Tag Archives: Zaira Wasim

Movie Review: Secret Superstar (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

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.

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Movie Review: Dangal (2016)

dangal3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

Walt Disney Pictures’ stamp is all over Dangal, the true story of a father’s quest to fulfill his own dreams of wrestling gold through his daughters. The movie is eminently watchable entertainment for the whole family.

Dangal is based on the life of Mahavir Singh Phogat, played in the film by Aamir Khan. The story begins in 1988, after Mahavir has shelved his own desire of parlaying his national wrestling title into success on the international stage. A recurring theme in the film is India’s failure to compensate or cultivate international-caliber athletic talent, forcing athletes like Mahavir to abandon their sports in favor of stable jobs.

Mahavir’s one hope is that his wife, Daya (Sakshi Tanwar), will give him a son he can raise to be an Olympic champion. When Daya births a girl, Geeta, Mahavir’s disappointment is so deep that the entire town becomes obsessed with folk remedies for begetting male children. When Daya births a second girl, Babita, it’s as though she’s let down all of Haryana, not just her husband. By the time Mahavir’s fourth consecutive daughter is born, he’s abandoned his dreams entirely and metamorphosed into a pot-bellied salaryman.

This obsession with a male heir is played for laughs, but it’s hard not to feel for Daya, Geeta, and Babita. Mahavir isn’t cruel to them, but his disappointment surrounds him like a cloud. It would be hard to live in a home with someone who only sees you as a reminder of what you’re not.

It’s clear that Mahavir doesn’t really see his girls for who they are, because only when they get in trouble for beating up some local boys does he realize that they could become Olympic wrestlers themselves. He immediately institutes a rigorous training program, drafting the girls’ cousin, Omkar — the movie’s narrator and comic relief — as their unwitting sparring partner.

Because Dangal is a Disney co-production, it’s guilty of glossing over issues that might bog down a family entertainer, as several of Disney’s American sports movies have been accused of doing in recent years. Mahavir — and, by extension, the film as a whole — has no regard for his daughters’ emotional welfare. Part of his training regimen requires Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnagar) to cut their hair short and wear boys’ clothing, sublimating their femininity right as they become teenagers, as if adolescence isn’t already hard enough. The movie tries to absolve Mahavir of guilt with a scene of the girls’ 14-year-old friend being forced into an arranged marriage, as is that’s the only alternative.

Geeta shows real promise as a wrestler, making it to the national athletic academy as she hits adulthood. Her exposure to a world that doesn’t adhere to her father’s ascetic rules sets up an in-ring competition between the two that is the movie’s most powerful moment. Khan and Fatima Sana Sheikh — who plays Geeta as an adult — are tremendous in the scene.

Perhaps the best endorsement of Dangal is as a wrestling tutorial. A sequence of Mahavir explaining to his charges the way points are awarded in international competitions pays off later, as the final thirty minutes are just tournament footage.

The tournament footage is beautifully framed, showing the audience the points accrued or time remaining in the round at critical moments. The editing gives a clear sense of the stakes and allows the audience to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired throughout the film. It’s nice to come out of a movie feeling smarter than before.

Despite a failure to address certain troublesome issues, Dangal is ultimately a heartwarming story. It’s appropriate for all ages, and nicely paced to hold the attention of younger audience members. If nothing else, you’ll leave the theater with a new appreciation of the sport of wrestling.

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