First, a spoiler alert: Secret Superstar is a cute, intelligent and sweet movie, that almost borders on being a documentary. That said, the movie is insightful in that it picks up the various marginalized groups in our society, and weaves them all into one coherent storyline. Thus, the protagonist is not just a child, she is a girl child, in a simple, very lower middle-class, somewhat orthodox Muslim family, and above all, she dreams of becoming not a doctor, engineer, chartered accountant or an architect. She dreams of becoming a popular singer!
Insiya, fondly called Insu by everyone, is a high schooler, who is doing just about ok in academics, and who trudges to a factory-style home- based tuition class in the neighborhood every evening for chemistry and math etc., but whose favorite possession in the world is a guitar that her mother presented to her at age six. Insu enjoys singing away. She has a strong singing voice, not the most melodious you have heard, but a buoyant voice, that comes out with confidence. And she wants to pursue her love for music.
Unfortunately, she is placed not just in a conservative Muslim family, but also in a lower middle-class family, and the combination of cultural taboos and lack of plentiful money, implies that resources are strictly rationed, and most certainly that allocation is decided single-handedly by the sole bread winner, the father. Is it a mere co-incidence that the father is a wife beater? Most certainly not. Domestic violence is an under-reported event in India, not because women are being treated as goddesses, but because one, the abuser is typically the man, and two because unfortunately, there is very little recourse for the victim, financially, legally, and most important socially. Thus, Insu’s father continues to whip his wife, black and blue-literally, while the teenaged kid and her small sibling have to cover their ears to shield their psyche from the painful moans of the helpless mother. Interestingly, the father unashamedly does this, in all his senses, not in some kind of inebriation, because you see he never touches alcohol, he is a devout Muslim remember?
Despite the dispiriting milieu at home, Insu uses technology to help her. She not only gets her songs out in the world through simple home-made you tube videos, but manages to find a mentor in a big music producer from Mumbai, all with the help of mobile phones, Facebook, online plane reservations and Twitter.
Here is where, my only big gripe with the movie is. Insu–the teenaged singer posts her you-tube videos dressed in a black Burqa, because she does not want her father to know about her singing adventures. In a matter of few hours she gets thousands of likes and encouraging comments, asking her to do more such videos. What seems unreal, and too fairy-tale like is the fact that she gets not even one bad or lewd comment. Is this believable? Not, if we know that in the real world there will always be some people who would look at a black-burqa clad woman singer, and say one or all of these things, “Are you ISIS?”, “Cutie, Sexy, etc.” “Bad Voice, Bad Dress, Boo”, or some such. The need for such realist comments was underlined to me when I saw my nine year old daughter, with whom I was watching the movie. Her eyes sparkled at the prospect of ‘winning’ a huge number of positive accolades in an instant from the internet. And I wanted so badly to tell her that that was a myth and that for every one success story that we celebrate, there are hundreds of stories of internet trolling, cheating and predation.
Yet, even with this shortcoming, I appreciated the many nuances of popular culture captured by the film. We see a satire on the process of generating typical item number with the synthetic titillating ‘ahs’ and ‘oohs’ added to what could have been perfectly decent and melodious Bollywood songs. As a passing commentary on the sham that sometimes the institutions of marriage become under social stigmas, we see that Insu’s Hindu boyfriend comes from a broken home, but where the working mother has been able to explain to her son that sometimes people are better off separate than together. This boy has a positive outlook on life, and seems to harbor no ill-will against any parent, unlike Insu who sees her mother’s spirit crushed in her marriage every moment. Last but not the least, it is refreshing to see that teenagers are not all hormones running amok. This boy has a crush on Insu and eventually gets to become her official ‘boyfriend’, but the undertone of their very cute, very sweet and very organic special friendship is one that speaks of healthy relationships as opposed to lusty exploitations typically propagated in popular media.
At its core the movie is a parable of the unbreakable spirit of a determined girl child, whose power is only more defined not subdued, when she learns that she might never have been born, had it not been for her mother who literally ran away to avoid a forced abortion. How cleverly does the movie sneak in this arresting aspect of our society – that we kill our female fetuses, Hindus and Muslims alike, despite it being illegal to find the gender of the child before birth!
Secret Superstar is an Aamir Khan film. And he has proved once again, what I have for long believed now, that he is one very rare breed of truly earnest patriots. His pride in India is not in wearing saffron and chanting slogans, but in picking up, portraying and then resolving issues that are the critical yet unsung malaises of the Indian set-up. His stance on women’s issues has been similarly informed. Which is why we were treated to the game-changer movie –Dangal -a biopic on two Indian women wrestlers- where we were forced to celebrate the physical power of women—a refreshing change from the monochromatic lens that typically we wear in cinema for women’s physiques- as item girls, or as heroines with bodies and faces that always meet the ‘ramp’ molds. The same holds true of Secret Superstar. This is certainly a movie that is both fun and fit to be seen with young children. As a mother of two small girls, this on its own is a big bonus for me.
Dr. Nidhi Thakur is a professor of Economics, a writer and a mom of two, based in Short Hills NJ.