Damn Aamir, back at it again with the supporting roles
that help talented and troubled kids out of tough situations.
Out-dated memes aside, Khan and his production house have curiously cracked the formula for producing socially relevant movies which do not alienate mainstream audiences. Unlike Newton
which are exceptionally good films that however lack mass appeal, Khan has produced movies such as Taare Zameen Par, Delhi Belly
, Peepli Live
and so forth that have all managed to garner warm receptions from moviegoers both casual and hardcore.
Do these films sacrifice a tad of nuance in exchange for pleasing the crowds? Yes. Do these films leave the audiences with food for thought and questions to ponder over for the foreseeable future? Almost all of them do. While not bullet-proof classics in critic circles, most Aamir Khan movies are revered as modern masterpieces.
Aiming to join this class of crowd-pleasing cinematic experiments is a movie about a teenager with her mind on music and music on her mind, Secret Superstar. A story whose primary appeal is not the gaudier and louder twin of Disco Fighter, Shakti Kumar (Aamir Khan), but the youthful yet mature and subdued yet strong young lady carrying the movie, Insiya (Zaira Wasim).
Set in the relatively small city Vadodara, Insiya (whose name literally translates to woman) lives with an abusive father, an uneducated yet doting mother, a grandmother disillusioned with her life or lack thereof, a younger brother who is the child her father actually wanted, and a dream to be the best singer the world has ever known. The obstacles to her dream come in the form her aforementioned abusive father, a stereotypical character whose real world existence can never be fully denied.
A guitar, a burkha and especially a laptop her seemingly powerless mother provides act as Insiya's tools for showcasing her talent to the world via the wonders of YouTube. Insiya's journey through the interwebs leads her to the much maligned music director Shakti Kumar. He is a man barred from reality shows, his wife's comfortable embrace and hiring singers, but is enigmatically still eligible for awards for some reason. But hey, the existence of a character like this one in real world circumstances cannot be fully denied, either. He is a man on the lookout for a comeback, and his musical reinvention coincides with Insiya reinventing her life in her image and not the one set for her by her oppressive upbringing.
Secret Superstar is a movie whose every shot, song and story beat is controlled by Insiya's mental state. Taking a page out of Taare Zameen Par's playbook, Zaira Wasim is thrust into a movie that is more than content to let its scenes breathe and observe the life and times of a young woman who inhabits a family that has systematically barred its women from having dreams and goals of their own via incessant verbal, psychological and occasional physical abuse. The movie's lighting, cinematography, editing flow, songs and sound mirror the girl who is nearly in every frame of the movie she leads.
While each and every one of her life experiences and conflicts act as frilly sub-plots - be it her budding romance with classmate Chintan or her latent dislike of her younger brother owing to the preferential treatment he receives - they rarely take the focus away from the primary issue the movie is trying to address.
Most of this is down to some manipulative, melodramatic yet essential staging of scenes by helmer Advaith Chandan and his crew. The director deftly captures the vast expanse of Mumbai and the claustrophobic nature of Vadodara through a recording studio and an apartment building respectively. The use of a gate with steel bars and tightly framed shots while Insiya is in her home when contrasted with the use of wide-shots and 360s when she finds herself in a recording studio act as accurate visual representations of freedom of both thought and physicality.
When these directorial choices are combined with some soaring musical numbers (all strong songs except one) composed by toast-of-the-town Amit Trivedi and voiced by Meghna Mishra, the movie is rarely fallible at its biggest selling point, the music.
Filling this and many such moments of clever direction and music with an exquisite performance is Zaira Wasim. But she's been already showered with her fair share of praise for a very evocative performance. Every other character in Insiya's world is strangely one-note. While these characters are very functional in their roles which run the gamut of emotional states from menacing to caring to awkward to over-the-top, their lack of dimension works at making the movie a melodramatic portrayal of a woman's rise than a genuinely heartfelt one. That being said, specific praise goes to a hilarious Aamir Khan and a heart-breaking Meher Vij.
Dovetailing off the second and previous paragraph, Secret Superstar is a safe, marketable and crowd-pleasing movie meant to evoke the right of sentiment while illustrating societal evils all in an easily consumable Bollywood-ized package. While it lacks the simmering raw emotion and nuanced portrayals of the psychological damage an abusive parent can cause a la Udaan, the movie makes itself more accessible to a wider audience as its characters and conflicts hit close to home but not so close that they might turn people off. The extremely unambiguous title of the movie suggests as much.
As the movie does not lend itself to comedy as much, I'll throw in an observation of my own to send you home thinking if not smiling. Salman Khan still rules Eid and Aamir Khan still rules Christmas but Shahrukh Khan has been ousted from his tentpole Diwali release date. What does this mean?