Secret Superstar: Hiding behind the veil to be free!

Secret Superstar: Hiding behind the veil to be free!

Directed by Advait Chandan and produced by Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao, Secret Superstar was one of the most commercially successful Bollywood films of 2017. Set in Vadodara city, the main plot of the film revolves around a talented young girl who rises overnight to international fame as a singer. However, she must keep her identity hidden from her oppressive father, and therefore from the world. Her mother who fearfully supports her dreams up to a point, out of fear of attracting the husband’s wrath (and abuse), she suggests to Insiya to don her burkha for the online performances on Youtube. Paradoxically, the burkha, a well-known symbol of oppression, becomes her instrument for freedom. She covers her appearance to liberate her voice and one is reminded of other films in which one aspect of an identity needs to be hidden to develop another[1]. One can see how in this instance, and perhaps in many others, it can, in fact, be liberating to be covered, not unlike the story of the ‘Invisible Man’ by H. G. Wells that we enjoyed as children. See this link[2] for an interesting debate about the burkha. Dreams of Trespass by the late Moroccan Sociologist and Feminist, Fatema Mernissi[3], is another recommended reading.

Secret Superstar revolves around a teenage girl Insiya the older of two children in an orthodox Muslim family. Insiya’s father is an engineer by profession, and an aggressive, abusive patriarch in the home. As his daughter grows up, he takes the stony stance of unmoving dominance and finality regarding the women in the family. When the Insiya displays interest in singing, he is belligerent and accusing, both towards the mother for encouraging the daughter and towards the daughter for being distracted by such misplaced dreams. Some particularly distasteful scenes depict his violent attacks on his wife as the children watch helplessly. Yet even in these moments, Insiya’s spirit and determination are discernible. She wants a way out for her mother as well as for herself, in fact for the three of them, the mother, her brother and herself. As she begins to find her feet, the daughter makes a careful plan for the mother to divorce from the unhealthy relationship, but finances are an important concern.

As a young fifteen-year-old, Insiya’s identity is strong and determined. She is not cowed down by misfortune and remains resolute in becoming a star.

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Her confidence is exceptional, as is the support of her young classmate and early romantic interest. Both these young actors bring a breath of fresh air to the otherwise overdone story. The film shows her dramatic and somewhat inconceivable journey, but these flights of fancy and the overexaggerated characters are not new to Bollywood. Secret Superstar is yet another in a series of regular films that tries to bring messages home to families to allow children to pursue their dreams, but yet again, like an earlier attempt regarding art and the young child in Taare Zameen Par, the depictions are exaggerated, and the film fails in all its attempts, as Purna Rao’s review demonstrates.

Review- By Purna Rao

I believe that the movie takes on the challenge of trying to address these issues of Indian society:

  • Women’s empowerment
  • Repression of the girl child by a parent, especially a father
  • Domestic violence
  • Education
  • Economic independence
  • A young person’s dreams

I strongly believe that the film fails on all these fronts since it tackles these serious issues in a cavalier manner, without any serious engagement with any of these issues whether it is education, empowerment, identity or stardom. Among the most serious failings of the film is its attempt as a socially responsible story. I asked myself after I saw the film, what in fact was its purpose? The opening scenes depict the young protagonist composing songs, strumming the guitar and dreaming big. She is so preoccupied with the pursuit of becoming a superstar that her presence in the class room is a problem to the teacher. In a somewhat bizarre scene the English teacher asks her what “irony ” as a figure of speech means. Insiya is blissfully unaware of the meaning or its usage and the teacher erupts into a caning session after asking Insiya to hold out her hand. Is this an attempt to address the issue of corporal punishment in the classroom or its endorsement? I have been a school principal for many years and I have yet to see a 10th standard student being caned and accepting it without retaliation; not that I am supporting any sort of violence in the classroom!

The girl is also poor in studies and fails to perform well even in the private tuition classes for science where she is distracted and thus unable to clear the test. Clearly, she is most disinterested in academic work. The guitar becomes an obsession as does the dream to upload videos on YouTube and check on the ‘likes’ received from viewers. Again, one wonders if this is an endorsement for guitar-playing over and above all other engagements. Her mother is her confidant, and the poor woman is regularly abused by the violent husband who bemoans the fact that he had to marry an uneducated woman while he is a Engineer making a decent living.

