Like Stars on Earth (2007, PG) is a Bollywood film directed by Aamir Khan, who also plays a lead role in the film. The movie tells the story of Ishaan, a middle age school boy who suffer socially and academically. His parents struggle to understand his poor behavior, which his over-bearing father attributes to stubbornness and a bad attitude. Ishaan is eventually sent to a boarding school, where his condition deteriorates rapidly until a loving teacher discovers that Ishaan in fact suffers from dyslexia. Ishaan's dyslexia makes it very difficult for him to learn in a traditional setting, which in turn leads him to act out and rebel. The teacher (played by director Aamir Khan) reaches out to Ishaan, teaching him in a non-traditional manner and educating Ishaan's family and peers about dyslexia along the way. In the end Ishaan's performance improves dramatically and he becomes popular with his classmates, who have learned to understand and sympathize with him.
Mainstream reviews of this film accuse the characters of being rather one-dimensional. I could see this in some of the secondary characters, especially the teachers at Ishaan's boarding school, but these are clearly meant to be comic relief and therefore shallow by definition. Ishaan is a tremendously complex character, as is the teacher, Ram Shankar Nikumbh, who really goes above and beyond to understand Ishaan. I did not find much ground in this critique.
What we are left with is a very human story, a tale that everyone can relate to regardless of nationality or culture; who can't sympathize with a boy struggling to read? Despite my initial skepticism, this film pulled me in, and had me misty eyed a few times.
The way this film handles music may take you off guard. Most films have a musical score that kind of goes behind the action; this film, on the other hand, has been described as a musical, but it is not a musical, either. A musical is a film in which the plot is moved along or enriched by the actors engaging in singing and dancing, like in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or The King and I. In Like Stars on Earth, however, full songs are used to break up the different acts and scenes, and rather than being performed by the actors, they are played over scenes of the actors. It is hard to explain; it is more musical than a conventional film, but not like a musical that westerners would be used to. Just get ready for some singing - the music is actually quite good most of the time. I genuinely felt that it added to the film.
At times the film seemed a little preachy, like something out of an advertisement for the Dyslexia Foundation, but I can cut it some slack for that, since if the film is at all accurate, there is much less awareness and sympathy for dyslexia in India than in the West.
For its touching, very human story, its creativity, wonderful images and unique manner of utilizing a musical soundtrack without becoming a musical, I give Like Stars on Earth three tiaras.