Secret Superstar Review (SPOILERS): An Everyday Story With a Once in a Lifetime Solution

I already put up my No Spoilers review, now this one will give me a chance to talk about the plot in specifics.  I should say, there’s nothing exactly surprising here, the movie could only end one way once the situation was established, but maybe if you want to be surprised by the details of how it plays out, don’t read on.  On the other hand, if you are unable to see the film for any reason, here is where you can learn what happens and what it is about.

Whole plot in two paragraphs:

Zaira Wasim is a teenage girl who loves to write songs and sing and play them on her guitar.  She arrives home from a school trip to discover her mother Meher Vij has a bad black eye, apparently a regular occurrence.  Meher tries to brush it off, but Zaira responds by encouraging her, again, to leave her father before he kills her.  After another fight which Zaira witnesses, to make up for everything, Meher buys her a laptop to cheer her up.  It opens a new world for the whole household, and Zaira gets the idea to post her music to youtube so everyone can hear her songs.  But she can’t let her father find out, so her mother suggests singing while wearing a burka.  Her songs become immediately popular, and her friend from school Tirth Sharma figures out it is her and offers to help.  But then there is another bad night, her father finds out her mother sold her jewelry to buy the laptop and beats her mother and forces Zaira to throw out the laptop.  And he announces he has gotten a job in Saudi Arabia, they are all moving there, and he is marrying Zaira off to the son of a friend.  Zaira is now desperate to find a solution, Tirth agrees to manage her facebook and twitter and email accounts through his computer, and Zaira borrows his cell phone to call Aamir Khan, sleazy gross film composer from the film industry who has been boycotted by the singers’ association and offered her a job singing for his next film.

Aamir flies her to Bombay to record, she can’t sing the song as he has written it, and confronts him and argues that the problem is with the song, there is a better more natural song within it.  Aamir agrees, and gives her the original version he wrote before he remixed it, she records it, it’s beautiful, Aamir is grateful.  And she asks his help to meet the hotshot divorce lawyer that his wife used in their recent divorce.  A meeting is set for the next week, Aamir flies Zaira down again and picks her up and takes her to the attorney’s office.  The lawyer draws up papers and tells Zaira to make her mother sign them.  But when Zaira goes home and gives them to Meher, she refuses to sign them, saying she doesn’t want a divorce, and it isn’t Zaira’s place to decide that for her.  Zaira is angry, but then her elderly aunt tells her the story of her birth, that her mother escaped from the hospital before she could have a forced abortion and hid out for 10 months until Zaira was born and it was too late to do anything, and finally returned home.  Zaira suddenly realizes how much she owes her mother and that she can’t leave her, and so decides to stick with her.  At the very last minute, as they are at the Bombay airport, Zaira’s father tells her to throw out her guitar since their luggage is overweight, and that is the last straw for her mother.  She stands up to him, pulls out the divorce papers she had packed and signs them and takes her children and leaves the airport, trapping him inside on the other side of the security gate.  Then they go to the “Glamour” awards which happen to be that same night and where Zaira’s song is nominated, meet up with Aamir, Zaira gives an emotional speech on stage about how strong and wonderful her mother is, and that’s the end of the movie.

 

So, let me get out right away what I didn’t like about it.  Really there’s two things, and both of them feel like putting the film over the characters.  First, I don’t like throwing in the magical “Aamir Khan big film music guy” plot.  It feels unworthy of the rest of the film.  We have this perfect picture of an abusive household, so well-done as to be unpleasant to watch.  And then we have this silly “on the film world is crazy” plot thrown in.  It’s almost insulting to the audience, we can appreciate the “real” plot, we don’t need the silliness to trick us into watching.

And, as I mentioned in my No Spoilers review, it also makes the film useless.  If I am a child of an abusive father, or the spouse of an abusive partner, and I am watching this film, I will see my story perfectly onscreen.  I will learn that it is not okay, it is not normal, and I should get out.  That’s all great.  But how, exactly, am I supposed to get out?  I’m supposed to put videos on youtube, become world famous, get a once in a lifetime opportunity, meet the top divorce lawyer in all of India, and then I will be free?  That’s not really an actionable plan!

