2007 Indian Hindi-language movie explores the life and imagination of an 8-year-old dyslexic boy named Ishaan. It is available on Amazon Prime Video with English subtitles.
Ishaan is the younger of two boys in an Indian household. Ishaan’s sense of wonder, joy, aesthetic enjoyment and attention to the world around him was in sharp contrast to his school related activities throughout the movie. It was also clear throughout the movie that Ishaan was not like most other children, we saw him interacting meaningfully with the two dogs in his neighborhood over other boys in his neighborhood, and later at boarding school, we did not really see him interact with other boys in any meaningful way, aside from Ranjan (another student).
I loved the scene where Ishaan picked up a metal rectangular piece, examined it and decided to add to his collection of “random” things that interested him – viewers got to see him use his collection to build a water plane later at the boarding school.
From the depictions in the movie, we can see how things possibly got to the point where Ishaan “had” to be sent to boarding school to “correct” his behavior. His mother was depicted coincidentally or not, as never having the opportunities to ever follow up on her questions regarding Ishaan, such as what he does in school, where his exam papers were.
She allowed Ishaan to experience a different environment (he seemed to be able to follow his own schedule in general) compared to his school (have to follow a schedule). Perhaps she is distracted or caught up with busy daily life (as illustrated by the three times she makes breakfast daily to presumably accommodate the rest of the family’s schedule. Yohan, Ishaan’s older brother and his dad were depicted almost like robots, whereas Ishaan seemed most human in the movie) and/or permissive due to cultural expectations? When Ishaan got into a fight with another neighborhood boy, his mother and father were not interested to find out what really happened so they could use the incident as a teachable moment. Ishaan’s father especially uses physical punishment as if that would stop any unwanted behavior. Although we saw his mother doing homework with Ishaan, she seemed to interpret his behavior as not trying hard enough, she noted his bad handwriting, poor spelling and that he can not recall work they had just gone over the day before.
I did not see any depiction of scenes with deeper interactions between Ishaan and either parents, so it was difficult to get a sense that his parents tried to understand him in order to nurture him. Ishaan’s relationship with his older brother Yohan seems positive, they were not competitive with each other, and each seems appreciative of each other’s interests and strengths. You can see Ishaan’s face full of delight for his brother when his brother was telling his mother about his academic achievements, at the same time, Yohan noticed what his brother was doing (puzzle, ice pop drawing) and commented positively, reinforcing Ishaan’s pride in his creative self.
Ishaan might have sequential processing issues, visual perception associated or separate from dyslexia, in addition to possible motor deficits. He seems even less able to process when he is under emotionally charged situations, as if his body (mouth) is not cooperating with what he (brain/mind) wants to do. He seem baffled at why he is always getting into trouble, sometimes he seemed to know, but mostly he genuinely did not seem to know. For example, he was just following what his teacher requested for him to speak loudly and read what he saw literally, which was not that was written.
The Ishaan he left school to avoid turning in his math homework and signed test papers, we got a taste of how he experienced his environment. We then saw how he translated his experiences into his art after he arrived home, which he could no longer do at the boarding school. He used his creative mind to come up with ways to “solve” his problems such as leaving school to avoid math class, then asked his brother to write an excuse letter. With the discovery of the excuse note, his father was finally insistent enough so Ishaan could not use his usual way of avoidance or distraction to get out of his situation.
The saddest part to me, was how his school teachers interpreted his lack of progress, handwriting and repeating mistakes as something he ddi willfully, with Ishaan present! His avoidant behaviors were interpreted in the context of disruption to the classroom versus wondering why he often asked to get a drink or go to the bathroom. There was a lack of communication between the school and family till things got out of hand. How could Ishaan possibly catch up when if his missing all instruction time, being punished by standing outside the classroom? The school’s behavior towards students like Ishaan seems typical in places such as Singapore during the time when I was growing up. If a student could not keep up with the expectations and the way teachers taught, something was wrong with the child and he/she was pretty much written off. The child’s value in school seems to be conformity, while as adults, society rewarded creativity and innovation, concepts in conflict with each other. Using Sir Ken Robinson’s (2006) words, “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it; or rather, we get educated out of it.”
At the boarding school, without ANY opportunity for any expression or time for Ishaan’s interests and opportunities to be successful, we saw him withdraw even further into himself and stopped communicating. Ishaan’s interpretation of the “perspective” poem during his class at the boarding school was a great demonstration that he had great ideas which he was better at verbalizing but had a hard time producing on paper. It was amazing that even the art class at the boarding school was conducted with such rigidity and ridiculous expectations – perfect drawing or the students get physically punished.
