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Review: ‘Secret Superstar’ Is All About Dreams, Heart And Power

If you are a stickler for novelty in the films that you watch, chances are that Advait Chandan’s “Secret Superstar”, at least at first glance (by which I mean the trailers and the plot synopses available online), won’t do much for you. You may feel, rightly, that you have seen it all before– in “Iqbal”, “Udaan” and “Taare Zameen Par”, among others. Replace the passion for cricket, poetry and painting with that for music, toss in the dreamy adolescent protagonist, the strict/abusive father, the affectionate mother, the friendly sibling and the mentor figure from those earlier films, and you get “Secret Superstar”, one more film that encourages the young to be themselves and asks the parents to aid, not throttle, their children’s aspirations. Therefore, if your preliminary impression of the film is “been there, done that”, that’s completely understandable.

There’s more to the film than this chase-your-dreams template, but before I get to that, let me first make a case for what may be called the pleasures of familiarity. A premise may be repeated in film after film, but it feels repetitive only if the director cannot find a way to enliven the proceedings with his/her own touches. Tales of revenge are a staple feature in Bollywood, but the reason Anurag Kashyap’s “Gangs of Wasseypur” stands out is the delightful idiosyncracies he has brought to the characters, letting these characters (and the actors portraying them) to indulge their eccentricities rather than cut to the chase and give us a swift denouement to the desire for revenge.

There are any number of boy-meets-girl romances made every year, but “Shuddh Desi Romance” sets itself apart by giving us a pair of commitment-phobes who prefer a live-in relationship to marriage, distinguishes itself further by setting the tale in a smaller town like Jaipur instead of the hipper parts of metropolitan cities where live-in couples may be easier to find, and mines a lot of laughter from the fact that two people who make money by posing as fake baaratis (relatives) in weddings should be this terrified of marriage themselves.

A Look Into An Average Middle Class Home

“Secret Superstar” manages to add such touches of its own. Consider, for instance, how Insiya (Zaira Wasim) and her mother Najma (Meher Vij) keep alive the dreams Insiya has of becoming a singer–they watch, devotedly, the singing contests and award shows on television.

One can justifiably sneer at these programmes; are shows like “Indian Idol” really concerned with giving us new talents, or are they merely soap operas (complete with tearful goodbyes, surprise returns, temper tantrums and loud background music that wouldn’t be out of place in Ekta Kapoor’s serials) masquerading as singing competitions? Are awards worth anything in a country where they can be literally purchased by the influential, and rarely find their way into deserving hands?

These are valid concerns to raise, but no less valid, the film says, is the inspiration and pleasure Insiya and Najma draw from the programmes. Living under the same roof as Farokh (Raj Arjun), her violent, abusive father, is a tough and relentless trial for Insiya. She is all too aware of the fact that he shall not tolerate any mention of her desire to be a singer, let alone do anything to facilitate it. Najma gets slaps and black eyes so often–to say nothing of taunts like “anpad ganwar (illiterate fool)”– that she has to wear goggles to hide her injuries. Having been married off to Farokh at an early age, and having lived this long with him, there is little for her to aspire or take pleasure in, apart from the dreams of her daughter and the wish that she, too, shall win prizes and acclaim like those stars on the television screen.

Who, then, can blame Insiya or Najma if they obsessively view these programmes, so much so that Najma asks her little son Guddu (Kabir Shaikh) to hold in his bowel movement so that she would not have to miss the name of the winner of the prize for the best playback singer? We live in an age when the ill-effects of television, and in particular the ‘talent contests’ for children, are being widely written about. “Secret Superstar” doesn’t contribute to that chorus. Instead, it asks us to not grudge people their pleasures, even if those pleasures seem low-brow. You never know where and how one may derive inspirations from.

Consider, also, the scene where Insiya is penning the lyrics for a song in class, and the teacher, realising that she is not paying attention, asks her a question. Insiya can answer it if she puts her mind to it, but that would mean the lyrics that are dancing tantalizingly out of her grasp would give her a permanent slip. Therefore, she decides to not answer her teacher and stoically takes the raps on her palm. It’s a brief scene, but what it says stays with you: the Muse is hard to please and asks you to make tough choices. Indeed, Insiya shall have to make many more of them later for the sake of her music, from making covert trips to Mumbai by bunking school to arranging for a divorce between her parents.

This latter bit floored me. It’s not too long ago that young girls in Hindi films were so convinced of the need to have both a mother and a father to make their lives ‘complete’ that they set out to get the widower fathers hitched to the latter’s college chums. To have come from that to the scene where Insiya obtains divorce papers from a lawyer for Najma is a feat worth toasting.

Sensible Props Helped The Narrative Go Further

A film where a young Muslim girl uses a burkha as a means of rebellion is bound to remind viewers of Alankrita Shrivastava’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, but in this regard too, Chandan takes a different and, to me, better approach. Rehana in “Lipstick Under My Burkha” also wishes to be a singer (she likes Miley Cyrus’s songs), but little is seen by way of her endeavour to achieve this. She mostly uses the burkha not to sneak off to an audition or to perform with secrecy on stage, but to shoplift, stealing designer clothes that her parents can neither afford nor permit her to wear, but which she needs to fit in with the ‘cool crowd’ in her college. One understands the anger that makes Rehana do this, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that what she has done is, at the end of the day, a crime. As a result, when the law comes knocking at her door, it’s tragic, but it also feels like comeuppance.

The younger Insiya uses the burkha much more sensibly, in a way that actually lets her escape the strictures imposed by Farokh and by life in small towns in general. At her mother’s behest, she records videos of herself singing, while clad in the burkha. This way, her voice reaches millions, but her father cannot know that an act of dissent is taking place right under his nose.

These touches enrich the film, as does the setting. Middle-class Muslim households in Vadodara don’t feature all that often in our films. Muslims used to be a much more prominent part of Hindi cinema. There was a genre unto itself called the ‘Muslim Social’, which has all but died out. “Secret Superstar”, for all its mention of laptops and youtube and twitter and ‘trending’, is a throwback to that earlier era of cinema. The title of the film appears in English, Hindi and Urdu, the way they once did. The milieu is one where greeting elders with an “aadab” is still considered the norm, and the declaration of first love still carries with it a bashfulness.

The film, in other words, is lovably old-fashioned. This is clearest in the scene where a song (‘Nachdi Phira’) that is being sung as an item number (complete with “ooh”-s and “aah”-s) turns out to have been a Sufi-esque love song originally, and only when it’s sung in the original tune and rhythm that its true beauty is revealed. For me, this scene, and not the somewhat overwrought climax, is the film’s crescendo.

Like the setting, the casting too is fresh. Barring one (and we all know who that is), none of the actors in the cast of “Secret Superstar” is instantly recognizable, but all of them are consummate performers, sinking their teeth into well-written parts. Singling anyone out for praise may be unfair to the others, but I guess Wasim, who portrays the lovely, mercurial Insiya with seeming effortlessness, Vij, as the mother any youngster would love to have, and Tirth Sharma as Chintan, the classmate of Insiya who has a massive crush on her, do deserve special mentions.

Deep Down, The Film Talks About A Lot

If all of this, too, is not enough to convince you that “Secret Superstar” is worth checking out, how about the fact that it operates effectively on at least two other levels? As a take on spousal abuse, it is terrifying. The black eye we see Najma sporting early on is a hint of the things to come, and once Farokh actually appears, the scenes with him take on a ticking bomb quality, for you don’t know when, or over what, he is going to erupt. Much of the violence, thankfully, takes place offscreen, but the thuds you hear are themselves sickening. Insiya’s fingers digging into her calves as she tries to shut out those thuds, or the terrified look in Guddu’s eyes as Farokh hits Najma, are so palpably captured that you feel the violation they are going through. It is because of these earlier scenes that I readily forgave the contrived one where Najma finally gathers the courage to stand up to Farokh.

After all that she–and we–have been through, this much of contrivance is permissible. (It amuses me, by the way, that Farokh’s name rhymes with that of a huge Bollywood star, whose fan Farokh turns out to be. Co-incidence, or a well-concealed potshot at the said star)?

