Aamir Khan’s cinema has become a textbook study of a high-achieving filmmaker who continues to capture absolutely timely cultural touchstones comprised of small, intense, stories that so easily juxtapose much larger, even global, themes. The subtext is often alienation and strangers caught in a web of a strange landscape (Peepli Live, PK, Dhobi Ghaat). Of late, that theme has expanded to the empowerment of women. With the megahit Dangal (2016), Khan expanded his reach to exploring athletic privilege prescribed by gender. With Secret Superstar, Khan takes misogyny one step further for a brilliant Cinderella spin that is a winning entry.
For shy Baroda teen schoolgirl Insia Malik (Wasim), life experiences are shaped by three overlapping factors. There is her loving mother Najma (Vij), the angry outbursts of her just as non-endearing father Farookh (Arjun) and a secretive passion for music that Insia has nurtured since the age of six when her mother gifted a guitar. Insia’s father has strict reservations about Insia’s musical outreach that would prohibit her from performing in public. As a workaround to her father’s judgements, the 15-year old chances posting a video online. To maintain plausible deniability, and in step more or less with her Muslim upbringing, the online videos have Insia appearing in a burqa. As the videos go viral and the secret teen sensation gains an online following, even one small misstep and her father discovering his daughter’s online identity could endanger Insia’s dream.
A teen with hidden musical talent, an abusive father and an abused mother do not quite meet on the corner of family bliss. Aided by her school yard buddy Chintan (Sharma), Insia reluctantly reaches out to Mumbai music promoter Shakti Kumar (Khan) for an audition. Arranging to go to Mumbai for the audition, doing so while pretending to be at school, somehow keeping her father in the dark about her musical ambitions and taking literal and figurative steps away from her home bring into focus a teenager caught in the crossroads. Maintain status quo and put up with daily doses of daddy’s wrath or risk a new venture with a small possibility for happiness.
Khan’s Kumar is a delightful Mini-Me version of his own real-life star and star-maker persona. Kumar is a down-market, over-the-hill former-star whose career-best waved farewell about a decade ago and he is now a lecherous, cranky lounge-lizard sporting an over-moussed coif and glittery T-shirts a few sizes too small for his girthy middle-aged spread. He can waltz into the office of his former wife’s divorce attorney’s office and in a sizzling two-minute sequence, succeed in schmoozing the cold-hearted receptionist into practically giving away office secrets. This self-deprecating caricature of a superstar outwardly image now reduced to swallowing slices of humble pie is funny, perceptive and devastatingly effective.
As he did with Dhobi Ghaat, Khan wisely remains in the background playing second-fiddle. The camera is always gazing out from Insia’s world-view. Wasim, who made her debut as Khan’s younger wrestler-daughter in Dangal does well again as his surrogate daughter here. Wasim’s Insia injects maturity—perhaps even a little too much maturity—into her struggling teen. She has grown up faster than can be expected. Her angst is real, at both her father’s angry outbursts but even more so at her helplessness at the suffering of her mother and young brother Guddu (Sajid). Arjun as the tyrannical father, Sharma as Insia’s accomplice for the musical shenanigans and geeky first-crush, and especially Vij as the mother silently acquiescing to abuse round out a well-cast and well-written story.
Amit Trivedi’s musical score has some bright spots. With Meghna Mishra crooning many of Wasim’s onscreen songs, Mishra’s “Main Kaun Hoon,” Sunidhi Chauhan’s “Gudgudi,” and Mika Singh’s “Sexy Baliye,” the latter filmed on Khan, all make decent listening. That there are no show-stopping, glitzy numbers adds to a family outlook overall. With the empowerment theme, putting a spotlight on spousal abuse, flirting with the popular rage for creating self-promoted online videos, Wasim acing the princess looking for her figurative musical ball and Khan as a declining star who has nailed the lifetime achievement award as a SOB, Secret Superstar provides very good viewing!