children with different abilities. His character makes a bigger point in the film: that schools in India must start being inclusive, instead of sending children with learning disabilities to special schools.

    b. Being socially inept: I didn’t think this was meant to be a direct fallout of his dyslexia. It had more to do with the social isolation and humiliation he was subjected to because of his disability and failure to succeed in school. High grades, good boy. Bad grades, naughty boy who is not paying attention, as his father keeps saying. I know you disliked the father’s character, but it’s not uncommon to see such people, especially if they are not able to reconcile the fact that their older boy is so bright and the younger one simply can’t keep up.

    Being artistic: Again, I never took this to be an automatic flip side of being dyslexic. The point of this was, as I saw it, that people in their efforts to push their children to better grades in “important subjects”, tend to overlook obvious talents and strengths: Also a point that Amir’s character tried to make when arguing with the principle that he be allowed a second chance with the boy.

    Being disorganized: Again, did not appear to be a direct consequence of dyslexia, but a defense mechanism, a push-back against the way he was being treated.

    This is only one movie and not a treatise on dyslexia. I think the choice of learning disability was only a vehicle to comment on our general attitudes toward education.

    For all it’s worth, I think Amir Khan achieved two things:
    * He drew the “masti-loving” audience to the theaters and kept them there.
    * For the first time, I actually got a glimpse of the mind of the child rather than just the symptoms and consequences.

    I personally liked this way better than Black.

    Thanks for raising this issue. I know of teachers in the U.S. (where I live now), who loved this film. In fact, one of them showed it to her students who, I am told, seemed to appreciate and understand it way more than the regular Hollywood cartoon and kiddie stuff that they are subjected to.

    I think if you look at the bigger picture of education, you MAY see the film in a different light.

    But thanks again for pointing out the specifics of dylexia.

    But, then again, it is Bollywood. And I guess I cannot expect too much. I should be happy that at least you have tried to put the message out there. But as always, I question everything.

    Why not? You should expect and demand a lot more. Otherwise, no one will deliver! No demand, no supply πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Psych Babbler
    September 6, 2009 at 12:46 am

    @ SS: Welcome to my blog (I’m guessing you’re not SSQuo…do let me know if you are!)

    a. Re Aamir’s character…it doesn’t matter that he is dyslexic himself or even a teacher of special education…a child with disabilities still needs to be properly assessed by a psych/speechie in order for the right forms of intervention to take place. I think that was one of my problems with it. I understood that he was trying to make the point of inclusiveness but even so, I believe a bit more realism would have sold better.

    b. Re the social ineptness (is that a word??)Again, I think my problem was how it was portrayed for instance with one of the neighbours kids. The kid can be naughty (and we see a lot of them acting out their frustrations) but it doesn’t necessarily render them socially inept. Yes, they may get into trouble at school with teachers but they are unlikely to not be able to make friends.

    Being artistic — I don’t think I said I had a problem with that in my post. I understand the importance of other abilities as well. I figured any movie was bound to show a kid with some sort of strength…Hollywood or Bollywood.

    I totally get the idea of Aamir trying to promote inclusion of kids with LDs. But I guess the point of the post was to say that I wish he had done it with more realism. The ‘masti-loving’ public do not question things and may take this as face value. And the problem is, the kids out there are unlikely to get the proper kind of intervention that they need if people think the film is the be-all and end-all of disabilities.

    Thanks for your comment! πŸ™‚

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