The other level at which “Secret Superstar” functions is as a relationship drama. The reason Insiya is so easy to root for is not only that she has dreams worth dreaming and fulfilling, or that she is played by the affable, apple-cheeked Wasim, but that she is a fully realised character, and much of this is owing to the dynamics she shares with others. The conversations between her and Najma–about chickens and eggs, trains and stations, the life they are living and the one they ought to–are so vivacious, so life-like, it is almost like being privy to the intimate interactions between an actual parent and daughter (this feeling is amplified by the fact that Wasim and Vij actually look like they could be related).

Guddu is sometimes the target of Insiya’s outbursts because Farokh so obviously loves him more, but Guddu is hardly his father’s son in any way. The scene where he clumsily tries to repair something that Farokh had forced Insiya to smash is among the film’s loveliest scenes. So, for that matter, are the two scenes where Insiya admits to having feelings for Chintan. The genuine understanding and trust for each other that serves as the basis for this romance–evident in the ‘trick’ Chintan employs to cheer Insiya up, or the fact that Insiya chooses him as the go-between in her communications with music director Shakti Kumaarr (Aamir Khan)–turns it into a love story that makes its presence felt even amongst the film’s many concerns.

Indeed, it makes the pouting-and-posturing romances enacted by older actors in other films look sadly fake in comparison. Even Insiya’s grandmother, who had not seemed much more than a cranky old lady previously, comes into her own in the one scene where she informs Insiya about the circumstances of the latter’s birth. If the writing is good, that’s all it takes to bring a character alive: one scene.

“Taare Zameen Par” too had him appear properly only post-interval, but he was thereafter a consistent presence. In “Secret Superstar”, there is much less of him. I daresay I wished for a few more scenes with Aamir, if only to better admire his underappreciated gift for comedy, which is at full blast here. Dressed in garish clothes, his hair spiked and coloured, and with a propensity to flirt given the slightest opportunity, Aamir makes the most of the scenes he has, turning what could have been a fairly irritating character into a genuinely hilarious one. “Tea? Coffee? Coke? Coke?” he asks Insiya upon their first meeting, complementing the second “coke” with a snort that leaves us doubling over, and in little doubt about what he means by the iteration. The biggest laugh I have had at the theatres this year came from hearing Shakti call somebody “darling” and “meri maa (mom)”, and then “sweetheart” and “chudaail (witch)”, in the same breath. There’s more to Shakti than his surface goofiness and irascibility, though.

One other reason I would have liked to see more of him is to get a better understanding of the loneliness he only hints at in a conversation with Insiya. Twice divorced, shunned by his siblings, and treated indifferently by an industry he is prepared to embrace like kin, Shakti’s life is on a downward spiral, and the more he tries to hide this by snapping and sneering at others, the worse he makes things for himself, and when he goes too far by abrasively scolding a young contestant on a talent contest, nobody is prepared to lend his/her voice for his compositions any more. This is the reason he reaches out to Insiya, and even swallows his ego to put her in touch with the lawyer who ensured the divorce between him and his second wife; Insiya, at this juncture, is the only recourse Shakti has, much as he is the only recourse for Insiya, Farokh having decided to take all his kin to Riyadh and get Insiya married there (this was a truly unnerving development, one that made me chew my fingernails).

Need and desperation bring Shakti and Insiya together, and a loving mentor-protege relationship develops hereafter. The bonds forged under trying circumstances–like those Insiya forms with her mother as they endure Farokh’s cruelty, or with Chintan as the latter aids her in slipping out of school to go to Mumbai–are the ones that endure, and sure enough, Insiya goes from somebody who considers Shakti Kumaarr to be a “bura insan (bad man)” to somebody who rushes back from an airport entrance to hug him.

Aamir brings out the comic as well as the serious facets (the insecurity, the despair at having become a pariah, the inner artist that he has buried beneath the more crassly commercial instincts, and the goodness that only needs some tapping into) so beautifully, that I couldn’t but keep thinking how much more he could have done with a more substantial part. Then again, I guess he is going to get plenty of those in the years to come; for now, let’s appreciate the grace he has demonstrated here by letting a veritable newcomer steal the limelight in a film he has not only acted in but also produced. “I am proud of you,” Aamir/Shakti is told by a character in one scene. As a fan, so is yours truly.

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