There’s much to like in Secret Superstar. After all, who doesn’t feel for the underdog, in this case, Insia (Zaira Wasim), a 15 year old Muslim girl from Vadodara. She wants to be a singer but faces stiff resistance from her orthodox father (Raj Arjun), who has no qualms about favoring her little brother over her or lifting his hand on her mother, Najma (Meher Vij), at the slightest excuse. Some extremely fine performances, some lovely perceptive moments and a look at domestic violence in a manner not often seen in our cinema still cannot overcome the many clichés, some much-too-convenient and on-the-surface writing (and storytelling) and noticeably gawky efforts at manipulating viewers’ emotions.
No doubt, Secret Superstar has its large heart in the right place. It also looks at some rather pertinent issues – gender inequality, domestic violence, patriarchy, being allowed to chase one’s dreams. The set up for the film, the introduction of the various characters (mostly believable) and the creation of Insia’s world is done seamlessly and in a manner that has you rooting for her right from the beginning. The inter-character relationships, equations and dynamics are well-worked out with the central one of Insia and her mother a particular delight with little touches of affection, humor, anger and togetherness. The other track that has its strong impact in the film is between Insia and her friend and confidante at school, Chintan, who also has a solid crush on her and Insia, even if she won’t admit it to him, on him. Their sequences together have a lovely innocence and smile-inducing tenderness to them. The besotted look on Chintan’s face when he looks at Insia’s password for her e-mail and social media accounts (though we guess it anyway) is priceless.
For all that works in the script, it’s still the overall writing and plotting that lets the film down. Overcoming stronger obstacles makes for stronger characters. But here everything appears too predictable, typical and simple for Insia in spite of all the odds she is up against. Her problems are solved too easily – her video goes viral overnight rather conveniently – and even the ‘metaphors’ are in your face – Insia not just seen through the bars at the zoo but with a focus shift from her to the bars when she is down and her ambitions stifled; her flying to Bombay representing her reaching for the clouds; her broken laptop highlighting her shattered dreams etc. The film also unsuccessfully balances ‘reality’ with some overt manipulation of emotions and some truly implausible plot points (the bane of mainstream Indian cinema) especially in the dipping second half – the crazy composer readily agreeing to Insia’s suggestions, the meeting with the divorce lawyer, the final climax and the mawkish speech – ending up in no man’s land by the end of it all.
Still, the majority of the casting and the engaging performances are the film’s biggest strengths. Zaira Wasim continues her fine work following Dangal, capturing every shade of her character perfectly and is clearly a talent to look out for. Tirth Sharma as Chintan is spot on and perhaps the most natural performer in the film, while Raj Arjun makes for an extremely effective and at times chilling male chauvinist cad. But the life of the film and the rising above all of the story and her character’s clichés is Meher Vij as Najma. The true pillar of support behind Insia, she brings much inner strength and dignity to her role of the constantly battered and humiliated wife, who is both a best friend and a mother to her daughter. As Insia says in the film, she is the film’s true superstar.
While Aamir Khan has great fun with his cameo as the over the top musical composer, Shakti Kumaarr, and does bring the house down at times, you are confused with both, the way the role has been conceived and how it has been performed. Consequently, the performance is inconsistent and constantly struggles with how much to parody and how much to keep it human.
The technicalities are adequate. Anil Mehta keeps his camerawork real enough while Amit Trivedi makes good use of Meghna Mishra’s voice for Wasim. The songs, so integral to the story, are fine, even if short of memorable, with Main Kaun Hoon, Meri Pyaari Ammi and Nachdi Phira standing out in the film. Hemanti Sarkar keeps the rhythm, pace and tempo of the first half moving along beautifully, but you do feel the film’s length in the comparatively sluggish second half. But then, an editor is bound by the material he or she receives.
All in all, Secret Super marks a positive enough directorial debut for Advait Chandan. But truth be told, it also leaves you a little frustrated as it had solid potential to be a cracker of a film. As it is, the film has its share of high moments but finally falls short of being there.
Hindi, Drama, Color