The dramatic presentations of domestic strife and disharmony are not new to Hindi cinema or popular TV serials, yet the graphic display of episodes of beating, especially in the presence of children, was especially disturbing. Despite all this, the mother resolves to help the daughter achieve her dreams of becoming a “superstar” and secretly sells her gold necklace to buy the daughter a laptop to upload videos. Something she keeps a secret from everyone until she is discovered by the husband when he demands her to wear the said necklace for an evening party to “show” how well-off they are! Needless to say, this discovery ends with another episode of beating up the wife as the hapless children and mute grandmother look on.

Concerned about the public attention to her daughter and potential discovery by the husband, the mother is determined to support her daughter’s dreams and comes up with an idea. She suggests to her to wear her burkha for the video recordings. The “secret superstar” is born overnight. Her identity becomes the topic of many news items and tv shows, even as the disapproving father looks on, not recognizing that it is his own daughter who is being discussed.

In another aside, the story takes a side trip to the issue of female foeticide. Yet again one gets the feeling of the story being stuffed with a quick reference to a social issue, picked up, presented, but without any depth or discussion. The audience is informed through the grandmother’s narrative that the father had always rejected the daughter, even before she was born, and had taken the mother for a termination of her pregnancy when it was discovered that she was expecting a daughter. In fact, the mother takes a stand and runs away from the scene to raise her daughter tll she is ten months old, and only then returns to the family. For the father, the younger child, his son, is the focus of all his attention and the discrimination is dramatic and severe. Yet another issue is raised and left hanging, gender discrimination in the home.

Somewhere along the line, a well-known music director (played by Aamir Khan himself) discovers the music videos and invites Insiya for an audition. In a somewhat ridiculous role, he is depicted as a twice-divorced, rather mediocre composer well past his prime. In collusion with a classmate who is in love with her, Insiya takes off for Mumbai after getting in touch with the music director, playing truant from school, taking periodic flights to Mumbai and returning home unnoticed before the school day is over! From this association, duo is successful in recording a song that also attains instant attention and award-winning acclaim. The rather implausible association between an unknown teenager and a fading music composer results in a magical performance and successful song.

Meanwhile, Insiya’s father is posted to the middle east. For the first time, the monstrous man is shown with an enthusiastic disposition when he declares that the shift will bring the family much success and the daughter will soon be married to a well-established suitable husband soon! Insiya is angry and seeks her mother’s support for breaking away from this plan, but the mother fails to go along with the plan, she seems to lack the resolve to take such a major step forward on her own. Insiya remains determined and seeks legal counsel through her new-found mentor, she gathers together divorce papers for her mother to sign. She feels that her new-found success can support the family and her mother need not continue in the abusive relationship. Although the mother refuses initially, an angry scene by the husband at the airport results in her dramatic turn-around and she opens her suitcase, signs the divorce papers and hands them to her husband, leaving him with a threat to call the police in case he tries anything to stop her from leaving. With the two children in tow, she walks out a free woman.

The film ends with the music awards ceremony where the family appears and the mother’s dedication is publicly recognized and applauded.

In sum, a film that promises a serious approach to several issues, I found it to be too maudlin with emotion and confused in the presentation. I was also troubled by the fact that truancy from school was treated as acceptable, along with the dismissal of the importance of formal education, Also the obsession to gain recognition on social media and counting the ‘likes’ and receiving fame at 15 is so easy was not an appropriate message in my opinion. I fear that this will send a wrong message to children, both about what they should be doing with their time and about the importance of social acceptance, even if they have a talent.

