Secret Superstar: Amir Khan As Never Seen Before
SHOMA A CHATTERJI
“Wilful suspension of disbelief” is a phrase that has come to be almost exclusively associated with cinema that plays around with fantasies, fairy tales and surrealistic elements intelligently blended into a few truths. No other film in recent times within the Bollywood mainstream can fit into this description than Amir Khan’s trump card this year in the shape and style of Secret Superstar.
It is “entertainment” in the truest sense of the term that has cleverly incorporated several social agendas into the script authored by debutant director Advait Chandan with domestic violence playing the main role for a major part of the film.
The choice of Vadodara (formerly Baroda) invests the film with an old-world charm with the school children more like real children unlike the sophisticated, over smart, headphone-sticking, selfie-clicking, star crazy teenagers one gets to witness in films placed in large metros like Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore. Besides, Vadodara has a significant Muslim population and is the third largest city in Gujarat.
The school environment is immune to any communal shades or colours and is just like a school should be with students preen in their school uniforms pulling each other’s leg and yet being sympathetic to the issues their friends may be facing. Insiya’s clear disinterest in academics or any kind of school work is natural and convincing for the dreams she nurtures.
Secret Superstar is more about the mother and daughter relationship than on the ‘secret superstar’ segment of the story. Insiya (Zaira Wasim) is a talented singer who strums on her guitar her mother (Meher Vij) bought her and learnt to play it all by herself.
But all these musical games, serious or entertaining or time-pass, are done without the knowledge of Insiya’s father Farooq Malik (Raj Arjun) who hardly talks to his growing daughter but dotes on the little boy (Kabir Sheikh) because he hates both his wife and his daughter and makes no effort to disguise his dislike for women in general and Insiya and Najma in particular.
Insiya has a dream of making to the top of a famous music reality show and though this dream was instilled in her by her mother, it is she who discourages her later on because she is terrorised just by the thought of how Farooq Malik will react if he gets to know. He does not get to know till much later that his daughter is the “Secret Superstar”, the very popular singer in a burqua who has drawn God-Alone-Knows how many hits on her You Tube link for her songs.
The scenes between and among Insiya, her mother and sometimes, the little brother are so touching that they can move you to tears. There are the usual Amir Khan snippets that go straight for your heart-strings. One is the little brother’s desperate attempt to put Insiya’s fragmented laptop together with lots of cellotape after her father drops it from their upper floor flat. Insiya, who had scolded him for playing around with her project materials, is moved to tears when he says, “some things are left to be done,” with that cute smile lighting up his face. Or, that scene when her father decides to get her married to a man much older than she is and she tries to put her foot down for the first time in his presence. Or, the scene where the little boy peeps through the door, and shocked at his mother being bashed up by his father, rushes to his sister and clings to her for comfort. In one scene soon after her husband leaves for a trip, after closing the door, Najma does a little jig and smiles in pure joy that they will be free of torture for a few days.
The film is dotted with lovely scenes like this one. Special mention must be made for every scene between Insiya’s sweet Chintan (Tirth Sharma) who is Insiya’s shy but smart classmate from the time he keeps chasing her in his understated way, tells her, with the dimple deepened in one cheek, “I love you,” and follows her like Mary’s little lamb never mind that she brushes him off till she realises that he is a genuine friend. This boy is a jewel in the crown, really. Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij, Raj Arjun, Mona Ambegaonkar and the little Kabir Sheikh are so good that you feel you have walked into their lives and not into a film!
Who, in this film is the real “Secret” superstar? To reveal that would be the biggest spoiler for those who have not seen the film yet and ought to watch it at least once. Why? Firstly, to watch some of the most naturally spontaneous performances by actors whose faces are not yet tainted with the aura of stardom and therefore, come without that starry baggage..
Secondly, to see from different perspectives, how a mother-daughter-son relationship can work with doses of fun and joy though the ‘family’ lives in mortal fear of physical violence every waking minute while the husband/father is at home or that he will arrive any minute and throw the house asunder with his terrible violence. The suspense simmers right through the home sequences in the film.
Thirdly, to learn how a mainstream film can be packaged so well that you come out of the theatre feeling not only entertained but also enlightened!
Secret Superstar is a wonderful entertainer from beginning to end. But the ‘entertainment’ comes at a price – the price is - turning a story of struggle and a mother-daughter bonding strengthened by domestic violence into a modern day fairy tale or rather, a post-modern fairy tale that enmeshes the narrative with every item of melodrama one can imagine.
But in Bollywood today, only Amir Khan as producer and actor on the face of it and everything else behind that ‘face’ is the best talent to deliver what it takes for the mass audience to be soaked with and sucked into from beginning to end.
The film divides its small world into two parts. One part comprises of all the good people – Insiya’s mother, little brother, friend Chintan, school mates, music director Shakti Kumar, his team and everyone else. All these very good people are pitted against the other part of the world comprised of just a single man – Insiya’s father. The two worlds are two watertight compartments or two parallel tracks that never meet and never can meet. This demands much more suspension of disbelief than an Amir Khan film warrants.
Hemanti Sarkar must have found it tough to meet with the editing challenge but she takes up the gauntlet and delivers it all smoothly. Some of the sequences towards the end spill over with jet-paced chemistry in the mise-en-scene and this goes to the credit of the cinematographer Amil Mehta as well. Amit Trivedi’s music is okay but Insiya’s music is clearly not up to what a sudden discovery of a magical singer warrants.
For example, the flights from Vadodara to Mumbai and back are never delayed or cancelled to suit Insiya’s appointments with Shakti Kumar. When Insiya points out to the music director that he has lost his magic, he accepts her critique which is impossible for any music director, specially as arrogant and as rude as he is, to accept from a young school girl who has not even done an audition.
There is no casting couch in the music industry and Insiya gets to record her song at one go and the CD becomes a hit. Finally, she wins the top award not directly but from the winner who was selected as the top singer of the year! How can a prize winner bestow her own award to another nominee? It is unethical and unthinkable in the circumstances in which these shows function. Besides, this is not a direct win at all.
The “bridge” that joins the two worlds in the climax – the scene at the airport after Inisya’s father commands his wife to throw the guitar in the waste bin and there is a heated argument between the two will never be tolerated in an international airport for security reasons.
The script is divided into two main tracks and Insiya, the pretty girl with stardust in her eyes runs common in both tracks.
One is the Vadodara track that focusses on Insiya’s family environment that clash with her dreams, lightened with lovely moments shared with the cute Chintan and blended into her YouTube recordings clad in a burqua that covers most of her face. The other track is in Mumbai that introduces us to the wonderful music director Shakti Kumar full of blabber and tall talk, out of work because he is currently out of tune and out of the music industry for his arrogant and rude behaviour.
This is an Amir Khan we have never met before and he comes across as brilliantly as only he can – highly stylised mannerisms in body language and speech including the swift changes in tone and pitch, the elaborate tattoos, the tinted and spiked hairdo and an overload of flamboyance that contrasts beautifully with the rest of the film and the also with the characters he is associated with including the staid and prim and propah female lawyer he brings Insiya to.
However, once Insiya begins her Mumbai trips for her audition and recording, the script loses its tightness and consistency and embarks on an extended tour of melodrama that throws every bit of logic into the winds but goes romping away to the finishing post sticking a thumb at the mesmerized audience.
Well done Amir Khan and your ever-enlarging film family.