AT THIS stage, one is losing count of the many unlikely people who have cried during Taare Zameen Par. Even if you begin watching it with grim determination to not cry, fifteen minutes in, you feel your face crumpling. Ishaan Awasthi taps into our purest, shallowest lode of tears, prodding at our collective sense of an unloved childhood. Darsheel Safary the ten-year-old who played Ishaan is cut from very different cloth. But he gives rise to as much speculation about the nature of childhood as Ishaan does. "I have heard the kid is spoilt now," say even the most kindly, disinclined- -to-gossip adults. So when the first thing you see at Darsheel's South Mumbai home is his aunt and cousin watching him on the news, it is not as surreal as it could have been.
Ten minutes later, Darsheel returns from school with his mother and younger sister. He is the quintessential schoolboy, jaunty even under a huge schoolbag. The living room suddenly seems awash with children. Darsheel's five-year-old sister, Nejvi and cousin, Priyanj are big contenders in the cuteness stakes, make coy advance-and-retreat motions with susceptible adults. Priyanj inadvertantly mocks camera-happy parents as he stalks protesting adults, photographing them with his mother's cellphone. Darsheel, the boy who made LK Advani cry, is only cute for professional requirements, timing a split-second- long wistful smile for the camera, then returning to whatever he is fiddling with or dangling from. The interview is a mild, unavoidable nuisance.
The young woman from the PR company, Anita (name changed) comes in. Why should one be surprised that Darsheel, like the rest of the cast of TZP, is handled by a PR company? By his own count, Darsheel has given 30-odd interviews so far. Mitesh and Sheetal Safary, his parents, have consistently refused to be interviewed. Anita is the one who set up this meeting and who said, on behalf of the harried Safarys, that they will not speak to the media. By now, she is on fairly chummy terms with Darsheel and is inclined to tease him and offer ice-cream.
On this particular day the Safarys are more than ordinarily grateful for Anita's presence. Mitesh, a jeweller, is out of town and Sheetal must deal with the media.The phone rings continuously because of the 'controversy.' The day before, Darsheel received the Star Screen award for Best Child Actor and was reported as saying he wanted the Best Actor award (the one Shahrukh Khan took home.) His actual statement became inconsequential as the media pounced. It was time for the childactor- gone-bad piece to be trotted out.
One Gujarati paper reported, in the knowing manner of a wealthy aunt, that the Safarys, once average Gujaratis, were now too big for their boots. No acknowledgement that a child's casual response to getting a shiny award might have been blown out of proportion, rendering even this attempt to interview him into an absurdity.
Sheetal Safary may not have wanted any more press for her son, but she did want him fed, dressed and ready for the tutor who was arriving shortly. She and Anita join forces to expedite this interview. Darsheel is already irritated. In school some of the older kids had taunted him, "Oh, you want to become Shah Rukh now? You think you are Shah Rukh?" He had got away with his dignity intact but is feeling mulish now. His school has decided to organise a felicitation ceremony for him that evening but he is disincline to court more trouble. "I don't want to go for the function," he says. But Sheetal thinks he should attend.
"Write this down," Darsheel instructs. "I hate girls pinching my cheeks." Every interviewer has heard this. Is he getting harassed at school? "Yes, all the time," he says with the ease of a well-protected child. His classmates are "cool"; it is the rest of the school he is irritated with. "I am mobbed, mobbed, mobbed." He proceeds to describe "running from the mobs" which involved racing from floor to floor of the school much like an old-fashioned video game character. He warms to this tale and would have gone on, except that his mother and Anita are yelling to get on with the interview and eat something. In fits and bursts, Darsheel says 300 is much better than Beowulf, Roald Dahl is good. Harry Potter is boring. He likes Hrithik Roshan better than Aamir Khan, but by now, a month after TZP's release, Mumbai taxi drivers could tell you that.
There are parallels between the bizarre questions one asks adult celebrities and those that long-suffering children are asked by adults: What is your favourite food, favourite colour? Do you like your mother better or your father? One prepares to ask these questions of Darsheel and finds it an unnerving process. There are the big eyes and the gloriously askew teeth, the basis of our intimacy with him. Though the skinny little boy's body is occupied by a skinny little boy, his restlessness, his under-the-eyelash assessing glance at adults, his quick cheek, all now hold greater import than that of other little boys.
HE SAYS he did not study much while on the film sets. Watchful Anita sitting on the next couch interrupts. "Don't lie. Didn't you have a tutor?" Darsheel brightens. Here is a duel for him to enter. "No, no, no." Some lukewarm name-calling later, he returns to the interview. Earlier he said he had joined the Shiamak Dawar dance classes (where he was 'discovered') when he was four. His aunt jumped in to say that he'd been six. Four, said Darsheel. Six, said his aunt. This casual disagreement under the eye of a reporter ruffles his aunt and she stops talking. Sensing her upset, Darsheel is quick to grin and concede.
Suddenly one sees Darsheel the actor, who dug around in the experiences of his short lifetime to bring to the screen a vulnerable, sensitive child very different from his sturdy, self-assured self. Unlike Ishaan who looked to older brother Yohaan for protection, first-born Darsheel treats his siblings with lordly kindness. He tucks Nejvi and Priyanj under his arms grandly and asks the photographer to take a picture. He asks adults riddles and wants to know if their inability to answer is because of stupidity or dyslexia. He drives his mother to the edge and then settles down to do what she needs him to. What was it now? An interview, tuitions, a meal, a change of clothes? Sure.