“Honestly, I didn’t even know what the film was even about,” says Darsheel Safary, munching on a plate of dahi-puri in downtown Mumbai. He’s referring to Taare Zameen Par, a film that released in 2007, a year when the Khans’ dominance on India’s box-office was relatively unchallenged.
“I didn’t even know about dyslexia. Aamir uncle would ask me, do you know what dyslexia is? I was like, yeah, having bad handwriting. I mean, I was a kid!”
In 2007, Safary was nine. The same year, Shah Rukh Khan had two big hits, the ridiculously funny Om Shanti Om, and Chak De! India, the film which would become the yardstick by which all future SRK performances would be measured; Salman Khan had the hit comedy Partner. In what was a sign of the times to come, Akshay Kumar delivered four blockbusters: Namastey London, Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa and Welcome.
And Aamir Khan, who by then had developed his reputation as a ‘perfectionist’, had Taare Zameen Par, which he both acted in and directed.The moving, if schmaltzy, drama about a relationship between an empathetic teacher and a dyslexic child turned Christmas into a sobfest as Indian families wept inconsolably in theatres. Young Darsheel, who played Ishaan Awasthi, with his bunny teeth and a mischievous smile, became an overnight sensation while the film itself mainstreamed conversation around learning disorders.
But when Safary returned from the quietude of Panchgani, a quaint hill-station about 155 miles southeast of Mumbai where Taare Zameen Par was shot, to the campus of Greenlawns High in South Mumbai, where he studied, there was a riot. “When I went to school after the release, it looked like somebody had beaten me up. My hair was all over the place, my tie had come undone, my belt was out. The other kids went overboard.”
Safary understood the appeal but couldn’t process the fame. He did turn into a ‘popular kid’ and not a ‘cool kid’ (cool kids from SoBo don’t do Bollywood), and faced a fair amount of bullying as a result. “So you think you’re big shit now, huh?” the older kids would remark, he recalled. “They try to catch you when you’re alone. They pick on you. It’s bad.”
Much like his on-screen saviour, Ram Shankar Nikumbh, his real-life teachers helped him cope. “They focussed on how I was as a person and not my media-driven persona. That really influenced and shaped my relationship with fame.”
So, over the next year, as Bollywood producers chased Safary for more of the same, the bullies and the fans at his school left him alone.
Life Post Taare
After Taare Zameen Par, none of the films Safary picked worked as well at the box-office. After a three-year break, he returned with Priyadarshan’s Bumm Bumm Bole, an unfortunate adaptation of Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven, Disney’s superhero drama Zokkomon, which didn’t quite fly, and Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, where he played young Salim.
At 22, Safary is acutely aware of this. “It’s like catching lightning in a bottle, happens like once in a lifetime,” he muses. “Although I was having a lot of fun, playing a superhero, a more responsible elder brother, working with Deepa Mehta… somewhere within me, I knew this isn’t going to happen again.”
Instead of chasing another TZP, Safary redirected his energies in learning. “I spent time studying acting and actors, watching a lot and generally absorbing as much as I could about the craft. There was no grand ambition to conquer Bollywood. I just wanted to act with every cell of my body.”
Since no major roles were coming his way (“You’re in that weird age when you’re neither a kid, nor an adult”) as Safary entered college, he told his parents that he wanted to take a break from movies. “No problem,” said his jeweler father. And once again, when Safary felt directionless, the teachers came to his rescue. His principal at Churchgate’s HR College, Indu Shahani, insisted he join the institute’s theatre branch. Safary slept over that decision.
Was it too early to dive into acting again? How would that go? Did it make sense? Ultimately, it’d take a tight slap on his face for him to understand that his calling was actually in theatre.
In 2014, on the gothic-inspired campus of St. Xavier’s in Mumbai, a young woman walked up to Safary and slapped him hard. There was deafening silence. Safary was staring into the abyss but the woman thought he was looking at her. It was part of a street-play and the reaction that it got from the audience gave Safary an intoxicating high.
“At that moment, I knew I wanted to keep doing this. Feeding off the energies of a live audience is quite thrilling.”
From Xavier’s Malhar college festival began a journey that took Safary to campuses across the city, from Sophia’s to Wilson, Jai Hind to Mithibai.
“For me, the plan was to experiment. But after a point, I was like, okay, what next? How does one become a professional theatre actor? How did Naseeruddin Shah get there? What was his journey?”
As Safary spent time acting and ruminating over existential questions that plague the young and the restless, his mother, a homemaker, got a call. On the other end was Abhishek Pattnaik from the National Centre for the Performing Arts. Pattnaik, a playwright, wanted to cast Safary in a play about an aspiring cricket player with suicidal tendencies. Fittingly, Safary was bowled over when Pattnaik narrated the script. “Even if it wasn’t a major role, I’d still have done it. That play, ‘Can I Help You?’ got me into theatre majorly. Many warned me against it but I was infected with the idea of performing in front of a live audience.”
Since then, Safary has done three plays which have cumulatively been performed in over 100 shows and is currently doing a play that’s part of Book My Show’s The Great Indian Theatre Festival.
While he does appear creatively content, especially when he talks about being on stage, did he actually just fall out of love from cinema, subverting what could’ve been a conventional journey into a more independent one?
“I wouldn’t say I fell out of love. And I’ve been asked this quite a lot of times. It’s like, I don’t know,” he trails off.
“Why is everything about fame and stardom and launches and re-launches? Why is the desire to act driven by its end result and not for its inherent experience? I don’t have answers for this but the ‘when are you coming back’ question really makes me think.”
In the past decade or so, there have hardly been any child actors who’ve successfully transitioned to become leading actors in feature films. Maybe that fear plays a part. Or maybe he just doesn’t have any desire for Bollywood stardom. “My emphasis is on the craft and the film. What comes out of it, if at all anything does, is secondary. The want for stardom was never there for me to miss it anymore.”
Panchgani is not the same for Darsheel Safary anymore. Whenever he crosses the hill-station (one has to, to reach Mahabaleshwar), he can smell the past and become one with it. “Those two months of my life are so vivid in my head. I remember everything: the hotel, the school, the amphitheatre, what I’d do in the amphitheatre. Everything is so vivid.”
Once, deep into the shoot, the kids had a day off. Aamir Khan invited him and his friends to his Panchgani bungalow. Jain food was prepared specifically for Safary, who is a vegetarian. After food, Khan and the kids decided to play cricket in the lawns. Jokes were cracked about Lagaan, a film that the kids would watch in the amphitheatre. After the match, Khan hung out and asked Safary how he was feeling about the film. He said he was ‘feeling it.’
“He was wearing black. That day, when he started batting, he knocked off all the balls into the valley. It was a beautiful day, a capsule of time itself.”
Months later, the film would release and become one of the highest-grossing blockbusters of the year. That it was Aamir’s directorial debut added to the curiosity. The song Maa, written by Prasoon Joshi, would always be associated with a frightened child far away from his mother, ensuring tears whenever it was played.
“I can’t listen to it!”
But is he still in touch with Aamir Khan? “Not really. Just a couple of messages here and there during festivals, birthdays etc,” he says, as if he hasn’t thought about the passage of time deeply enough.
When was the last time he met the actor?
“I really don’t remember. It was that long back. Probably during Talaash,” he smiles. “I don’t think he’ll recognise me.”