Although the mother walking out was a dramatic scene, yet one wonders what she would do once she was on her own. Again, the film fails to provide a reasonable solution. Hope is good, but for a film that aims to provide several social messages, there is a need to be somewhat realistic in the presentation of the story and the characters. Although it was among the most popular films of 2017 and received a great response from audiences in different countries, I would give it a mediocre rating because of the predictability and stereotyping of storyline and characters. The film fails to successfully address either women’s empowerment or economic independence, domestic violence or adolescent passion! Perhaps the only silver lining in this cloud of a film is the performance of young Insiya, young Zaira Wasim[4], whose former role as the sportswoman Geeta Phogat in Dangal[5] received much acclaim.

Additional comments:

After viewing the film ourselves, we had a few things to add here. We believe that it comes across as a very simplistic story of girl who became successful with a couple of video uploads.

  • It clearly undermines the importance of financial independence
  • The girl claims to take care of her mother and brother if her mother divorces her father but has no idea of how she will manage the finances for household and education
  • Far from being realistic, the film showcases dreams which millions of adolescents and youth nurture. Rather than providing sound grounding it, we believe that it encourages the theme of overnight success that can be profoundly misleading as a message
  • The last scene where girl unveils herself to show her face shows desperate need to find her own identity and prove herself beyond just becoming a successful singer
  • Exploiting social issues like domestic violence or gender discrimination for commercial success, demonizing men (one is a wife beater, the other a moronic musician, and yet another a juvenile dependent on his sister and mother; the boyfriend has no identity other than being a ‘helper’ who assists the main protagonist to reach her female liberation goals), and not balancing the act with realistic and responsible depictions of men should not be acceptable to us.
  • In a recent piece on compulsory attendance on higher education (a JNU debate) discusses how attending a boring lecture leads nowhere and students who are responsible adults making choices of what they shall attend or not attend, much in line with what Insiya is shown doing in the film. It is smarter to play the guitar than it is to listen to a lecture, it is implied. And the film nurtures hope in youth who harbour such dreams. If teachers are not getting ‘smarter’, definitely, students are. Our university system hires English teachers who cannot speak English. And you cannot say that anywhere for fear of being classified as elitist, casteist. Other subjects may be no exception. The ideal student attending to all and sundry as the review describes, is lost in the registers and may not even have existed at all in reality, but does it help to reach the other extreme in our depictions?

Happy viewing!

[1] For instance, Yentel, the story of an exceptional young Jewish woman in early 20th century Poland dons the garb of a young lad to fulfill her scholarly dreams. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yentl_(film)

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/valerie-tarico/is-the-hijab-a-symbol-of-_b_4796907.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatema_Mernissi

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaira_Wasim

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dangal_(film)

3 thoughts on “Secret Superstar: Hiding behind the veil to be free!

Add yours

  1. In an era where creative expression is flourishing, this film takes the stand of a young inexperienced adolescent against an antagonistic father who is an established engineer. It is talent and struggle pitched against establishment and comfort. Like ‘Three Idiots’ this film again criticises the society’s flaws in handling talented youngsters by making them ‘another brick in the wall’. This time they have focussed social aspects around women’s liberation. I think the focus should be on how it is difficult for women of our society to take a stand against men – not just because of the oppressive ways of handling dissent but also there is literally – No Country for Dissenting Women. I think the only valid criticism would be the lack of male role-models in the film. Sure gender bias and meeting crooked men is inevitable reality women face but can we also engage boys in films about women empowerment?

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  2. In an era where creative expression is flourishing, this film takes the stand of a young inexperienced adolescent against an antagonistic father who is an established engineer. It is talent and struggle pitched against establishment and comfort. Like ‘Three Idiots’ and ‘Taare Zameen Par’ this film again criticises the society’s flaws in handling talented youngsters by making them ‘another brick in the wall’. This time they have focussed social aspects around women’s emancipation. Women and girls of our society find it extremely difficult to take a stand – not just because of the oppressive ways of handling dissent by men alone but also there is literally – No Country for Dissenting Women (finances, social, safety etc). Certainly the lack of male role-models in Bollywood (or even Hollywood) is appalling where women’s issues are concerned. All men supporting women are now seen as hiding an evil side – which was not really so in the TV serials aired on Doordarshan in 80s and 90s . Sure gender bias and meeting crooked men is inevitable reality women face but can we also engage men in films about women empowerment, again?

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