Like Stars on Earth

Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth) is a Bollywood film directed by a favorite actor of mine, Aamir Khan. The reason he is a favorite is not for his vast fame or handsome face. Rather, it is because of his involvement in several political and social justice issues in India. His works, ranging from directing films (the first being Lagaan) to hosting the television series Satyamev Jayate which looks bluntly at social injustices in India, earned him a spot on TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2013. Taare Zameen Par was  released in 2007, but I just came across it on Netflix last week. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to view this artistically crafted movie.

The film is about an eight-year-old boy named Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) who has been struggling academically for as long as he has been going to school. His older brother is the exact opposite, excelling in all his courses and playing tennis competitively. Much time and attention is paid to showing Ishaan’s daily life. He is easily distracted by the wonders of the world and has trouble following simple instructions. This of course leads to difficulty in school, and he is seen as a troublemaker and a fool by his peers, teachers, and even his father. His innocence is obvious, as sometimes he seems surprised at getting in trouble. He does not notice that he has done something wrong until well into a scolding or punishment. He cannot seem to grasp his mistakes or learn from them. Unlike the world around him, he moves at a slower pace, seeing things in a different light and finding joy in painting. He is very loved by his mother and brother, but his mother’s frustrations at his inability to do well in school also show through. It is not her fault , however; she is simply unaware that there may be a bigger problem at hand.

Darsheel Safary as Ishaan
Darsheel Safary as Ishaan

After one too many mistakes, Ishaan’s father sends him to boarding school in an effort to “fix” the problem, which is understood to be disciplinary. As the audience expects, Ishaan crumples like a withered flower once he is away from his family and his home. Not only do his teachers continue to ridicule him, but now he is utterly alone except for one friend. Even in art class, he cannot showcase his imagination in the presence of a stringent art instructor. He retreats into himself, and we see his mental and emotional development suffer further. It is a heartbreaking display and amazingly portrayed by the young actor.

Then enters Nikumbh (Aamir Khan), a substitute art teacher. From the start, his teaching methods are fun, interactive, and against the status quo. He eventually notices Ishaan’s presumed lack of interest in art, but he does not rush him or scold him. He then starts noticing that Ishaan also struggles with his other classes and is often found standing outside his classroom, being punished for something or another. He begins to think Ishaan may need help, serious help, and the film continues from there.

This was an absolutely beautiful movie that addresses something that we hear about all the time in the U.S., but is largely unknown (or ignored) in India. Many children must deal with not only the pressures of succeeding in school, but excelling in school for the sake of their futures and the honor of their parents. Students have committed suicide (not just in India but also other countries) because of the intense pressures to surpass billions of other students and the intolerance for error. Perfection is expected at all times, often at the expense of personal and emotional growth. For a child with a learning disability, many people may not have the understanding to even recognize the signs. A child’s actions may be chalked up to laziness, insubordination, or stupidity. To think that so many children like this wander lost in a world in which they won’t be able to keep afloat in, much less excel in, was eye-opening through this film. Simply “whipping” someone into shape through punishment while withholding what brings them joy will only worsen the problem. Each child’s path will be different, and it is the responsibility of all of us, starting with parents and involving teachers, to try to help these kids find and nurture their path.

Aamir Khan as Nikumbh

I don’t normally watch Bollywood movies because they tend to follow the same tale of love triangles and familial woes. It sincerely touched my heart to know that there are films being made to make people think about broader issues that affect us all. Sure, it is nice to get away from reality by escaping into a fictional tale, but more attention needs to be given to these issues that we as Indians tend to brush under the rug (or flat out reject). A film I watched about two years ago, Udaan, is another example (see trailer below). It is about the dynamics between a father and his two sons, and it touches on many topics that are disturbing, painful, and for me, too close to home. But these are the films that make a difference. These are the films that help us cope and not feel alone in our struggles. These are the films that help us improve as a society. These are the films that matter.

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