Written and directed by debutant Advait Chandan, Secret Superstar is many things at once: an inspiring journey towards empowerment, a case for pursuing one’s passion against all odds, a testament to the deep mother-daughter bond, and a convincing depiction of teenage years.
Zaira Wasim, who played the young Geeta Phogat in Dangal, stars as Insiya, a 15-year-old from a middle-class Muslim family in Vadodara who dreams of becoming a famous singer. Her loving, supportive mother is the wind beneath her wings, but neither can stand up to her controlling, abusive father who refuses to indulge her musical leanings.
Chandan sets up his protagonist’s world with remarkable perceptiveness. An aging grandmother and a doted-upon younger brother complete Insiya’s family, and through only a few telling scenes, we learn a lot about these folks.
Frequently I found myself fighting back tears, more often than not in the portions between mother and daughter that cover a whole spectrum of emotions. Meher Vij is exceptional as Najma, Insiya’s ever-smiling Ammi, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film.
Less convincing is the apparent ease with which Insiya becomes a viral sensation and how conveniently she finds favor with washed-up composer Shakti Kumaarr. Aamir Khan is clearly enjoying himself as the flamboyant, sleazy musician, a rare opportunity for the famously restrained actor to let his hair down.
Despite taking a turn for the predictable post-intermission, and despite relying on too many familiar tropes, Secret Superstar doesn’t veer too far off course because – like its protagonist – it never loses sight of its goal. The film is overlong, stuffed with too many subplots, and far from subtle. Yet it keeps us consistently invested in both Insiya and Najma’s journeys.
Standing tall amidst a pitch-perfect ensemble, is Zaira Wasim as Insiya, who comes off as something of an old soul trapped in a teenager’s body. Wise beyond her years, she is riveting on screen.
Secret Superstar belongs to its incredible cast that glosses over many of the film’s minor lapses. Advait Chandan makes an assured directing debut, delivering a film that is ultimately heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.
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