Cast: Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij, Aamir Khan, Raj Arjun, Tirth Sharma
Director: Advait Chandan
Rating: 2.5 stars
Most of us love watching talent shows on telly and the reason is simple — they help make sense of our own challenging, annoying, out-of-whack lives.
Those wondrous, intense moments, when a hall full of strangers rises in unison, acknowledging talent and applauding the grit of kids, women and men from small towns, from families without means, and yet making it against all odds are also the moments when we tell ourselves, “It’s not easy, but it is simple — stay the course and you’ll see that hard work and determination equal success and fame.”
That’s why we keep returning to witness those moments — the birth of a star, of zid winning, of determination high-fiving us — because it’s the best, briefest, most believable little episode from real life that reaffirms our faith in ourselves and our dreams. Secret Superstar, written and directed by debutant Advait Chandan, is a fairly mediocre film that eagerly, diligently follows the oblivion-to-fame, struggle-to-success, rags-to-riches trajectory of its main character, much like those memorable contestants we’ve met on talent shows. It taps into that very basic need to witness, acknowledge and celebrate human victory over life, and in that it’s exploitative, playing freely with our emotions and sentiments, and never really deploying intelligence or smarts.
Secret Superstar’s screenplay charts the course to victory on whimsy, with a generous dash of applesauce. That’s why the film dips often and requires the acting chops of Aamir Khan to add some spunk and excitement to its proceedings. But, that’s Secret Superstar in one part. In the other, in the small choices it makes — of who its secret superstar is and where she comes from — it is absolutely brilliant. And it’s those small, political preferences which make this middling, ordinary film important. There’s a reason, you know, the Supreme Court decided that the national anthem will play in our cinema halls before every film and not, say, at the start of the daily national inquest by Arnab Goswami or every time we take the Metro. Because it’s at the movies that Indians figure who to be, and how. And Secret Superstar tells us that what you and I want, what we struggle with is not so mukhtalif from what that girl, that woman in the burqa wants.
Insia Malik (Zaira Wasim), a 10th standard student, lives in Vadodra, Gujarat, with her ammi, Najma (Meher Vij), badi ammi, little Guddu and the fear of a mostly absentee father. Farookh Malik (Raj Arjun) works in Riyadh, returning home for a few weeks every year displeased with life and the women in his house. Insia doesn’t care for much. She sees only her dream and her mother’s black eye when her father is around. But mother and daughter both believe that life without dreams is not worth living. So when Abba is not around, they bond over Insia’s dream of becoming a famous singer, of winning the Glamour Award.
That’s also why Najma, though married to a man who raises his hands and wields his belt at the slightest provocation, sells her jewellery to open a window to the world for Insia. And when Abba refuses to let Insia participate in a singing competition, Najma does the next best thing — she throws a burqa Insia’s way and says, now go do what you do best, sing. Those pieces of cloth which come together to protect Najma when she steps out of her house, free her daughter inside the house to reach out to the world singing and strumming the guitar, becoming a YouTube sensation overnight, a secret that only Chintan Parekh (Tirth Sharma), the boy who has a crush on Insia, figures.
There are newspaper and TV reports about this singing star, and soon a mail from Shaktiji (Aamir Khan), an obnoxious Bollywood musician struggling with a very public, sansani divorce and an industry boycott. Insia doesn’t respect him and is not interested. But when her Abba announces that he has bought a one-way ticket to Saudi for the entire family, Insia agrees to record a song for Shaktiji in return for a favour that’ll set her and Najma free. Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar is long, and it feels longer because the film dips and rises in the rhythmic symmetry of a relay race involving a dullard and a pro. Sadly, the dullard bits are longer. The film has small, lovely bits — like the potty interruption when Najma and Insia sit down to watch the Glamour Awards show — which breathe real life into it. But then there’s also a silly, filmy romance between Insia and Chintan that’s without charm and creaks like the bones of an old, geriatric couple.
While on one hand Secret Superstar gives us a cliche character of a feminist lawyer who is sour and preachy, on the other it gives us a warm, normal, loving mother trying to nurture her daughter’s dreams while presenting herself to a husband who’s given to ritual thrashing. Secret Superstar crackles, and then it bores a bit, repeatedly. Worse, it panders to its star, Aamir Khan, at the expense of its own star.
Secret Superstar is set on the premise that Insia is a fabulous singer. And yet, the first time when we hear her, when she wears a burqa and sings to the world out there, her voice doesn’t touch us. It’s fairly mediocre and we sit through it unimpressed, wondering what the fuss is all about. It’s much later, at Shaktiji’s studio, after a rather bizarre exchange — a child wannabe singer delivering a rather cavalier speech to a Bollywood composer — that her singing soars and touches us.
This delayed gratification takes away a very crucial thing from us, the audience — Insia is Shaktiji’s discovery, not ours. Luckily, Aamir Khan’s Shaktiji is both dazzling and disgusting. A showy character created out of cocky one-liners, he is a decent guy in a garish, ass***e casing. With his hair rising in revolt against the amount of peroxide he’s poured on it, Shaktiji is always pumped up and chuffed at his own awesomeness, and Aamir Khan plays it like he has played cheepad characters before — in Rangeela and Delhi Belly — fabulously over the top and bang on.
He grabs the films, sets it back on course and then sets it free. Secret Superstar’s real clout lies in the acting talent of its cast — especially Zaira Wasim, Raj Arjun and Meher Vij — and the political choices it makes. The film mainstreams a middle class, Gujarati, Muslim family. After giving them all the cliches — Riyadh, burqa, an angry, orthodox father — it makes them relatable by staying with a mother-daughter who are struggling to do the very basic, give their dreams a shot. And then it goes a step ahead by making Insia not a quaking, crying, simpering kid, but an angry, at times annoying, precocious thing who won’t cow down. Insia, as written by Chandan and played by the supremely confident and talented Zaira Wasim, seethes with rage at not being able to do what she wants to. So when she’s angry, she kicks, breaks stuff, is petulant. She owns her dream on her terms, and grabs her mother’s arm when she takes flight, throwing away the burqa that once set her free. Watch it. It’ll make you see some things a little differently.