Director: Advait Chandan
Cast: Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij, Raj Arjun, Kabir Sajid, Aamir Khan
I spent much of my childhood eating post-school meals in front of the television set. As a result, to this day, I still associate food with emotions. I cannot finish my solo lunches without watching – without feeling – something. And over the last few years, I've discovered that the easiest way to feel as soon and hard as possible in a stipulated window of time is by viewing a perfectly "packaged" performance on one of television's thousand talent reality shows: the likes of America's Got Talent, X-Factor, the Idol series. By packaging, I mean the entire "story capsule" and introduction of an artist – underdog, rags-to-riches, family deaths, diseases – broadcasted prior to the stage act. Right through to the standing ovation and the shocked judges' comments, replete with a sappy background score and slow-motion shots of the new star wiping happy tears. I've wolfed down several meals with this montage-induced lump in my throat.
Perhaps this explains why I felt so famished for two-and-a-half hours in a cinema hall this morning. Blow up one of those expertly manipulative TV capsules into a feature-length film, and the result is Advait Chandan's Secret Superstar. The only difference: I could have finished ten meals instead of one, owing to its bloated running time.
This film is mainstream done right – a sort of sweet, soppy companion piece to a Bajrangi Bhaijaan or a Rajkumar Hirani special. It doesn't lose perspective of its own self-explanatory language
Secret Superstar is familiar, predictable, cunning, clichéd and unabashed in its expression. But with this film, the term "mainstream" doesn't feel derogatory. We've seen it all before: the same beats, domestic conflicts, evil fathers, patriarchy, submissive wives, bruised faces, oppressive burkhas, glassy-eyed dreams, smashed guitars, rock ballad tunes, digital fame, unlikely mentors, breaking free, speeches, winning. We've seen a million kids dream through the patronizing eyes of adult filmmakers who think they can speak to us by over-simplifying life lessons. Yet, this film is mainstream done right – a sort of sweet, soppy companion piece to a Bajrangi Bhaijaan or a Rajkumar Hirani special. It doesn't lose perspective of its own self-explanatory language.
At one point, its fiery protagonist, Insiya Malik (Dangal's superb Zaira Wasim), gathers the guts to criticize sleazy music-composer-cum-saviour Shakti Kumaarr (Aamir Khan) and make him see the light. In a way, she explains commercialism in one line. She tells him that his latest songs sound like remixes of good songs that were never made. And then she proceeds to sing old-school, to remind him of the soul he has lost. Secret Superstar is like that "good song": a by-the-books original that, in a parallel universe, might have spawned the rest of Bollywood's guileless remakes. It is basic and familiar because its story is familiar in every third Indian household.
Hindi cinema has reached a point of such saturation in terms of anthem-ish quasi-biopics that it's easy to cringe as soon as these templates unfold on screen again. Even reality has been privatized; the same old melodrama and formulas often make us believe that such characters now only exist in the movies. But bastardization doesn't make them untrue. Thankfully, the makers here choose to commit to these "stereotypes" instead of merely designing them. They achieve a balance between flimsy authenticity and fluffy escapism – between making us believe she is a hero and simultaneously making us aspire to her ordinariness. The peaks are high, and the lows are bottomless.
Much of this desired result is down to the fine actors. They operate in extremes. As the oppressive Muslim father, Raj Arjun (a grumpier Arshad Warsi) is so singularly menacing that he is instrumental in making us empathize with Insiya's filmy pursuit of independence. His one-note-ness is appropriate because it is enraging. On the contrary, Insiya's dewy-eyed "boyfriend" (Tirth Sharma) is extremely noble and helpful – like the generously smiley-faced neighbours who accompany singers to their talent shows. Insiya's kid brother (Kabir Sajid) is incredibly cute: a perfect symbolization of "innocence" in danger of being contaminated by the household's toxic masculinity.
Insiya's mother (Meher Vij; coincidentally the Pakistani mother in Bajrangi Bhaijaan) is the standout character because of how the actress (an Anjali Tendulkar doppelganger) manages to convey her own coward-to-braveheart journey from the sidelines. She makes this film more than just one about a culture, a climate, feminism or a stifled burkha-clad young girl becoming a viral sensation; she becomes the pain in Insiya's voice and the determination in her eyes. She becomes the reason we demand a resolution – a dramatic one, no less. The battle feels personal with her in the same frame.
Ironically, two of the film's unique selling points – the music and Aamir Khan – are its weakest links. In one of the first scenes, Insiya serenades her classmates in a train. The camera shows us her fingers strumming repeatedly – to make us notice that she is actually playing the guitar down to every chord. Unfortunately, the overplayed soundtrack is only satisfied with this visibility; it concentrates more on sounding in sync with Zaira Wasim than sounding novel from Insiya Malik.
Khan is very aware of Shakti's limited influence. Therefore, he misconstrues an over-the-top (grey) personality as an over-the-top (parody) performance
As for Aamir Khan, he comes very close to destroying the film with his performance. There are two aspects to this angle. One, that his character Shakti isn't allowed to hijack the film or even interrupt Insiya's personal surroundings (like, say, the Taare Zameen Par teacher and his monologues). He remains an unorthodox guiding light – a worthy concept in Indian cinema, given that he is a sheep disguised in wolf's clothing and not an all-out angel. His redemption is limited to hers. This works admirably in context of a star-produced vehicle.
However, it's the second aspect that matters: Khan is very aware of Shakti's limited influence. Therefore, he misconstrues an over-the-top (grey) personality as an over-the-top (parody) performance. He seems almost desperate to make a mark in the limited time, and oscillates between creepy and hammy. We get the whole tight-shirt-womanizing-brand of stubborn heyday-Bollywood-ness, but Khan turns it into an audition gone wrong. He might look like he is having a blast (his "babez" and winks are annoyingly contrived), but shady humans don't necessarily warrant shadier performances. Consequentially, the writer does not stop short of glorifying a presumably vile man. Which is why, like many before him, he comes very close to reiterating the very ideologies his film aims to dispel. In the end, thankfully, it's Shakti that subdues the not-so-secret superstar occupying the role.
There's something enjoyable about understanding an idea that a movie doesn't try hard to communicate. For instance, there's a shot of a school visit to the zoo, in which everyone except Insiya admires the leopard prowling in its cage. She walks away. The "shackled" metaphor isn't overtly obvious, and we enjoy discovering this moment. Until, of course, the next shot frames the cage in the foreground with a sad Insia in the background. It is spelled out. Secret Superstar is all about that second shot. And it presents itself accordingly. For once, we admire the aesthetics of the shot instead of mourning its unnecessary existence.