Like Stars on Earth

Like Stars on Earth (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nine-year-old Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) faces yet another possibility of being held back at school because he has trouble reading and writing. When asked why he flunks his exams and rarely turns in his homework, Ishaan claims the letters and numbers tend to dance. His teachers and parents (Vipin Sharma, Tisca Chopra) believe that it is simply a matter of effort and concentration. It is recommended that the boy be sent to a boarding school where he will learn discipline.

“Taare Zameen Par,” directed by Aamir Khan, Amole Gupte and Ram Madhvani, is an earnest, entertaining, and at times moving story about a child struggling with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Perhaps more importantly, it is also about the adults around him who find it difficult to wrap their minds around the fact that not every child is capable of excelling the same way. The picture is limited, however, by a number of forced sentimental moments that come across syrupy and disingenuous. It needs restraint.

Unlike many mainstream American movies involving a child overcoming an adversity, I found it admirable that the filmmakers are willing to embrace a hefty running time to tell a complex trajectory rather than a simplified and distilled version.

While still imperfect, one might argue that the near three-hour journey is necessary for several reasons: to paint a complete picture of the boy’s change from someone who is energetic to one who is extremely subdued, to mire in the parents’ anger, frustration, denial and self-blame, and to give the audience time to really think about the flaw not in only our expectations of children but also in what we communicate to them in subtle ways. Although the story takes place in India, I found the messages it conveys are universal, certainly applicable in the Philippines and the U.S., places where I’ve received education and training.

The picture unfolds in a naturalistic manner and yet confident enough to break from the reality and embrace song and dance. Particularly memorable is the introduction of a substitute art teacher, Mr. Nikumbh (Aamir Khan). The sequence is joyous and celebratory, making a convincing statement that a change in the boarding school will inevitably occur. But the scene is not entirely happy. While everybody celebrates, the camera cuts to the Ishaan’s dejected expression and depressed demeanor. A simple song and dance and clowning around are not able to resurrect a broken spirit.

Mr. Nikumbh should have been written more like a person and less of a character. Although Khan is capable of delivering controlled dramatic looks and pauses, the camera lingering on his teary-eyed face for five seconds too long reflects that of a bad soap opera. The longing looks between student and teachers are also problematic. Together, they cheapen the material rather than giving an important subject justice. And need I start on the silly art competition during the third act? I found it predictable and too feel-good to be believable.

Nevertheless, “Like Stars on Earth” is worth seeing for a number of reasons mentioned previously, including its willingness to show us what the protagonist is seeing in his head. We get a taste of what he likes to watch and his inspirations. The material is also bold enough to show the suffering of a child for more than a half of the picture’s duration. Such qualities are uncommon in movies of its type.

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