“Secret Superstar”… Some nice moments tucked away in the corners of a facile, manipulative script

Posted on October 29, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar is an obvious film. Everything is laid out on the surface — with a trowel. In the opening scene, we see schoolgirls in a train compartment belting out Bollywood hits like Bidi jalai le, Kaala chashma. An older woman, seated nearby, frowns. Then, one of the girls, Insia (Zaira Wasim), takes out a guitar and starts singing her own song, something she has written and set music to. The girls go quiet. The older woman leans forward, smiles. The rest of the film is about how Insia struggles to become a singer, and this scene tells us to root for that struggle. Because it’s not Bollywood music. It’s purer. If the former is perfume, this is an incense stick. After all, it’s got the older woman’s stamp of approval.

I saw the pleasant-faced, middle-class older woman as a metaphor for this film’s audience — and I don’t mean this condescendingly (though it is probably coming out that way). She stands in for someone who’d enjoy Insia’s bland, safe, cutesy, homespun music, and by extension, this bland, safe, cutesy, homespun movie. Secret Superstar is hard to hate — it’s so well-meaning, so nice. It says such important things (about following dreams, about domestic violence, about Amit Trivedi’s indispensability when it comes to crafting teen anthems). But if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film — at least, the major arcs. Dad (Raj Arjun) objects. Daughter rebels. Guardian Angel steps in. Girl becomes star. The only “secret” is in the title.

The writing is strident, like a placard at a protest rally. What delicious irony (something we saw in Lipstick Under My Burkha as well) that a Muslim girl is using a constricting garment to liberate herself, that she’s trying to become known to the world by concealing her identity! But we aren’t allowed to savour this plot point because the burkha is presented as an insta-solution to the problem. Insia’s mother (Meher Vij) literally tosses it at her, like how she’d prepare a bowl of Maggi if Insia said she was hungry.

Insia’s first recording is also an instance of two-minute-noodle screenwriting. Within the course of a schoolday, the Vadodara-based Insia (1) bunks classes and flies to Mumbai, (2) meets music director Shakti Kumar (Aamir Khan), (3) attempts to sing the sexy song he’s composed (why would a 15-year-old be asked to sing such a song?), and we’re not even half done. Insia then convinces the egoistical Shakti Kumar that the song is better sung as a slow number. The session, where she sings with her eyes closed (it’s coming from her heart, so she doesn’t need to see the lyric sheet before her), is okayed in one take. Everyone in the recording room applauds. If Advait Chandan made Rocky, we’d skip the training montage and cut right to the knockout.

And in this rah-rah-ness (the airline Insia takes, her flight to freedom, is called… Azad Air), something gets downplayed. From inside the recording booth, Insia sees Shakti Kumar slap an assistant. She’s a young girl in a strange new city, with strange new people — and in the midst of all this disorientation, she gets a terrifying reminder of her father slapping her mother around. What this does to her we are never allowed to find out. All the ickier moments — Insia setting out to get her mother a divorce, armed with nothing but the conviction that she knows better than her “stupid” mother; or Insia’s habit of letting off steam by screaming at people and banging her schoolbag against a pole — are given this treatment. To its credit, the film doesn’t shy away from showing these moments. But it shies away from exploring them. They come off like chilli flakes on a bar of white chocolate, tokenistic gestures to temper the unrelenting syrup.

From a commercial perspective, this syrup is perhaps why a Taare Zameen Par outgrosses an Iqbal or an Udaan, to take two other tales of dreams and abuse. But at least to me, the latter films have aged better. I still feel for the protagonists in those films. I still root for them to win. With Insia, I wasn’t cheering — merely waiting for her story to get done, so I could go home. I lost interest in her the instant her mother dropped her father’s dinner plate when he threw one of his tantrums. Insia sops up the mess with the poster for an inter-school competition she wants to participate in. It isn’t just spilt food. It’s spilt dreams. Or something.

The best bits of Secret Superstar are the ones tucked away in the corners. Insia’s mother stealing from her husband, so she can buy things he won’t approve of. The tuition teacher watching over a class while shelling peas. The revelation behind Insia’s name (and how it reshapes our perception of her mother). The reason Insia’s mother refuses to leave her husband — because that might mean leaving her little son behind, and what if he grows up to be another abuser? It’s a quiet statement about how the influence of women can shape men. Zaira Wasim and Meher Vij have open faces that invite us to bask in their warm chemistry. You want good things to happen to them. You just wish it wasn’t through this facile, manipulative script.

The men are more interesting. Aamir Khan plays Shakti Kumar like a cartoon animal that would be the heroine’s sidekick in a Disney movie, but I liked that he wasn’t as open a book as he first seemed. Why does this obnoxious creature, who keeps calling women “babes,” help Insia? We don’t know. Maybe he himself doesn’t know.

And through this character, Insia becomes less sure of the two-minute verdicts she passes on people. Her friend Chintan (Tirth Sharma), who has a crush on her, explains that Shakti Kumar’s divorces don’t mean he’s a bad man. Sometimes, shit just happens. The Chintan-Insia relationship is utterly conventional — also, utterly charming. Chintan gets the film’s best song, a broken-heart number when he realises she’s leaving for good. The emotions are played on a minor scale, but they feel honest. It’s sweet, but there’s no syrup. I kept wanting to see that story, of a young Hindu boy who dreams of marrying a young Muslim girl, with Aamir Khan stepping in during the second half as the helpful, compassionate man at the registrar’s office.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi