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October 2011 Posts

03/10/2011 15:40:22

Like Stars on Earth

Introduction

Like Stars on Earth (Taare Zameen Par in Hindi), is a Bollywood movie - the popular name for Hindi-language films that are made in Mumbai - which was released in the UK in 2007. Characteristic of most Bollywood films, it is long at 156 minutes and uses songs and dance, which are relevant to the storyline by offering the opportunity to explore what may be going on in the mind of a character or to anticipate an event that has or is about to occur. The songs may usefully be seen as ‘dream sequences’, which allow things to happen that are not founded in reality.

The soundtrack is a significant part of the final product and is often released separately to the film, as it is in this case, where the CD is enclosed within the DVD box. For a good introduction to Hindi-language cinema, the British Film Institute website has an excellent article by Shyam Benegal.

Like Stars oon Earth

Like Stars on Earth was produced and directed by Aamir Khan, who also stars in the film, in a collaboration with Disney Studios. It tells the story of undiagnosed dyslexia in a young boy with aspirational middle class parents. This film was made to educate families in India about dyslexia and other related conditions such as attention deficit disorder, as outlined in the panel discussion included in the DVD extras. Khan, who is a very popular and well-regarded Bollywood actor, made his directorial debut with Like Stars on Earth, receiving much critical acclaim. 


The Film

The film opens with Ishaan, an eight-year-old boy, trying to net some small fish in the water by the side of a street, oblivious to the waiting school bus nearby. He is delighting in the task of fishing and completely absorbed in the task. In the next scene at school, Ishaan gazes out of the window of his classroom, distracted from the lesson he is in, which gets him into trouble and it becomes clear that he is repeatedly failing to attend to and complete his school work. At home, his older brother is a high achiever, to the clear approval of his aspirational parents. In contrast, Ishaan is drawn to the world of creativity, with a love of painting, puzzles and model building, which his brother is alone in praising. The first song sequence perfectly portrays the difference between Ishaan’s inner world and that of his striving goal directed family.

It is only after a series of failures in his class tests that Ishaan truants from school and gets his brother to fake the absence note. The head teacher finally makes his parents aware of the extent of his problems and suggests that he cannot proceed to the next year. His mother, who has tried to coach him in reading and writing at home, is frustrated by Ishaan’s apparent lack of concentration and ability in his studies whilst trying to counter her husband’s exasperation that Ishaan is being deliberately stubborn and lazy. As a result, Ishaan is sent away to a strict boarding school to be ‘sorted out’. Here he continues to fail academically and Ishaan soon becomes increasingly low in mood and more withdrawn socially, interacting only with another physically disabled pupil, who becomes his friend. During this period, he also loses enthusiasm for his creative activities, which have always brought him so much pleasure, as he struggles to cope with the loss of his family and his home environment.

It is only with the arrival of a temporary Art Teacher at the boarding school, called Ram Shankar Nikumbh, that there is hope for Ishaan. This teacher uses different methods to engage the pupils, as illustrated by his introductory song, in which he introduces himself to the class dressed as a colourful clown. Nikumbh soon becomes aware that Ishaan is not a happy child and begins to suspect the true nature of his difficulty. Nikumbh’s alternative attitudes to learning and his emphasis on creative freedom eventually engage Ishaan, as he realizes that they share a similar way of viewing the world that is acceptable. It is through this bond that Nikumbh eventually reveals he too suffered similar difficulties as a child, giving Ishaan a positive role model and a way out of his depression. Gradually, Ishaan’s self-esteem recovers with the sensitive encouragement of Nikumbh, who highlights Ishaan’s artistic talents to his parents and headmaster, who are finally able to be proud of him for his unique achievements.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

As an introduction to the topic of dyslexia, Like Stars on Earth provides a wonderful case history that highlights not only the first hand experience of dyslexia in a young child but also the consequences of a missed diagnosis. Although viewers might find it hard to believe that Ishaan’s experiences at school could actually happen in the UK, it is important to recognise how easy it is for children to be labeled naughty or stupid when, in fact, they are struggling with dyslexia. As the actress Greta Scacchi writes, in her recent article for the Evening Standard newspaper, her son suffered from significant problems as a result of his dyslexia in the earlier years of his schooling in the UK, in both the state and the private sector. 

The clever use of animation, in the song bheja kum, provides the viewer with an opportunity to experience what a dyslexia sufferer may see when they look at a page of print or numbers and the symbols dance around. As such, it would be a perfect springboard for a discussion about the symptoms of dyslexia. But this song sequence, with its fantastical exaggerations, also offers the viewer an important insight into the effect on a child of repeatedly failing in their academic studies and being made to feel stupid and lazy at such a young age. In turn, it becomes very easy to understand why there is a close association between dyslexia and both conduct and mood disorders.

Dyslexia or specific reading disorder is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as ‘reading achievement (that is, reading accuracy, speed or comprehension as measured by individually administered standardised tests) that falls substantially below that expected given the individual's chronological age, measured intelligence and age-appropriate education. The disturbance in reading significantly interferes with academic achievement … If a sensory deficit is present, the reading difficulties are in excess of those usually associated with it.’

According to the Dyslexia Research Trust, a UK charity, ‘1 in 10 children suffer from dyslexia. Dyslexia is the most common cause of childhood loss of self-esteem, leading to profound misery and even suicide, or vandalism, violence and criminality. 50% of convicted criminals are thought to be dyslexic’. There is a genetic basis to the condition, as confirmed by twin studies, which causes differences in the development of the brain, including microscopic differences in the arrangement and connection of neurons. These tend particularly to involve visual and auditory 'magnocellular' systems which are specialised for rapid information processing. Dyslexia is more common in males than females and there is often an overlap with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorders and with dyspraxia. The film offers an excellent opportunity to consider the issue of co-morbidity when considering Ishaan’s behaviour at various stages of the story.

The NHS choices website has some very informative pages on dyslexia, with a good discussion of the symptoms, causes and treatment options. It is interesting to note that brain imaging studies have shown that people with dyslexia use different parts of their brain, and that they make more use of the right hemisphere, which is involved in the more creative aspects of thought. Ishaan’s story helps to reinforce this different way of engaging with the world that people with dyslexia often have and that this can be used to their advantage once the condition has been recognised and the educational supports are in place. People with dyslexia are often very good at thinking ‘outside the box’ in an innovative and creative way. There is further information available about all aspects of the condition at the British Dyslexia Association website.

For psychiatrists, there were two excellent review articles, published in 2010 in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, written by child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr M.S. Thambirajah, entitled Developmental dyslexia: An overview (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 2010 v. 16, p. 299-307 abstract) & Developmental dyslexia: clinical aspects (Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 2010 v. 16, p. 380-387 abstract). These articles could be read alongside a viewing of Like Stars on Earth to provide comprehensive learning about dyslexia for anyone interested in working in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

This post is dedicated to C.P.

Thanks to my colleague Dr S.S. for the film recommendation

•  Further information about Like Stars on Earth is available at IMDB, as is a short trailer.

•  The film can be purchased at amazon.co.uk.

•  Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida.

 

 

 

 

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida

Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.

 


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