There is something about Secret Superstar that leaves you deeply disturbed. Despite a happy ending that is aided by the usual tropes of Bollywood films, deep down you are left with some uncomfortable questions like why is becoming independent in a society crippled by patriarchy such a difficult task. Debutant director Advait Chandan deftly tackles these difficult questions in an extremely entertaining film.
Apart from great writing, what acted in Chandan’s advantage is the fact that he had actors who were ready to live characters and not just play it. 17-year old Zaira Wasim, hits all the right chords as Insiya, an ambitious teenager fighting for her and her mother’s freedom from an abusive father.
Aamir Khan acts as the court jester in this intensely emotional film and hits the ball out of the park.
But the one who walks away with the film is Meher Vij, who plays Insiaya’s mother. Despite being underplayed in both the trailer and during promotions, it is Vij’s portrayal of Najma that stays with us, haunts us long after we have left the theatres.
As a victim of domestic violence who chooses to take a stand for herself and writes her daughter’s success story, Vij is all blood and flesh in this film. There are some extremely violent scenes in the film, mostly directed at Vij. This is the kind of violence which many Indian housewives put up with on a regular basis, without making a big deal about it. Vij with her lively smile and powerful performance ensures that the audience doesn’t look at her as a battered wife. It’s true that hers is the best-written character. But it takes real talent to breathe life into such a complex character.
Aamir Khan and Zaira Wasim have done terrific jobs with their roles as well. But there are scenes where they falter, their dialogues go flat and their performances look affected. However, there is not one scene in the film, where Vij errs. She lights up the screen with her innocent smile and straddles the line between playing a fearful, docile wife and a visionary mother with an uncanny sure-footedness.
One of the scenes to watch out for is when Najma has an emotional outburst after her daughter forces her to sign divorce papers. The entire conflict unfolds in a 5-minute sequence and Vij becomes the voice of every disenfranchised woman in that one scene – why should a woman’s destiny be written by external forces – by her father, her husband, her children and the society at large? What about her consent, her opinion and her ambitions – has anyone really taken these into account while writing her story?
But she saves the best for the last, as the climax — the moment of final freedom for her and her daughter entirely belongs to Vij and her wit.
Just as Zaira Wasim was the real find of Dangal, Vij is a revelation after this film. It’s sad that this talented 31-year old actress is relegated just to side roles. Notable among her more popular roles is playing Munni’s mother in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Perhaps, the mix of vulnerability and relatibility on her face makes her such a fantastic choice to play a mother. But we pray that this brilliant actress is not stereotyped as a mother in the industry. For she has immense potential.
With inputs from Himesh Makand, gifs by Shalini Ojha