(An edited version was published in The New Indian Express)
We’ve had this genre for a while now. It’s called Aamir Khan is Too Perfect or He’s Imperfect But Will Have A Redemptive Arc Anyway. In Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar, he plays a music director caricature of reality TV version of Anu Malik. The one who mocks children and has no filter whatsoever. Shakti Kumar also harasses women and has had two divorces. Yet, there is a stretch where it is hinted that these perceptions could be media spins and the real person may not be that bad after all. But what is wrong if Shakti Kumar has a good enough heart to help Insia (Zaira Wasim) but is also all of the above? Aamir Khan continues to refrain from characters that have one spot too many.
This is problematic because Secret Superstar gets a lot of things right otherwise. It’s not an underdog story with predictable trajectory even though it has its share of emotional beats originating from similar tropes. But it wishes to be better than that. It’s less about Zaira’s career breakout than it is about her literal breaking out of her life’s shackles. Insia was born into domestic violence and her very existence is a form of protest. Something we learn the details of much later. It’s not surprising then that she’s the most irreverent in her family and the only one vocally so. This cannot-take-no-for-an-answer is what makes both Insia and the film. In Indian films, we often tend to make children and young characters cutesy and always likable in most conventional ways. Chandan (who is also the writer) does not make that mistake. We warm up to Insia’s singing, her looking out for her mom, but she can also be the rudest person in the room. When she’s compared to an animal locked in a cage, it’s not a bird but a leopard. But why not, when her father is who he is. She is quick to snap at her friend Chintan who has a huge crush on her. It might be her first time in a plane but if she must forcefully vacate the man sitting in her seat, she would. When she is angry, she might break a thing or two. She doesn’t even bat an eyelid before teaching Shakti Kumar – the star giving her the first break – a few lessons about himself. All of this informs Insia’s go-getter spirit and that she’s not just all talent.
It means the film too is not just about Insia getting rich and famous. Chandan is after greater things. He handles domestic violence in the gentlest of ways and keeps it real. At first, it threatens to be cliched and dramatic. But Chandan inserts moments that are inclusive of the little things. Like how Najma (Meher Vij) steals to save money – which is what became Insia’s guitar at the age of 6. Or how Najma understands Insia’s disproportionate maturity and encourages it in silent ways because she might be resigned to what she thinks is her fate while she won’t let that happen to Insia. The situation at home too is coloured by offhand moments. Like how when her father returns from office, he inquires after his son, not his daughter. His son gets to attend wedding parties and movie outings, not his daughter. It is also established how his values are posturing at best, when he suggests that Najma need not wear a burqa as it is the wedding of an affluent household and “they wouldn’t like it”.
The family’s Muslim identity, apart from giving the literal emerge-victorious-out-of-a-burqa shot, helps in establishing their minority status, modest ambitions, and dreams kept in check. It is insisted several times that Baroda is a tiny speck in a big bad world. This aids in locating the kind of feminism that Secret Superstar is after. This authenticity that’s found lacking in how reality TV is represented on screen or in Shakti Kumar’s characterization, is found in the Najma-Insia relationship. Secret Superstar deserves credit for showing something rare on Indian screens – an authentic, honest to goodness mother-daughter bond. Insia’s is the most raucous while Najma’s is the silent rebellion. Their respective independence is celebrated in similar ways. One from inside a sound proof recording studio where you can only see the people applauding outside. Another, when the man responsible for all of Najma’s troubles is locked in between the wedges of his wife and daughter with his protestations, behind glass doors, falling on deaf ears. The glass ceiling is different for different people.