Insiya Malik looks like an average small-town girl. She isn’t a stellar student. She sits through the classes with a dull face, sometimes humming a song inside her head. She isn’t much of a head turner. But don’t you pass her for a mouse. For one, see what she does when her teacher asks her to take a seat in a fully packed classroom where students are sitting crammed even on the floor. Insiya is late to the class, and the teacher is clearly taking a dig at her. The girl coolly climbs atop a table and starts taking notes. In a later scene, a man steals her flight window seat, and asks her to ‘adjust’ with an aisle one. She refuses to yield. “I want my seat. Get up, uncle!,” she snaps at him. It’s her first flight journey, and she is unaccompanied.
This unflinching 15-year-old Vadodara girl (Zaira Wasim) is the protagonist of Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar. Her household isn’t a very warm space. Her abba (father), a brooding man with a white collar job, is a wife-beating misogynist. When he goes about hitting and harassing his wife, the girl and her little brother, a very spirited Guddu, shut themselves in their bedroom, trembling with fear. What keeps Insiya going even in the face of this domestic violence, is a burning dream that she has been nurturing from childhood – to be a star singer; a rockstar the world looks upto. Supporting her in every way possible is her mother, Najma (Meher Vij), a very endearing woman.
It could have been a run-of-mill story of an underdog’s journey towards her dream, but Secret Superstar pulls off a far bigger feat. It offers little details of Insiya’s life that transforms her milieu into a very lifelike space. The characters too, come across as relatable people; it’s not hard to empathise with them in their moments of joy and distress. For instance, the camaraderie of the mother and kids come to the fore when abba leaves for work. Najma, Insiya and Guddu, who are otherwise quiet and alert to not to provoke abba by any means, transform into happy and carefree people, cooking unfamiliar recipes, dancing to western music, watching horror films, and going on short picnics. It is not overtly sugary or hideously warm. The film, like an expert mind reader, tugs the right parts of your heart. Even when Insiya is delivering a much filmy line like, “dream dekhna toh basic hota hai!” it doesn’t induce cringe. The film, at right instances, grows bigger than life, giving the audience what they want. That is what a perfect mainstream film does.
Even in the scenes of domestic violence, the film doesn’t shed its likable nature. They are shot with so much sensitivity, from the perspective of an early teenager. Insiya and her little brother are sent to the next room when their father is about to unleash violence on their mother. “Do you want this little boy to see what is going to happen?”, screams the man to Insiya and Najma when they plead him to stop. But the film also reminds us that the children do not stop seeing this routine violence. In a well-written and beautifully executed scene, the film shows us how the little boy, whom the father prefers over the women, reacts to it. Even without a cue, Guddu reaches out to Insiya and Najma in times of distress, doing his best, so that they don’t hate him for being loved by the father.
This earnest affability of the film is not surprising since it’s co-produced by Aamir Khan, the blue-eyed boy of box-office who is known for films infused with hope, goodness and positivity; those that assure the audience that all is well in life. Besides, the film has Aamir Khan in a highly amusing role that lets him (and the audience) have a lot of fun.
Khan is Shakthi Kumar, a music composer who proudly creates nonsensical party songs and juicy controversies on a routine basis. He is narcissistic and big-mouthed. Not a second does he appear real, thanks to Khan who overdoes the act, like a spoof. Yet Shakthi isn’t totally cringe-worthy. He is occasionally funny. Although he doesn’t transform into a savior or a hero at any point, but Shakthi Kumar sure entertains.
The friendship that Insiya shares with her mother occupies a pivotal role in the film. We see the latter first when she is at a railway station, to receive Insiya who is returning from a school trip. They do look like two teenage friends at first sight – giggling over inconsequential things, sharing gossips during a rickshaw journey back home, and Insiya examining Najma’s black eye, the first sign that tells us about the domestic violence Najma meekly endures on a daily basis. This short rickshaw trip acts as a wonderful character establishment scene that tells us how pleasant our time with these characters – genuine and intriguing – are going to be.
Not that the characters are sugar-coated. They come with their own rough edges. Aamir Khan’s Shakthi Kumar is a proud flirt who blatantly embraces controversies. Rarely does he complete a sentence without using the words ‘babes’ and ‘sexy’. Insiya blows a fuse many a time. When she is angry, she breaks things, snaps at even the nicest people, and becomes a minor version of her father. Her Ammi’s subservience to her monstrous husband borders on unreasonable. But the film has it’s own logic in retaining these characters the flawed way they are. When stitched together, they make a fine piece of attire.
Zaira is an exceptional actress. She handles every scene with an incredible maturity, careful enough to not let any expression go overboard. But it is not just she who excels. The supporting cast, including Meher Vij, Tirth Sharma, who plays her sweet boyfriend, Raj Arjun, who plays abba, Kabir Shaikh who plays Guddu, and the actress who plays their granny, has delivered a fantastic performance.
Secret Superstar is yet another Aamir Khan film that serves as a lesson on making a perfect feel-good drama using all stereotypes available. The Muslim father is a wife-beater and the divorce lawyer is a stern-faced feminist whom men despises. The first song that Insiya uploads on her YouTube channel goes viral, and every nasty character she encounters in life (barring her dad), turn out to be good-hearted people. Yet, Secret Superstar soars high, thanks to the performances, and the intelligent editing that structures the narrative with perfect pauses and punches. None of the cliches induce a yawn. Anil Mehta’s camera work might appear clinical, but nothing in the film looks random. Everything is placed carefully to evoke drama. And it has worked brilliantly.
The Secret Superstar review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.