Uplifting songs and a goofy cameo by Aamir Khan cushion the hard-hitting elements of Secret Superstar, which carefully addresses domestic abuse in a film meant for families. It’s an impressive debut by writer-director Advait Chandan.
Right away, we sense that 15-year-old Insia (Zaira Wasim) has bigger problems than her upcoming music competition and her nosy little brother, Guddu (Kabir Sajid Shaikh). Insia’s mother Najma (Meher Vij) is the only person on the train platform wearing sunglasses when she arrives to pick her daughter up from a class trip. As Insia suspects, Najma is concealing a black eye, courtesy of Insia’s father, Farookh (Raj Arjun).
Though Farookh primarily reserves physical violence for his wife, his anger controls every member of the household. Insia is a talented singer and songwriter, but Farookh considers music frivolous. He’d rather she not even enter a singing contest she’d likely win, if it means having to travel to Mumbai for the final round.
Farookh’s job interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, provides Najma, Insia, and Guddu with a brief respite from his wrath. They use the opportunity to set up an online identity for Insia using a covertly purchased laptop. Insia’s songs become a sensation on YouTube, in part because she records them while concealing her identity under a niqab and posting under the intriguing moniker: Secret Superstar.
As fame and fortune become a real possibility for Insia, the unfairness of her reality intrudes. She’s her little brother’s protector, and her mother’s as well, to the degree that she’s able. The truth is her father would rather have his daughter live by his rules, even if it means forsaking money the family needs. Allowing Insia to pursue her dreams for her own sake would never occur to him.
Secret Superstar is particularly effective at depicting the fraught relationship between mother and daughter. Insia resents her mother for staying with an abusive husband and endangering them all. The girl is partially correct — Najma is better equipped for endurance than daring — but Insia’s immaturity limits her perspective. Najma is illiterate, giving her good reason to worry about her ability to care for her children on her own. Besides, Najma is a safer target for Insia’s frustration than the real perpetrator, her father.
Insia has two important allies. First is Chintan (Tirth Sharma), a nice boy at her school with a crush on her. Since he has a cell phone and she doesn’t, Chintan becomes Insia’s link to her second ally: movie music producer Shakti Kumar (Aamir Khan). Blackballed by the industry following an adultery scandal, Shakti is in desperate need of a singer for his new film, and he hopes that Secret Superstar can put him back on top again.
Wasim played Khan’s daughter in 2016’s box office smash Dangal, and the affection the actors share is apparent in their scenes together. That bond helps to integrate Khan’s character into the story, where he serves as comic relief, while also being the only adult in whose presence Insia is truly physically safe. Her home is filled with violence, her school practices corporal punishment, and her tutor ignores the girl’s obvious terror and insists that Insia have her father sign a failed quiz. Shakti doesn’t just offer her hope for the future — he protects her in the present.
Everyone in the cast excels in their roles. Khan is funny and sincere. Sharma is gawky and adorable, and Shaikh is just cute, period. Arjun terrifies even when he’s not raising a fist. But Secret Superstar belongs to Wasim and Vij. Wasim has the presence of a much older and more experienced actress. The quality of the work she’s done in her first two films — which she completed before she even turned seventeen — is remarkable. Vij is likewise captivating and moving in her part, and she and Wasim work beautifully together.
The soundtrack of Secret Superstar — with songs written by Amit Trivedi and sung by Meghna Mishra — suits the film well in that it sounds lyrically and musically like it could have been created by a teenage girl on her guitar. In a clever bit of character-development-by-way-of-musical-arrangement, the song “Main Kaun Hoon” starts as an acoustic YouTube recording session in Insia’s bedroom, only to be re-orchestrated mid-song as she daydreams of performing onstage at an awards show. It’s clever and makes the music more dynamic.
Moviegoers squeamish about violence should know that little contact is shown, with director Chandan instead focusing on the aftereffects (both physical and emotional). Secret Superstar is not to be missed.