Fifteen-year-old Insia (Zaira Wasim) lives with her mother Najma (Meher Vij), a little brother Guddu (Kabir), a lovely grandmother and an abusive, short-tempered father Farookh (Raj Arjun). Insia loves making her own songs on the guitar while warding off her classmate Chintan's (Tirth Sharma) obvious interest in her.
Insia's father resents Zaira's bent to music. Her mother stands by her. After her mother gifts her a laptop and Internet dongle, Zaira posts her first song video on YouTube clad in a burkha under the name 'Secret Superstar'. As she gains anonymous fame, infamous music director Shakti Kumaarr notices her. Meanwhile, Insia's dominating father plans to move with the family to Saudi Arabia and marry off Insia. Desperate for her freedom, Insia takes some bold steps.
Taare Zameen Par 2.0?
There are many parallels to Amole Gupte and Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par (2007) and Secret Superstar. Though the latter doesn't deal with autism, both films feature the main child protagonist with daddy issues and creative streaks.
The mom quotient is propelled as the main draw in Secret Superstar, it featured in a prominent song in Taare Zameen Par. Aamir Khan features as a helping friend/angel here too. Both films feature receiving awards as the character's culmination. Emotions are placed out as audience manipulators in both movies. But there is more to Secret Superstar.
Najma and Insia's relationship has engaging complex literature webs.Insia calling her mother foolish, stupid to her face for taking in her father's abuse is a nice touch. Najma's unsung heroics is effectively understated. She is easily connectable as what Indian mothers go through, not that everyone's trapped in an abusive marriage.
Insia's teenage angst makes a mark because of Wasim's steely interpretation. In her second outing, Zaira Wasim has all the marks of a great actress. Watch Insia slur before her dad's stern queries, her wall-punching anger, mom-daughter outburst, class act.
Pre-Teen Romance, Sibling Revelry, Star Presence
The Chintan-Insia kiddy love story has its vibes, though it sometimes feels filmy convenience. Guddu (Kabir Sajid) as Insia's little brother is a crackling minimally used character. Aamir Khan's Shakti Kumaarr seems contrived at the start. Despite some miss, some hit parts, Khan's character gives us great laughs in the second half.
The Amit Trivedi Impact
Secret Superstar wouldn't have the same 'yearning to be free' impact if not for Amit Trivedi's wonderful, apt soundtrack. The songs may not necessarily be chartbusters. But in 16-year-old Meghna Mishra's vocals, Trivedi finds a great groove and cultivates our empathy for Insia. Main Kaun Hoon, Meri Pyari Ammi, and Nachdi Phira are crucial to the film's storyline, elevating audience-character connect.
On, Off Treatment
Cinematography and sound design seems lazy here, as is the film's dependence on performances to instill engagement in many scenes. The prolonged climax with the mother repeating her daughter's words, the award function finale, the Shakti Kumaarr flirt angle, would seem all stilted, but for the performances.
Zaira Wasim's wonderful, unaffected turn is ably supported by Meher Vij, Aamir Khan, and Raj Arjun. Tirth Sharma and Kabir Sajid deserve special mention for their performances. Meher Vij is singularly terrific and understated as the abuse-battling mother. Khan is clearly having fun here, though the writing lets him down at times. Raj Arjun is effective as a father, not ending up as a one-tone villain. He deftly conveys the shadow of long-working-hours and a male dominant tradition, in ways you can easily miss.
Great Intent, Decent Execution
Secret Superstar didn't completely win me over, but several moments are strong, genuinely affecting, true-to-life and inspiring. From celebrating adolescence, innocence, aspirations and girl power to holding a mirror to domestic violence and marriage dynamics, there is enough to take away here. It skillfully keeps star presence and religion to the background.
Despite the 150-minute running time, Secret Superstar has enough going for it to make it a good, if not overwhelming, Diwali family movie pick at the theaters. Some very pertinent questions are asked here.