The secret in the “Secret Superstar"

By Kirthi Jayakumar

A still from Secret Superstar

Secret Superstar might just be a lesson in intersectionality, operating live in every parallel track of the tale.
The film has been marketed as a feel-good film starring Aamir Khan and Zaira Wasim. It talks about a girl who wants to sing and how she makes that brave journey — centering its key discourse around her, although the film is truly the narrative of the character of the girl’s mother, Najma, essayed by Meher Vij. And it is this narrative that endures long after you’ve walked out of the dark cinema hall, bottling your tears knowing that everything that was showcased continues to be a seemingly insurmountable reality that traps many more.
Shakti Kumaar (Aamir Khan), is on the downward slope of his career graph and personal life. His wife divorces him, and the media has made a spectacle of the man for all of it. Meanwhile, in the heart of Baroda, Insia (Zaira Shaikh) a young woman tries on the dream of being a singer for size. She isn’t ignorant of her reality and bearings, though: she knows that her mother Najma, (Meher Vij) is being beaten by her father Farookh Malik (Raj Arun), and insists all too often that her mother must up and leave. She also knows that the dreamy, starry-eyed future she aspires to have is a blanket that is far too short to cover her, leaving her toes exposed. And yet, she tries.
This essay / review does have a few spoilers ahead, so go on at your own risk.
As the story unfolds, you find the grain of intersectionality underlying Najma’s narrative — and it’s a very, very important tale to be told. Najma is beaten for trivialities: be it forgetting to turn on the water heater at home and receiving a broken hand for it, or for selling a gold chain to buy her daughter a laptop and receiving an evening’s worth of horrific violence for it. She finds herself in a place where leaving doesn’t seem like a viable option: not one bit, because the looming question of how, she, an unlettered woman, can hope to support two children remains unanswered. A point comes when Insia identifies the charm of running a channel on YouTube. But there’s trouble in that approach: what if her father sees her and gives her a hard time for it? The burqa steps in here as an innovative tool supporting an act of resistance, and Insia begins to sing. I’d probably say that it is an interesting flaw in the script that her music gains virality within hours of being posted online (I know the agony of campaigns falling flat after 100 views, and I’d like to tap some of that good luck) but I won’t harp on it anymore out of the understanding that it is vital to the narrative. Soon, Insia begins uploading videos and gains fame under her pseudonym, Secret Superstar. In this melee, a young lad from her class fancies her and follows her around. She dismisses him, asking if he is a puppy — and he backs off, apologizing. Eventually, he turns out to be her Man Friday, and helps her on her journey. Insia makes two trips to Mumbai — one, to meet Shakti Kumaar, who tweets her his number, and records a song for him; and two, to meet Shakti Kumaar’s wife’s lawyer — for her mother.
Advait Chauhan is woke. And frame after frame alludes to that.
Whether it is in his understanding of what a survivor of Domestic Violence faces, and how tough making choices are for her, or even in his understanding of how a teenager has a right to say no, and exactly how a boy must respond to a no, this comes through. At first, Aamir Khan’s misogynist ways don’t fit in — or it seemed to me like he was being condoned despite his creepy ways — but it eventually does — for you see that he represents the larger social ethos of patriarchy. You see him talking over women, objectifying them, choosing to sell sex instead of quality music just so he can fit in. You see the MRA in him rise as he refuses to accept a feminist lawyer’s work in supporting his wife’s efforts: only to eat humble pie and return to her for Insia’s sake.
All that said, the film is a stunning exposition of intersectionality. And here’s why.
The film represents the spectrum of men and women in society. In Najma’s mother-in-law, you find the woman who falls in line with social expectations and perpetuates the patriarchy herself. In Najma, you find sacrifice: in escaping from a hospital on the eve of an abortion surgery to save her girl child, or in every act of giving her daughter wings. In Insia, you find a solid foundation for defiance, and to rise, strike and question. The three of them represent a feminist’s journey, in one: Najma’s mother-in-law represents the unlearning you need to chase, Najma herself represents being caught by the need to navigate difficult choices, and Insia is the bile that rises up your throat to question all that’s wrong. On the other hand, you have the ruthless Farookh Malik who does everything to be the man in control: beating his wife to shamelessly asking his wife to wear the gold chain her father gifted her, so he can lose potential jibes at him for not keeping his wife well. In Shakti Kumaar, you see the privileged male chauvinist who thinks women are merely meant for his entertainment. In Guddu, Insia’s little brother, though, you see how a child can choose compassion over violence: by listening, really listening, to his mother and sister. In Chintan Parekh, Insia’s classmate, you see strong, unconditional support for a woman’s quest to chase her dreams. You see a learning curve that traverses the arc of naive ignorance to respect.
