There are several things that Secret Superstar, a tale of a repressed teenager in a town in Gujarat, gets right.
Firstly, the culture of fear that accompanies years of systemic domestic abuse and patriarchy is searingly brought out from a 15-year-old girl’s perspective in director Advait Chandan’s debut feature.
Secondly, the protagonist, Zaira Wasim, as the spirited Insia who is desperate to make it big as a singer, strikes the perfect balance of being vulnerable and being armed steely resolve. She isn’t jaded and her struggle to break free from the clutches that weigh her down feels real.
It’s also rare to see a Hindi film explore the family dynamic of those experiencing domestic abuse. The second-hand hurt that children face in fractured households and the silent spectators who allow abuse to continue is driven home succinctly.
Meher Vij, as Insia’s troubled mother, shines as a badgered, complex housewife and makes her viewers turn into cheerleaders by the end of the film.
The chemistry and the deep bond that she shares with her daughter is heart-warming.
Also, underlining the stellar ensemble cast is actor Raj Arjun, who plays the predatory parent.
The scenes in which he pummels his wife, before asking his son to be taken to the other room so that his preferred male heir doesn’t witness his bestial behaviour, is chilling.
It was also a relief to see a Bollywood A-lister such as Aamir Khan make way for the women to shine in the drama. He features predominantly in the second-half, and his outlandish behaviour as a fading musician, Shakti Kumar, is gratingly over-the-top and over theatrical. In some of the scenes, his physical movements are so exaggerated that it makes you wince. Perhaps, Khan’s flamboyant act was to inject some much-needed humour into the film. There are a few snide jokes that land, but some get lost in his over-acting, bordering buffoonery.
But if you are looking for strong performances from the lead trio, Wasim, Vij and Arjun, then there’s much to appreciate here. Their warped middle-class existence and their interdependence for each other are highlights.
But, all isn’t picture perfect in Secret Superstar.
The unnecessary sheen in chapters showcasing Insia’s flush of first love and her swift ascent into singing stratosphere is a bit of a stretch. The simplistic way in which Insia amasses millions of fans through a series of social media posts and song uploads and her breakthrough into the highly clannish Bollywood industry isn’t wholly believable. While the first half prided itself in being melodrama-free, the climax makes up for it by cranking up the theatrics.
But don’t that stand in your way of enjoying this film that is fuelled by absorbing performances. This film is also a fine example of a Bollywood superstar letting others shine.
Rating – ***