I could not even understand the English teacher at the speed he was depicted in the movie, illustrating how Ishaan might be experiencing the class. The movie reminds me of the video I watched, in which Lavoie (2013), facilitated classroom experiences of students with learning disabilities and what teachers typically do. In particular, he presented this picture below as an illustration that it is one thing to be able to perceive and another to be able to make sense of what we are seeing. There was nothing that can help the child to process the picture without the teacher giving the student the right scaffold/tool. Do you know what the picture is?
The scene where Ishaan was running around the basketball court and avoiding his family signified that he could not see any way to get out of his situation and his family was no longer his safe space. He likely felt that he was totally alone. Even his feelings of frustrations were misinterpreted by his mother as being angry with them versus his feelings towards himself. It was interesting that Ishaan was hiding when it was time for art (his favorite subject) and it was unclear if Ishaan might have been contemplating suicide or dreaming inside his head and/or trying to take in the outside view.
Ram, the new art teacher at the boarding school became a turning point in Ishaan’s life. Ram was twice exceptional himself but most importantly, he was the first teacher shown in the movie that took time to try to find out and figure out what was going on with Ishaan, when he saw him outside the classroom being excluded from class and looking afraid when he tried to speak to him, in additional to Ishaan’s non participation in his art class. He spoke to Ishaan’s friend Rajan to get some information on Ishaan, then looked through Ishaan’s other school work and then even went to visit his family. It seemed as though Ram’s conversation with Ishaan’s father was the first conversation that went beyond Ishaan’s behaviors into what might be causing his behaviors. Ishaan’s dad had the view that the behaviors were the result of his bad attitude, while Ram had a different viewpoint which he shared with Ishaan’s family. The concrete example Ram used when he asked Ishaan’s father to read a foreign language, helped his family to view Ishaan’s behavior from a different perspective for the first time.
Considerations that there might be different explanations/causes for the same outside behaviors is the key in figuring out causes before solutions/interventions/modifications can be successful. Trying harder is not going to be helpful when one has problems with perception and/or understanding. Lavioe (2013) used the photo above to demonstrate how one can perceive (see clearly) but can not make meaning of what he/she is perceiving. I recalled that I could not understand how forces work in physics and when teachers repeated the same explanation over and over again, it did not help me at all to understand it! I could hear their explanation but I did not comprehend it.
Ishaan’s turning point came when he had an advocate (Ram) on his side, not only willing to work with him, but was about to find a bridge to pull Ishaan back into engagement to have an area of focus and interest he can be successful at, ie art.
Ram talked with his class on how different people have different skills and see things differently helped all the children in his class to gain a different perspective. Helping children who can not understand why they can not do things that come easily to others explain that different people have different strengths and challenges, ties in nicely with Armstrong’s (2011) writings on neurodiversity and ideas that strengths and weaknesses need to be understood as contextual and reflective of cultural values, time and place. Ram saw correctly that Ishaan’s path will not be academic but something in the creative arts and he just needs to be able to pass his classes to move onward, applying Armstrong’s (2011) niche construction concept, which in turn changes Ishaan’s environment and self.
Gallaghner (2017) wrote that cognition is embodied, enactive, and involves dynamic interactions with not just our brain and body, but also with our larger environment and other bodies. Each interaction (self and others, self and environment) dynamically influences all parties involved careful thoughts and considerations should be taken by parents and teachers on the effect of their interactions with their child. Ram’s organization of the art contest and engaging everyone to participate changed everyone, from the principal, teachers, and students. The art contest demonstrated that different people have different talents and strengths. The purpose of teachers and parents is to increase the affordances (opportunities) landscape so that there are increased opportunities for all students to be involved in interactions where they can be successful (Budding & Shaw, n.d). We see at the end during the teacher parent conference at the boarding school what vastly different attitudes the principal and teachers had towards Ishaan.
Armstrong, T. (2011). The power of neurodiversity: Unleashing the advantages of your differently wired brain. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.
Budding, D, & Shaw, L (under review), Assessing executive function within the dynamic affordance landscape. In Booth, R, Murphy, T., & Zebracki, L (Eds.), Paediatric neuropsychology within the multidisciplinary context; a guide for clinicians, academics and students. London, UK: Mac Keith Press.
Gallagher, S. (2017). Enactivist interventions : rethinking the mind. First edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lavoie, R. (Director). (2013). How Difficult Can This Be? F.A.T. City [Video file]. PBS. Retrieved June 21, 2020, from Kanopy.
TED (2006). Sir Ken Robinson. Do schools kill creativity. [Video file]. YouTube. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity?