It’s rare to come across a film so deftly executed that you believe every single human being should not pass go but go directly to jail. Oops- I mean, should not waste another moment without having taken it into their minds and hearts, then step back to notice if their lives have not just, subtly, changed for the better. Like Stars on Earth is one such momentous, transformative movie that will leave you in the sort of tears everyone needs more of: tears of rapturous hope.
This Bollywood film is not what you think of when you hear “Bollywood film”! It commits a few schmaltzy and hyperbolic lapses of realistic judgment, but after all, this is Bollywood. And true to this genre are flamboyantly colorful musical numbers, and lush cinematography, but they are not the centerpiece. They are the ideal portals through which the central protagonist, 8-year-old Ishaan Awasthi’s flights of fancy are given a mode of expression relatable to the audience. Without the rollicking musical interludes, or brilliantly inventive segues into fantasy depicted by 3rd grade artwork amorphously coming to life on screen, we would have no handle to grasp the internal landscape of such a brutally misunderstood child, with an imagination potentially as gifted as a little Michelangelo.
Like Stars on Earth sensitively and potently explores the terrain of what being a “problem child” means. Or being the kid who does not “fit in.” The “different” kid who may have a Sistine Chapel’s worth of beauty on the inside, but no one is willing to give him the chance to reveal it, because he doesn’t operate according to “normative” modes and expectations of behavior, and fails to arrive at most of the rudimentary educational mileposts an 8-year-old child is supposed to have mastered. Played superbly by child actor, Darsheel Safary, Ishaan is learning disabled; he has dyslexia and any parent of a dyslexic child, or any adult, who lived with it growing up, diagnosed or undiagnosed (or who may still battle with it), knows what a miasma of torment it unleashes in the individual’s life, as well as in the lives of those who love him or her.
But actor and director, Aamir Khan, something like the Brad Pitt of Bollywood, poignantly portrays Ram Shankar Nikumbh, who is the light at the end of the pitch black tunnel to which Ishaan has been relegated. Ram is a new art teacher at the New Era Boarding School in Panchgani, India (far from Mumbai where the Awasthi family lives), to which Ishaan is shunted after local school administrators, as well as his own family, essentially thrust their arms up in despondency and are praying for a dim ember of hope. Ram is the incognito, enlightened sage, bedecked in dapper attire and has the moves like Jagger, as the pop band, Maroon 5, puts it. Or a very bhangra-esque Jagger. This art teacher is the Professor Keating of Dead Poets Society. He understands the complexities of the human condition. He knows that because of, and not despite, differences among us, we are all created perfectly by the same source who also created the ineffable beauties and wonders of the universe. As e.e. cummings wrote, “This is the mystery that’s keeping the stars apart, I carry you inside me. I carry you in my heart.” Ram believes that we are brought here through love and we carry the same essence underneath an exponentially divergent external display. Einstein once said that the most important decision we ever will ever make is to decide if we live in a hostile world or a friendly one. This distinction vividly shapes the quality of one’s life. So much of what we experience pivots on the axis of perception and when we expect a friendly world, we attract experiences to validate this reality. Ram does not fight against Ishaan like nearly every authority figure Ashaan encounters. Ram sees the beauty and potential inside this “idiot” (as other students and exasperated teachers ridicule him to be). Ram is a bit of a Chirst or God figure representing unconditional love for His creation and creatures. Paraphrasing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a Sherlock Holmes story called The Naval Treaty, only an Intelligence who loves His/Her creation gives it such beauty as the rose. “What a lovely thing a rose is … Our highest assurance of the Goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All the other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
Or to hope from the cesspool of puddle water into which the opening scene of the film shows Ashaan peering, transfixed. He is reprimanded for “having his head in the mud” and almost missing his school bus, but Ashaan notices the nearly invisible microorganiams, algae, and minnow-like fish swimming in the swill. He swoops his water bottle into the pool to create a personal aquarium to be his friend as he is ignored by the swarms of other kids on the school bus. From a close up on a live minnow the opening sequence pans out to morph into one of the genius cartoon and claymation storyboards that punctuate the film and provide a lens into Ashaan’s gifted, creative, ineffably complex, and “different,” mind.
Fibonacci’s spiral (evidenced in such everyday natural objects as flowers, petals, seeds, cones, and shells), exhibits this principle of exquisite, mind-explodingly beautiful complexity; a demonstration of an organizing principle motivated by love and goodness, to give such glorious, mysterious wonders for us to simply enjoy. Ashaan represents the overlooked wonders lying inside the everyday possibilities we don’t take the time to stop and notice. The geode inside what just looks like jagged, ugly, impenetrable rock. With the patience of a statue and the perseverance of the ocean tides, Ram, the savior-like art teacher, drapes a cape on the incapable, and builds a pier across the impossible. By the end of the film, the world gets to rejoice in Ishaan’s uniquely exquisite beauty, buried under the layers of “difference,” mistaken for defiance and worthlessness.
When we attempt to divide and separate ourselves, based on categories of identity, like “different,” “mentally disabled,” or “special needs,” these taxonomies are shallow, limited and socially constructed, not signaling the fundamental nature of unity that underlies us all. Kirkegaard said, “Once you label me, you negate me.” To label something as “this,” it automatically breeds the ground of conflict, because to be “this” necessarily implies to not be “that” and hence, a world of tension and division ensues, where we cling to artificially imposed identities, feeling that without these designations to give us a sense of presence, of validation, of “I Am Here-ness,” our beingness, our identities, our sense of ourselves would likewise die. We don’t realize that we are human beings, first, who have largely forgotten how to just “be,” in favor of becoming closer to a race of human doings. When we stake our worth on our labels, on these externally and socially mediated classifications of being, we breed a culture of fear, of paranoia, because if these identities were to be lost, we fear our value, our purpose, our “selves” would be lost, too. For example, if one defines oneself as a provider, and industrious worker, an athlete, a painter, a musician, a brother, a doctor (random examples), all these are valid and may define the person to a limited degree, but they are ephemeral titles, as the onslaught of disease could render the person unable to work, paint, make music, play sports, or practice medicine, or if he only has one sibling and that sibling dies, he is no longer technically a “brother.” Suddenly, one’s sense of oneself shifts and if one doesn’t have a more stabilized identity to fall back on, he or she is upended and consumed by fear, devaluation and disempowerment.
While many of the aforementioned labels seem harmless enough, the stigmatizing labels, the invective identities that our collective consciousness deems as “bad,” are even more insidious. When we look at a child as “lazy,” a “hopeless case,” a “snotty rebel,” a “little shit” (which is my favorite and I must check myself when I feel it start to rise in my mind if I’m becoming impatient with a “challenging” child; I’m an English Language Arts teacher), we do them the ultimate disservice. But thankfully, if we recognize that all labels can be shed in favor of the dynamic and unclassifiable realities underneath, and can’t trap us like ants in amber, we are liberated and able to be free. Ram chips Ashaan from his immobilizing tomb with a trowel of faith and love.
I recently read an article by Ruth Vinz, Professor at Columbia University, “If We Could Only, What?” where she adeptly articulates our naturalized penchants for drawing pedagogical boundaries around students and their potentials. This is a fancy way of saying that we, as human beings, are addicted to categorizing, compartmentalizing, judging, evaluating, labeling and thus limiting everyone and everything, uncomfortable as we are with simply being. We favor the Descartian predilection to dichotomize – “I think therefore I am” – and thus must always be thinking to predicate and validate being. We are in the ingrained habit of generalizing the unique, of simplifying the complex, of trivializing the significant/unusual, of reducing the irreducible. It’s easier to deal with the static image and expectation of what we want from someone or a group of people, than it is to face the bewildering and problematizing individual natures of unique individuals who resist the miniaturizing process that our culture calls socialization. We like to make people smaller than we really are. We condition people to be afraid of their own natures, if they stick out and don’t “go with the flow.” We prefer docile sycophants who don’t question the status quo. When we prefer to look at kids as the easy, reductionalized brands we stamp on them, like herds of cattle to the slaughter — “special needs,” “disturbing element,” “slow learner,” “problem child,” “lost cause,” etc. — not only do we alienate ourselves from ever truly knowing these kids authentically, we also alienate ourselves from our own nature. As Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, emphasizes, labels are only words and words are only noises in the air. No one ever got wet from the word “water” and no wood ever burned from the word “fire.” No child will ever be known, and thus loved, if we relate to the taxonomic title we stick to his or her forehead, instead of taking time to borrow new eyes with which to see him and be courageous and caring enough listen to her with new ears.
Through his indefatigable attention and care for Ishaan, Ram shows us that love is inside every one of us. We are much more connected than the divisions of bodily form, or socially constructed identities, delude us into thinking, leading to all the ‘isms and polarizations that divide humanity on small and large scales. From a quantum physics perspective, if we spin our protoplasm at blindingly rapid speeds, energetic wisps of probability waves, subatomic indivisible units of “emptiness” with the potential to crystallize into observable particles, are revealed to be what we are. The building blocks of all disparate matter, are these uniform vibrating photons of possibility. And when we look at ourselves as made up of the same essential stuff, one race as the “human” race, it’s easier to make the leap that in loving ourselves, we are also loving all. Ram sees Ishaan’s mysterious forest for his authentic trees. Ram is not fooled by the negative generalizations everyone in Ishaan’s world has put forward as truth about him.
Mark Twain said that “forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that crushes it.” And in Native American lore there is a saying: “No tree was ever foolish enough to war with its own branches.” Ram is a bit of the Holden Caulfield archetype. He sees the inherent goodness and, not only that, downright beauty and awesomeness (!) of children, especially Ishaan. Ram will not let the homogenizing and desensitizing rye, of social stigmatism and rejection, claim this 8-year-old. He is willing to forgive every kid for “acting out” or being “pains in the asses” in the classroom as they struggle to find an identity while reconciling so many shaping, sometimes antagonistic and confrontational forces thrust on them at formative ages. Ram sees the foolishness of the human tree warring with its own branches. He sees nothing as a problem, a conflict, a war to be battled. Confrontation, or perceiving a “difficult” classroom as a hostile environment only causes defensiveness and the closing down of students, who detect there’s something “wrong” with them and therefore the natural response is to want to hide, as Ishaan does until someone finally stops to find the real him. Ram demonstrates that we can catch more kids (before falling into the rye of blunted authenticity caused by society’s marginalization of those who don’t “fit in”) with honey than we can with vinegar of toxic labels that focus on what they can’t do instead of what they can.
Note: An absolute must-see for any parent or educator of a child with a learning disability is Rick Lavoie’s F.A.T. City Workshop. On this DVD, Lavoie, an educator and author, masterfully lets parents and school administrators experience the Frustration, Anxiety, and Tension that learning disabled children experience daily. The workshop is genius in its empathy and efficacy.