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A brilliant coming of age story with Zaira Wasim in the lead, Secret Superstar absolutely deserves your money. Go watch in theatres and root for Insiya!
There is a flaw in Secret Superstar and that is the long hair wig that young Zaira Wasim as Insiya sports throughout the movie, as a school going, burkha-clad secret Youtube sensation. Now that the flaw has been discussed, let’s get into the rest of the movie which is nuanced and brilliant.
In an industry where even children’s movies have had item songs in the past, it is interesting to see a movie with songs sung by a teen that reveal her emotions and her understanding of the world. Some of the songs might sound childlike but then again, aren’t they meant to be that way considering that it is from a child’s point of view? However, there are a few songs that stand out from me – Main Kaun Hoon, Meri pyari ammi and Nachdi Phira.
Meher Vij who plays Insiya’s mother Najma makes one wonder, where has this actress been all along? Her unexpected smile and positivity fill up the screen and help propel the story and her children’s lives in turn. She is an unorthodox champion of her daughter’s dreams; however, her helplessness and desire to turn around her child’s life within her limited means is striking and heart-rending.
Her first shot in the film shows her waving exuberantly as Insiya comes home from a school trip wearing comical red sunglasses; glasses that one buys at a fair and are characteristic of someone who doesn’t usually wear sunglasses. It is then that Insiya walks up to her mom disappointed yet again and asks her about what happened to her eyes, to which Najma lies that the corner of a door stuck her and she is so stupid. We all recognize it for what it is but the victim continues to make excuses for the perpetrator, in this case, the husband.
The mother-daughter bond is the most beautiful one in the movie and passes the Bechdel test. They talk about their dreams and being unwanted as girls by a family that shows a clear preference for the boy child. Their conversations range from everyday shenanigans to frustration, to courage within the span of the film. While the mother is her daughter’s champion, the daughter also nudges her mother towards what she feels should be the right course for them. While Secret Superstar is a coming of age story of a young girl who aspires to be a famous singer, it is not only about that as various emotions intertwine to tell this compelling story.
The father portrayed by Raj Arjun is shown enveloped in toxic masculinity which made me wonder how difficult it would be to go through life with such negativity, destroying the people in your life with that negativity. His main grouse and lack of respect stem from having married an illiterate wife but the truth is that he would have been a roadblock even if she was literate and it is only an excuse and a tactic he uses to keep his wife under his thumb, lest she sprouts wings and decides he is not worth it. This underlines the most effective way a patriarchal society maintains itself, by undermining women at every step – by denying her birth, by denying her education, by denying her dreams so that she remains in and under obligation to men in marriage and otherwise. Well, women are catching on to your little trick.
It is refreshing to see Aamir Khan in a supporting role in the movie with a female protagonist in the lead. I hope more leading actors take this up as a challenge so that such movies can be made and receive the support they deserve. You have after all reaped the benefits of patriarchy for so long, maybe its time to give back? Aamir Khan’s character is shown as a caricature of a Honey Singh-like person who used to write better songs but has reduced his craft to suit the masses and has got embroiled in his own dirty work. He proves to be ‘Plan 29’ for Insiya to escape her destiny and offer an alternate destiny for her mom and younger brother.
Zaira Wasim plays Insiya to a tee and portrays complex emotions and owns the emotions in delivering a power-packed performance. Watching her in some of her pre-release interviews I could not help but compare her to a young Jennifer Lawrence. See Bollywood, when you come out of your own ditch of nepotism and female leads as eye candy you have a Zaira Wasim!
It is also interesting to note that a few years back, a 16 or a 17 year old girl would have been cast (with stuffed bra) as the love interest for an aging leading man. I am happy to see a young and innocent love story which is, more importantly, age appropriate with a sweet Chintan who becomes Insiya’s partner in crime.
Do watch Secret Superstar in theatres as Bollywood has owed us a coming of age story of a young girl for too long.