Lost in her own thoughts during an English class, a distracted student is pulled up by the teacher and caned when she fails to explain the meaning of the word ‘irony’. It’s a throwaway moment in the film “Secret Superstar”, in which a burkha, viewed by many as a symbol of oppression, becomes the very thing that liberates a young girl. Aamir Khan, famous for shunning awards, plays an awards-hungry musician who’s hurting from being repeatedly overlooked for accolades. How’s that for irony?
Written and directed by debutant Advait Chandan, “Secret Superstar” is many things at once: an inspiring journey towards empowerment, a case for pursuing one’s passion against all odds, a testament to the deep mother-daughter bond, and a convincing depiction of teenage years.
Zaira Wasim, who played the young Geeta Phogat in “Dangal”, stars as Insiya, a 15-year-old from a middle-class Muslim family in Vadodara who dreams of becoming a famous singer. Her loving, supportive mother is the wind beneath her wings, but neither can stand up to her controlling, abusive father who refuses to indulge her musical leanings. No wonder she decides to hide her identity and upload YouTube videos belting out melodies in the hopes of being acknowledged for her talent.
Chandan sets up his protagonist’s world with remarkable perceptiveness. An ageing grandmother and a doted-upon younger brother complete Insiya’s family, and through only a few telling scenes, we learn a lot about these folks. The film captures nicely the excitement of getting one’s first computer, and even the flush of first love. It is particularly unflinching in its depiction of domestic abuse, and especially rattling as viewed through the eyes of young children.
Frequently I found myself fighting back tears, more often than not in the portions between mother and daughter that cover a whole spectrum of emotions. Meher Vij is exceptional as Najma, Insiya’s ever-smiling Ammi, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. Meanwhile Raj Arjun plays Farookh, Insiya’s despotic father with such cold, dark efficiency, he casts a pall of doom over the film each time he’s on screen.
Less convincing is the apparent ease with which Insiya becomes a viral sensation and how conveniently she finds favor with washed-up composer Shakti Kumaarr. Aamir Khan is clearly enjoying himself as the flamboyant, sleazy musician, a rare opportunity for the famously restrained actor to let his hair down.
Despite taking a turn for the predictable post-intermission, and despite relying on too many familiar tropes, “Secret Superstar” doesn’t veer too far off course because – like its protagonist – it never loses sight of its goal. The film is overlong, stuffed with too many subplots, and far from subtle. Yet it keeps us consistently invested in both Insiya and Najma’s journeys.
Standing tall amidst a pitch-perfect ensemble, is Zaira Wasim as Insiya, who comes off as something of an old soul trapped in a teenager’s body. Wise beyond her years, she is riveting on screen, in the manner in which she appears to sing using her entire being, or the little moments of crushing disappointment and excitement that are reflected on the canvas that is her expressive face.
“Secret Superstar” belongs to its incredible cast that glosses over many of the film’s minor lapses. Advait Chandan makes an assured directing debut, delivering a film that is ultimately heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.
Rating: 3.5 / 5