तारे ज़मीन पर
Aamir Khan acts in his own directorial debut, but he doesn't fill the screen with himself. Instead he steps aside, giving top billing to an engaging little boy. The result is Taare zameen par ("stars on earth") a film that's charming and sweet - if a touch preachy at moments - and highly, highly recommended. Just don't forget to bring the Kleenex.
Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) is struggling in school. His homework makes no sense to him; scorned by his teachers and laughed at by his classmates, school is a daily torture that he endures the best he can. His doting mother (Tisca Chopra), demanding father (Vipin Sharma), and affectionate big brother (Sachet Engineer) don't know what to do with him. After Ishaan fails the third standard for the second time, his father sends him to a boarding school whose strict discipline he believes will set Ishaan straight. But things only get darker for the boy, who is beaten and declared hopeless by his teachers, until he's all but given up on himself. Then Ishaan's rescue arrives, in the form of Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan), a substitute art teacher who sees his own childhood in Ishaan's lonely struggle, and helps to give it a name: dyslexia. Ram sets to work getting through to Ishaan and showing his teachers and parents how to see the world through his eyes.
A story meant to raise awareness about dyslexia - especially in India, where I suspect the disorder is even less widely understood and accommodated than it is in the U.S. - will not be able to completely avoid the pitfalls of pontification, and Taare zameen par has its moments when the preaching gets out of hand. For the most part, though, it hits all the right spots, giving its instruction by illuminating Ishaan's world - a world where letters and numbers dance on the page, transforming themselves into imaginitive flights of fancy reminiscent of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes strips. The occasional wrong note - like Ishaan's father bowing his head and taking an insolent lecture from Ram Nikumbh without a trace of defensiveness or outrage - is more than made up for by the numerous soaring - and searing - moments. In one standout scene, Ishaan, confused and enraged after his first week or two at the boarding school, breaks away from his visiting family and runs as hard as he can - in tiny circles, around a basketball court.
Aamir Khan asks young Darsheel Safary, as Ishaan, to shoulder the burden of his film, and the child actor rises to the challenge stunningly. He is on the screen in nearly every scene, and he fills it with his infectious joy and his heartbreaking anguish. The meticulous detail of his relationship with his family is another of the film's strengths, especially that with his successful older brother Yohan, who takes firsts in every class and plays competitive caliber tennis. Yohan is puzzled by his little brother's failure to thrive but he never once calls him "stupid" or questions the boy's spark. Aamir himself stays out of the way for the film's first half - he doesn't even appear until seconds before the intermission - but he can't really help taking over in the second half, making it a little less pure and immersive than the first. But again, like the preachy moments, these are small quibbles about a lovely and winning film.
The Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy soundtrack, like the film itself, hits all the right manipulative notes, now sweet and melancholy, now driving and manic like Ishaan's frustration. The standout songs include "Jame raho," detailing in frenetic stop-motion the morning routine of Ishaan's family - and the contrast between his father and brother's approach to the day, and his own. Another memorable song is "Maa," a hymn of love and loneliness played when Ishaan is left alone at the boarding school watching his family recede into the distance. Reach for the hankies - in scenes like this one, Taare zameen par had me crying buckets.