DVD Review: Like Stars on Earth (2007)

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Foreign Title: Taare Zameen Par

With roughly forty Bollywood films under his belt as an actor, Aamir Khan who is perhaps best known to audiences in the United States for his starring role in the surprisingly delightful Oscar nominated cricket musical Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, made his directorial debut with Taare Zameen Par.

One of his native India's highest grossing theatrical releases back in its 2007 premiere, the film which has been transferred to Region 1 DVD for its American introduction courtesy of Walt Disney Home Entertainment, was also chosen as India's official submission for the 2009 Best Foreign Film Category of the Academy Awards.

Granted, it's tempting to assume that because it contains Bollywood stars and musical numbers, the work which translates to Like Stars on Earth will be a typically sudsy musical romance. However, quickly into the movie, we realize that Khan's film, based on a sensitive screenplay by Amol Gupte, has actually more in common with neorealistic cinema whether in its original Italian configuration a la The Bicycle Thieves or in a more modern homage like Children of Heaven.

Using the same staples of neorealism, the film centers on the emotionally heartbreaking plight of a very young boy played by a "real" kid as opposed to a polished child star witnessed in the startlingly authentic performance of newcomer Darsheel Safary, In fact, Safary is so impressive that he garnered an Indian Filmfare Award as Best Actor for his role as the misunderstood and mistreated dreamer Ishaan Awasthi.

Failing miserably in his second attempt to complete the third grade due to his difficulty to read or write the words he needs in class since the letters dance in his head, Ishaan's imagination gets the best of him far too often. And after he begins skipping school to avoid trouble or bad test results as one of over sixty students in his class, his headstrong father and worried mother decide that the only way to get him to take academics seriously is by sending him to a strict boarding school.

While clues that part of Ishaan's trouble is dyslexia are there right from the start of the movie as soon as we see the inverted mirror imaging of letters, unfortunately it isn't until 75% of the film has played that the right adult at the right time (Aamir Khan portraying his imaginative art teacher) is able to diagnose the symptoms.

However, because the movie's running time is 165 minutes and it pulls no punches about the double standards of disability, cruel twists of fate, bullying, and Dickensian level sheer depression surrounding Ishaan who is called an "idiot" more often than he's addressed by his real name, it makes the plot structure and payoff of Like Stars on Earth almost unbearable for the audience.

In the simplest of terms, it's hard to watch a child suffer in any situation but when the child is purposely driven out of his house two hundred miles away where he gets chalk hurled at his head and knuckles struck by teachers to the point wherein he gives up speaking, the movie becomes sheer agony for viewers of any age.

If I'd been watching it as an audience member instead of for a review, I have to be honest and admit that I would've stopped the film within the first hour. For, depressing fare is one thing, but if, as I did, you get the sense that the filmmakers are essentially beating us over the head with it only to make sure we're just as depressed as their protagonist is throughout, you start to feel condescended by both their lack of faith in our intellect and their lack of ideas in keeping us emotionally invested.

From the moment the movie began, I kept hoping Ishaan's dyslexia diagnosis would've arrived sooner
so that he could begin to flourish by moving us into the five stages of grief, anger, bargaining, denial and acceptance as was the case in the similarly themed creative child with Tourette syndrome film, Phoebe in Wonderland.

And while eventually this did occur, just two hours too late for our comfort and sign that a discriminating editor would've strengthened the film considerably, Ishaan's predictable rush to achieve academic success and more self-confidence whisks by in the length of a tiny montage that's a far cry from the hours of depression that preceded it.

Obviously, it's a rewarding work once you make it all the way through and especially given its moral value of educating both adults and children alike about dyslexia, which incidentally is something that Walt Disney himself had as well. Although the film's heart is in its right place, I still cannot fathom recommending it to young children since it's impossible to imagine just whom the target audience is supposed to be for a PG-rated Disney release that would probably be a better fit for the post Dead Poets Society pre-Good Will Hunting demographic of students eighth grade and up.

Despite the fact that due to the sheer depression encapsulated onscreen it isn't exactly a movie you imagine you would probably want to view more than once aside from witnessing the finely crafted production and compassionate finished product, overall, Like Stars on Earth and by extension Aamir Khan as a filmmaker shows remarkable promise in breaking out of the traditional Bollywood formula.

Offering viewers the chance to view with either the Hindi or English language audio track and/or subtitles in either language as well, Disney's DVD makes the most of your home entertainment system's 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Obviously, the audio rewards are most apparent in the film's
knockout Bollywood numbers, which in addition to changing the film's tone on occasion, seemingly takes another cue from Italian culture by serving an operatic purpose to offer additional information regarding the plot and characters that couldn't have been conveyed in any other way.

While of course, the audio aspect is to be expected for an Indian work, the highlight of Life Stars on Earth can be found in its visually striking cinematography that brings Ishaan's creativity fueled world to life with swirling colors of paint.

Ultimately perhaps one of the most sensitive and educational portraits of childhood dyslexia filmed outside of Hollywood, Stars is delivered in a 3-disc set that necessitates an extra DVD for the extra features due to the movie's length. And despite the fact that because of years working on international film festivals, I'm endlessly supportive of introducing grade school children to foreign film, nonetheless this time around, I have a strong sense of reservation.

While everything ends in a positive fashion and it's very sure to handle its treatment of dyslexia and the dignity of the children involved admirably, it's making it through the gut-wrenching turmoil of over half the running time that makes me question how well it will play here.

With this in mind, I stand by the old aphorism that aside from those who brought the fictitious Ishaan into this world, "parents know best." Namely, in the case of Like Stars on Earth, don't let the Disney logo fool you into not taking the Parental Guidance Suggested MPAA rating seriously. View the movie beforehand to gauge its appropriateness for your children and in the same token, watch it again with them in order to discuss any issues it will inevitably introduce.

And even if you feel your kids are able to handle the work without anything further, at the very least, watching it first will give you the chance to impress and/or embarrass your kids by singing along to the seven addictive Bollywood numbers you can practice with on Disc 3's CD soundtrack.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.