October 18, 2017
Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij, Aamir Khan, Raj Arjun, Tirth Sharma, Kabir Sajid, Mona Ambegaonkar, Cameos: Monali Thakur and Shaan
Secret Superstar is an unconventional Hindi film in so many ways. It is that rare mainstream, unapologetically commercial Bollywood venture that places the spotlight firmly on domestic violence. It stars one of the biggest male stars in the history of Hindi cinema yet he is not the protagonist, nor does he position his role as a “guest appearance”. And while the gentleman in question, Aamir Khan, has done this before with Taare Zameen Par in 2007, the fact that just last year his colleague Shah Rukh Khan did likewise in Dear Zindagi co-starring Alia Bhatt, and Aamir has made the choice once again with this film, suggests – hopefully – that we are witnessing a marginal change in the attitudes of our male megastars who are beginning to understand that the fulcrum of any project must essentially be its story, not its leading man.
Writer-director Advait Chandan brings to us 15-year-old Insia Malik, resident of Akota in the Gujarati city of Vadodara, where she shares a home with her loving mother Najma, her fond brother and grandmother, and abusive father. Insia is a student of Class X, a singer and guitarist who has been quietly honing her craft away from her father’s restrictive, regressive gaze and with her mother’s quiet encouragement. This is not to say that the Dad, Farookh Malik, is unaware of her interest in music, but that he considers it just another girlie hobby rather than an all-consuming passion.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
Those of us fortunate enough to be born to liberal parents who nurtured our gifts may find it hard to imagine the claustrophobia and extreme fear that Insia experiences every second that Farookh is around or how even the air in their house seems to breathe freely when he is away. Each tiny occurrence within the four walls of that cramped middle-class home has the potential to cause an explosion: a geyser that Najma forgot to switch on, less salt in the dal she cooked... Farookh’s response to any slip-up is to bash up his wife.
As you know from the trailer, Insia finds in Youtube an avenue to expose the public to her voice, all the while wearing a burqa to ensure that her father does not find out what she is up to. She is then sought out by the boorish and successful Bollywood music director Shakti Kumaarr, who is stagnating professionally when he meets her.
Secret Superstar tells the tale of Insia’s view that at the very least, everyone is allowed to dream – “Sapne dekhna toh basic hota hai. Itna toh sabko allowed hona chahiye,” she says – and Najma’s journey from telling her daughter, “Maine kaha thha mujhse maang, zindagi se nahin” (I had told you to wish for something from me, not from life) all the way to becoming the girl’s partner in the fulfilment of those dreams.
Although the physical abuse of wives and girlfriends is widely prevalent across the world, it is a subject usually brushed under the carpet. Communities by and large justify it or pretend it does not happen, and the entertainment media does not often discuss it. Bollywood has very occasionally acknowledged its existence, with sensitively handled films such as Agni Sakshi (1996) and Saat Khoon Maaf (2011), and the terrifying references to marital rape in Titli (2015) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). Secret Superstar plants the issue unequivocally at the centre of its universe, building up an atmosphere of such terror around Farookh, that every knock on the door signalling his return home becomes a moment of dread, a dread so real that it is almost a separate character in the screenplay.
We must leave it to experts in the field of domestic violence (DV) to watch Secret Superstar and vouch for its authenticity and technical correctness. To my inexpert eye, having seen DV up close from my childhood – in the form of a beloved aunt whose husband beat her up throughout their marriage and who never left him, not just because she was completely financially dependent on him, but also because on the couple of occasions when she packed her bags, she fell for his emotionally blackmailing entreaties – it rang true.
That said, this is not a self-consciously ‘issue-based’ film of the kind a lesser writer may have created. While it is transparent in its desire to make a point, it does not rub its didactic intentions in our faces. It is also unusual in that it often makes us forget that its main characters are Muslim, which is unlike most commercial Hindi films featuring minority community members that end up being steeped in surface markers of the community in question. While Secret Superstar does not shy away from cultural specificities, the universality of the theme is never lost on the storyteller. With a tweak here and a touch there, this film could well have been about a Hindu, Christian, Sikh or Parsi family.
At the end of the day then, Secret Superstar is not merely about an issue, it is an entertaining, heartwarming saga of people and hope, of two luminous women who eke smiles and laughter out of their miserable lives, of a human being who is evil and another who flummoxes those around him with his unexpected shades of gray, of a child who could turn out either way with one wrong move from his better parent and of some female bonding.
That female bonding is a joy to behold because it too is not a common phenomenon in male-obsessed Hindi cinema. Most films on friendship in Bollywood have revolved around male yaars, from Dosti (1964) and Sholay (1975) all the way up to this century with the likes of Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Rock On!! (2008) and Kai Po Che (2013). Secret Superstar is, in some ways, a buddy flick. Insia and Najma are friends bound together by their shared pain as much as they are mother and daughter. And as the film moves along, the cliché of the eternally warring saas-bahu is tossed out of the window, as it was in one of the most beautiful scenes – that one featuring Priyanka Chopra and Tanvi Azmi chatting – in Sanjay LeelaBhansali’s Bajirao Mastani in 2015.
