The story may not be especially original — a young woman comes of age amid the chaos of home, the rigidity of school and budding ambition but writer/director Advait Chandan imbues it with such ingenuity and sensitivity that you can’t help but care about these characters.
It is charming, spirited and full of life and earnestness much like its title character: 15-year-old Insia dreams of having big dreams while her abusive father is constantly stifling them. For her music is a lifeline, a way to find happiness in sadness.
For a lush wish-fulfilment fantasy this movie is surprisingly down to earth and incredibly real. It got all the details right. This movie is not about Insia’s dreams coming true (spoiler: they do), it’s about all the little moments in her life that make dreaming possible and all those moments that make it difficult.
She fantasizes about winning awards, but the award isn’t the goal. The goal is the dream itself.
In the very first scene she lights up at the thought of winning a laptop and an internet connection. When she finally does get a laptop it becomes her way to connect to the world outside her oppressive reality. She fantasizes about winning awards, but the award isn’t the goal. The goal is the dream itself. Music is an escape, not because of it means success but because it gives her space to dream of something more.
Zaira Wasim perfectly embodies a teenager who expects a bright future even when the present seems dim. She loves her mother, but doesn’t want her life. Her mother Najma (Meher Vij) has created a mini world where they eat kulfi, hug in piles and confide in each other – one where Insia feels safe enough to nurture dreams of a better life for herself and her family. If you’re weeping for an hour after seeing this film, Meher Vij is the culprit responsible for those tears.
The relationship between these two is what propels the story forward and keeps it from being maudlin and sappy. It feels honest and heartfelt. They challenge each other and learn from each other and most importantly are always in each other’s corners.
They take turns being supportive, protective and daring. Insia’s mother shows her how to be a pillar of strength in the worst of situations, how taking care of the people you love must be a priority, how to nurture and create beauty in a world that feels ugly. Meanwhile Najma’s daughter gives her hope, teaches her the value of rebellion and reveals her own secret reservoir of courage and tenacity.
The tender bond between mother and daughter is at the core of Secret Superstar.
Everyone else adds texture to this little world making it feel real. Guddo, the little brother is a delight. He’s sweet and adorable throughout, but when he tries to help his sister in the most endearing innocent way, that’s when the crying starts again. Tirith Sharma brings the blush of first love as Chintan who is Insia’s friend, co-conspirator, and biggest fan. Even Aamir Khan’s sleazy music producer proves to have a big beating heart beneath his ridiculous exterior.
Every scene with the father is scary and sad. But sadness makes the joyous moments more poignant. There are real stakes here, not succeeding doesn’t just take away her chance at stardom it will take away her chance to live a life according to her terms at all. The combination of serious and lighthearted makes Secret Superstar both fun and meaningful. It is a rich and worthwhile examination on passion, on high hopes, and on the sacrifices we make for each other and those around us.
If there is a drawback, it’s that the movie does lose momentum in the last act.
The climax does not feel particularly satisfying or earned. The naturalistic unassuming storytelling gives way to plot contrivance and emotional manipulation. It unfortunately joins the pantheon of near perfect movies with disappointing endings.
Still, few films are ever as enjoyable and endearing. It is rare to see a movie with a completely unique concept but it is perhaps even more unusual to see a universal theme approached in a way that is surprising, thrilling and relevant. Chandan takes time exploring human kindness in a time where gloom and cynicism is often a stand in for sophistication. He understand that there is just as much nuance and complexity in the sunshine as in the darkness The result is compassionate, painful and totally irresistible.