One of the immutable laws of recent Hindi cinema is that if Aamir Khan is acting in a film that really isn’t about his character, he will be all over the second half. It happened in Taare Zameen Par (2007), and again in Dangal (2016), unusual films that he helped build and which he probably felt the responsibility to see through to financial safety. In both cases, his presence somewhat hijacked the narrative, and I braced myself for the same happening in Secret Superstar.
Advait Chandan’s film, his first as writer-director, does have a lot more post-interval Aamir than in the first half, but this time it wasn’t unwelcome. It’s not that Khan’s performance is particularly good (he plays as a randy film composer, Shakti Kumarr, in a broad comic register) but that this is a film in some need of hijacking. Of all the accusations one can level at a narrative, I’m loath to use “slow”, an unhelpful, vague descriptor whose import differs wildly from one viewer to another. I’ll say instead that Secret Superstar, in its initial 75-odd minutes, feels repetitive and sluggish, circling back to situations and character traits that have already been defined.
Insiya (Zaira Wasim) is a 15-year-old from Vadodara with dreams of becoming a famous singer. She’s encouraged by her mother, Najma (Meher Vij), who bought her her first guitar and later sells her jewellery to buy her a laptop, which Insiya uses to upload a video of herself singing on YouTube. She performs wearing a burqa, in order to keep her hot-tempered father (Raj Arun) from finding out. This makes Secret Superstar the second Hindi film this year in which a teenage girl dons a burqa for a specific purpose; in Lipstick Under My Burkha, the garment is used to facilitate shoplifting and is presented as a symbol of oppression, something Chandan also suggests, though in a less equivocal manner.
It seems to me far-fetched that a father wouldn’t recognise his own daughter even if she’s in a burqa. Still, Insiya’s decision—and the video’s viral success—sets up the film’s primary conflict, which echoes the strained relationship at the heart of a film from 2010, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, where Ronit Roy played a nightmare of a dad who won’t let his dreamy, creative son be happy. It’s interesting to see a similarly hateful patriarch in a mainstream narrative like this, and credit must be given to Arun for playing him as a scary, unredeemed jerk. But Udaan was gritty and unsentimental, whereas Secret Superstar compensates for the unpleasantness of the father with the excessive sweetness of Chintan (Tirth Sharma), Insiya’s besotted classmate, her regulation-adorable kid brother, Guddu, the frequently overwrought writing, and Amit Trivedi’s cloying music.
Though Wasim and Vij are a believable, affecting mother-daughter pair, Secret Superstar, like so many other Aamir Khan joints, feels micro-engineered for emotional impact, down to the last sad violin on the soundtrack. One can imagine Wasim’s Geeta from Dangal rolling her eyes if her mother said: “There are so many things I haven’t been able to give you in life, so don’t take away my chance to see you laugh.” Secret Superstar is, in a sense, a more empowering film than Dangal: a young girl fighting her father to achieve her dream, rather than fighting for his. It’s also considerably less exciting, the 150-minute running time padded with unnecessary scenes involving Chintan—in his own dutiful way as much a caricature as Shakti—and made sluggish by the weight of virtue. Chandan, once Khan’s manager, worked with the star on his well-meaning TV show Satyamev Jayate.