A second, and very interesting nuance in the portrayal is how intersectionality plays out through a privilege-and-oppression lens. Insia’s tuition teacher is seen shelling peas while engaging a class full of students. Her husband is seen reading a newspaper beside her. One wonders why he couldn’t lift a finger to share the cooking burden while she works: and he opens his mouth to confirm it. He offers, in awkward jest, to his wife’s students, that “she scolds him a lot more than she scolds the kids.” In a few minutes, we see Insia taking her teacher on. The teacher pokes fun at Insia, suggesting that she took the child in because her mother pleaded with her. The child is quick to retort saying that it wasn’t the plea as much as it was the double fee that won her over. The teacher spits in the child’s face, saying that it was her father’s hard earned cash that her mother was paying. Interesting dynamic to represent how we navigate lives through privileged lenses, here. And so subtly done.
Three, the resounding slap in the face that is delivered is how violence effectively strikes at choice. Najma knows what she’s facing is wrong. She knows that she would, in an ideal case scenario, not take this rubbish. She knows that she can. But everything from fear to the myriad personal narratives unique to her: that she was forced into marriage, that she cannot aspire or dream, that she wants her daughter to dream but is aware of the limit she’s forcing on those dreams, that she must save like a squirrel for any chance to escape — or at least buy her children some ice cream, that she never wanted her daughter to know that she was an unwanted foetus at the doorstep of death — set to cross over had it not been for her timely escape. And yet, she can’t. When she asks whether anyone cared for what she wanted, it tears your heart. Because that is what violence is. Finally, in that one defiant move when she signs the divorce papers and slams it in her husband’s face, you see that her action has begun to stitch the tear in your heart. She has decided that her life is for her to control.
One of the biggest take homes from the film is that peace, non-violence and compassion can be cultivated, and chosen as a response, in the harshest of times and situations. Sample this: mother and daughter are talking about leaving. The daughter insists that she and her mother should leave, and her brother Guddu, should be left behind, because her father only wants him. But Najma responds, saying that leaving Guddu behind would guarantee that he would turn out like his father. Insia asks if making him 2% better as a person would be worth suffering all that they do, in the process. It’s a tough question to answer, but her mother holds her ground. A few scenes later, we see little Guddu having painstakingly stuck back Insia’s broken laptop with an assortment of glue, brown and clear tape. Interestingly, one wonders why Najma’s mother-in-law couldn’t have been a positive influence, or at the very least, intervene as her son’s violence rises every day. Intersectionality answers in one line, as the old lady tells Insia that she wishes she weren’t born altogether. Coming from a time where social conditioning made women unwitting purveyors of patriarchy through silent compliance, rising to question him was not easy.
And finally, what happens next. Of course the film must end. Of course there must be a resolution. But for all of a few solid minutes, Najma sees the hurdle ahead of her, the helplessness around navigating a difficult world that is unkind to women — a world that shames survivors and criminalizes victims — and you leave with a heavy heart. It isn’t entirely a la Bad Luck Bears, but you can’t help feeling your heart sink at what lies ahead of her in an unkind society. It is in this take home that I felt a little let down: because the triumphant narrative is definitely a great hero’s journey being mapped, but also, a big risk in being an oversimplification.
Regardless of this one flaw, the film is important. We’re all busy talking about starting conversations. But our conversations are happening within echo chambers and we don’t understand what goes on beyond our privileged blinders. Secret Superstar is a tremendous attempt at making us set those blinders aside and work harder at equality and ending gender-based violence.