Directed by: Advait Chandan || Produced by: Aamir Khan, Kiran Rao
Screenplay by: Advait Chandan, Rifat Khandakar || Starring: Zaira Wasim, Meher Vij, Raj Arjun, Aamir Khan
Music by: Amit Trivedi || Cinematography: Anil Mehta || Edited by: Hemanti Sarkar || Country: India || Language: Hindi
Running Time: 150 minutes
Thugs of Hindostan (2018) aside, the Aamir Khan-train shows little sign of slowing down anytime soon, what with the actor-producer (and occasional director) having established an unparalleled filmmography in his native Bombay industry, as well as a more recent following in neighboring China. Five of his films (Ghajini , 3 Idiots , Dhoom 3 , PK , and Dangal ) have each held the record for the highest grossing Indian film of all time (Dangal remains the current box office champion as of summer 2019) at their release, and two of his films, Dangal and today’s review subject, Secret Superstar (2017), are the current highest and second highest-grossing non-English language films at the Chinese box office, respectively.
As effective vehicles as these movies are for Khan himself, since 2009, his star power has been enough to elevate smaller or even unknown actors to national attention. Case in point is the adolescent star, Zaira Wasim, who rose to prominence with a memorable supporting role in Nitesh Diwari’s Dangal as a child wrestler, and was later billed as the lead for Secret Superstar (henceforth, Superstar). Wasim couldn’t have picked a better Aamir Khan Production, either, as Superstar is the strongest Khan-backed blockbuster since 3 Idiots.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Superstar is its mature, frank, and most surprisingly of all, restrained portrayal of domestic violence, which serves as the familial backdrop for Wasim’s lead character and development. Wasim stars as the first-born daughter of an otherwise relatable (re: not super-rich, not poverty-stricken) middle-class family shadowed by the abusive, ultra-conservative behavior of her father (a subtle yet disturbing performance by Raj Arjun). Much of the film’s lengthy (150 minutes) running time is dedicated to establishing the domestic setting of Wasim’s character, her close relationship with her mother (a complicated, nuanced performance by Meher Vij) and younger brother (Kabir Sajid), the way she hides her disinterest in school from both her parents, how the family nervously skirts around the work schedule of Arjun’s patriarch, etc. The interplay between Arjun’s foreboding, moody presence and the homey, close-knit warmth of the principle family’s home, the latter best personified by Vij in conjunction with the minimalist set-design, is fascinating.
The film is so confident in its domestic focus — much of it on Wasim’s lead, of course, but the family as a whole, truly — that the movie doesn’t even hint at its central plot-device — that the only way Wasim can share her musical talents is by recording herself singing with a niqab via YouTube — until the half-hour mark. Even after Wasim achieves semi-anonymous mainstream fame online, the narrative’s emphasis remains on her personal struggle to live under a half-loving, half-abusive household. The heart of the story is not the film’s “Secret Superstar”-gimmick, but rather Wasim’s relationship with her mother (Vij), and to a lesser extent, her learning to come out of her shell outside the house thanks to the friendship of a school crush (another impressive child-performance by Tirth Sharma). The patient unfolding of this storyline and its nuanced portrayal of domestic abuse is so much more captivating than the self-serious morbidity of, say, Rang de Basanti (2006) or the comical, manipulative preaching of Simmba (2018).
Unlike the social commentary of most Bollywood, Hollywood, and now Chinese blockbusters, Superstar lets the seriousness of its message speak for itself, toning down the melodramatic speeches and obnoxious background music so many other, lesser mainstream dramas embrace. A big factor in this is Arjun’s portrayal of an abusive father and husband, who, because his character is not depicted as a comical, mustache-twirling villain, but rather a realistic, bitter, entitled bully, is far more impactful than the one-dimensional cartoon characters of other “politically relevant” blockbusters. I can imagine so many versions of Vij’s final confrontation with Arjun in an airport that hit the audience over their heads with hamfisted melodrama or overindulgent monologues, yet rookie-director Advait Chandan executes this critical sequence with precision and restraint.
Aamir Khan’s supporting role and the musical-subplot of the film almost feel like an afterthought compared to the movie’s familial drama, but these elements are also strong. Aside from the principle song-numbers being well written — no surprise there, this being an Indian film — Khan’s limited screen-presence is well utilized and doesn’t overwhelm the primary cast of Wasim, Vij, and Arjun. Unlike Dangal, another film I also enjoyed, Khan gives Superstar’s lesser known castmembers room to shine and instead plays a memorable but minor plot-point in service to Wasim’s character arc.
There’s little I didn’t enjoy about Secret Superstar — a few too many pointless montage sequences and superfluous background music, I suppose, but that’s about it. The film’s central characters are so endearing and their familial drama, so relatable, that my black, stone cold heart felt like melting several times throughout the story. Despite the sensitive, complex subject-matter of patriarchal oppression and domestic abuse, this Bollywood picture molds a story around these issues to deepen its character-driven drama rather than cheapen it. Secret Superstar’s refusal to manipulate its audience allows its emotional themes to connect with them. By the time the story does build to an emotional monologue encapsulating the movie’s themes, it feels deserved, or rather, earned. That’s all one can ask of a motion picture.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Emotional, heartfelt, and sweet in all the right ways, Secret Superstar utilizes its memorable cast and a tasteful approach to a complicated topic to tell a powerful story. It’s character-driven Bollywood filmmaking done right, fleshed out with just the right amount of Hindi songs and Aamir Khan to take flight. If it can make me feel bubbly and upbeat, it can make anyone.
— However… first-time director Advait Chandan coaxes great performances from his cast, but visually speaking, his cinematographic style is plain and focused more on mise-en-scene than snappy editing or creative photography, including those song-numbers. You’ll remember the film’s homey set-design, but little, if any camerawork.
—> RECOMMENDED, for something to tug at your heartstrings.
? Most characters in the movie seem enthralled with Wasim’s character’s singing abilities, but I’d be most impressed by her songwriting!