The performances in the film are led by Meher Vij’s brilliance as Najma. Vij played a small part as Munni’s mother in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). She and Zaira Wasim – the lovely debutant from last year’s Dangal, returning to the big screen as Insia – do not falter for a second. Nor, for that matter, does the casting team which surrounds these two with a bunch of talented performers. A special mention must go to Raj Arjun playing Farookh: his is an even-toned performance that does not stray in the direction of caricature although such a move may have played to the gallery.
Aamir Khan as Shakti Kumaarr is hilarious. In case you think he’s hamming, you would do well to tour the industry he works in and meet some of its more pompous, ego-centric denizens who are convinced of their divinity, refer to themselves in third person in conversation and generally suck. On the surface, there is nothing subtle about his character, yet in the seemingly flimsy motivations that prompt him to back Insia to the hilt, there is a nuance that might possibly be lost on those who know him because of his largely obnoxious behaviour and self obsession.
One of the nicest things about this film is that most of Shakti Kumaarr’s story is left untold. Aamir may be the big star in Secret Superstar’s credits, but Chandan never once loses sight of the fact that his central characters are Insia and Najma.
My one concern about the film’s messaging involves Insia’s doting school friend Chintan. While this is clearly not Chandan’s goal, there are elements in their relationship graph that could be construed as pandering to the stereotype that women shamelessly use hapless men who would go to any lengths for the one they love. This is a fleeting worry more than a major apprehension though. That said, Secret Superstar could have done without the girl-finds-boy-irritating-before-they-hook-up triteness of its early portions.
A film about a girl who likes music, thankfully goes beyond merely packing songs into the narrative. Najma’s acute observation about Shakti’s songs, for instance, is a reminder of how artistic works can reveal so much about an artist to knowledgeable consumers who may not have a clue about the person behind that song, that painting or that film.
Most of composer Amit Trivedi’s tracks for Secret Superstar are not immediately captivating as standalone numbers, but viewed within Insia and Najma’s life they are perfect. And I do love Nachdi phira, both inside and outside the film.
Kausar Munir’s lyrics for Meri pyaari ammi and Sapna re have a clever everydayness to them, so that while you listen, you know they were written by a thinking kid yet you never forget that she is, after all, just a kid. Equally enjoyable is the deliberately silly mushiness of I’ll miss you, which reflects Chintan’s thoughts.
Meghna Mishra has been well-chosen as the playback singer for Insia. She sings with the heart – in keeping with Insia’s belief about what good singing is – yet does not sound cultivated, retaining instead raw edges that are so relatable and credible since she is the voice of a teenaged girl in the film. As it happens, Mishra is not playing a part. She is herself only 16.
Secret Superstar ends with a dedication “To Mothers and Motherhood”, similar to the words flashed on screen in last year’s Nil Battey Sannata. It is a maudlin and incongruous romanticisation of maternity in an otherwise wonderful film. The fact that Najma is selfless cannot and should not be a comment on mothers at large. Would Chandan ever consider implying that all fathers are as lousy as Farookh? No? The deification of women has always been used to conversely demonise those who slip and fall from their pedestal as any human being would, and has no place in a film as sensible as this one.
Before those words appear on screen, Secret Superstar rolls out a rather long climax. I can imagine some people considering the climactic developments emotionally manipulative. I am merely playing a devil’s advocate by bringing that up because, frankly, if that is what it is, I am happy to be manipulated. I left the hall giggling over the closing scene, but the tears had not dried up from the minutes I spent unashamedly sobbing over the denouement involving Insia, Najma and Farookh. Yes, some of it is melodramatic, but you know what? Sometimes, so is life.
I can also imagine some people being offended by the way Secret Superstar uses Insia’s burqa as a symbol of oppression. The prevailing mood of Islamophobia worldwide has caused well-intentioned feminists to mindlessly defend aspects of Islamic culture that do not deserve to be defended, going to the extent of calling the burqa a matter of “choice”. Chandan is therefore brave not to prevaricate over this point. And right. The veiling of women in every culture is rooted in the belief that the onus is on us to guard men from their actions when they see female beauty. Except where veils are worn as protection from the elements, let us be clear that even if a woman genuinely does have the freedom to choose, that ‘choice’ arises either from centuries of deeply ingrained social conditioning or a willingness to subordinate our freedoms to what is seen as a larger cause, such as the desire to snub Islamophobes by “reclaiming our culture” as many liberal Muslim women in the West say they are doing. The anger in the latter sentiment is understandable, but please let that not stop us from calling a spade a spade because of current norms of political correctness.
Advait Chandan’s film is a thoroughly rewarding cinematic experience, sweet and thought-provoking in equal measure. It is simple, but not simplistic (barring the ease with which a non-entity like Insia becomes high-profile almost overnight on the worldwide web, and the fact that she appears to escape Internet trolls who in reality would viciously attack such a kid because of her gender and her Muslim identity). Aamir’s presence has given it pre-release visibility, but what gives it staying power through its running time is the strength of its storytelling and conviction.
And a happy Diwali to you too, Team Secret Superstar.
Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/SecretSuperstarTheMovie/