And the characters talk about this!  Zaira says “Mom, you have to leave him” and Meher says “How? Where would we live?  How would I pay your school fees?”  That’s a real conversation.  Financial issues and financial abuse are a standard part of the abusive partner relationship.  So okay, I am a teenage girl sitting there crying because this is my life onscreen, and this is the question that I have for my mother, and I am waiting for the film to give me the answer, to save my life.  And it doesn’t.  It gives up that responsibility, it doesn’t spend 5 minutes of screen time to tell us what the divorce laws are in terms of financial support, if their are women’s shelters in India that will take you in no questions asked, if there are lawyers available to the average woman, none of that!

This gets to a larger issue, which was the same frustration some people had with Dangal, Aamir’s last “feminist” picture.  It tells a story about women, but it seems to be telling that story to men, not women.  So if I am a man in the audience, I will learn to be sympathetic and aware and respectful and blah blah blah.  But if I am a woman in the audience, I already know that spousal abuse is a thing, I just want to know how to escape.  And the movie doesn’t give me that.

I will give you that, because I was sitting there on the edge of my seat the entire time desperate to google solutions.  Like, in America, I KNOW the solutions.  I know the legal aid center nearby, I know the shelters, I know the half dozen or so acquaintances who have survived abuse who I can ask to speak to someone about how they got out, I know the police can be called and you can file a police report and a restraining order, I know all of that.  But I don’t know what the solutions are in India, and this film did not help me learn about them AT ALL.

(All this time on the computer and she didn’t google “abuse laws in India”?)

And the thing is, about 2 minutes of googling shows me that India has a wonderful solution!  They passed a law in 2005 specifically directed at spousal abuse.  A woman can go to a designated “Protection Officer”, report abuse, get legal aid and financial support and all sorts of good things, and separately can also file a police report.  I am sure it isn’t a perfect system, because nothing is, but it is there and exists.

This is the solution that anyone can use, no magical music producer required to save you.  And it would have taken 2 minutes of film time for someone to explain this, for Zaira to learn about it in civics class, or find it by googling (like I did) and then to reject it for some reason and move on to the magical filmi solution.  But this movie couldn’t be bothered to slow down for 2 minutes and provide actual help to the real world people these characters are based on.  Maybe because the filmmakers didn’t care enough to risk the controversy they might cause, maybe because they were to myopic to think about that part of the audience and what it needs, maybe because they were too focused on “teaching” the male audience not to be abusers and forgot the female audience would be there too wanting to know how to escape abuse.

The other part I didn’t like is the final way the escape plays out.  I found that initial conversation believable, that Meher wouldn’t be ready for a divorce just because Zaira told her to do it.  Part of their relationship all along has been showing, subtly, that Zaira is modeling her behavior on her father.  Which is what happens with kids raised in abusive households, either they end up identifying with the “victim”, or with the abuser.  Even if they hate the abuser.  Zaira, we see in the film, has anger issues and control issues.  And she has learned how to take her unhappiness out on others, calling her mother “stupid” and even Tirth “a dog”, the exact same words her father uses.  and Meher is right, Zaira is treating her just like her abuser treats her, not bothering to ask what she wants or respect her opinion.

(Tirth forgives her because he is a sweetheart)

But after this, we get all the artificial drama and deadlines.  Zaira is going to be married off, the whole family is moving to Saudi Arabia, etc. etc.  We don’t need that.  We know the deadline, the deadline is that Meher is going to be killed, and then Zaira.  That’s how abuse works.  And the most common reason a woman finally leaves is because her husband raises his hands to her children.  We can see that coming too, there is a moment when he kind of grabbed Zaira’s face and Meher stepped in front of her.  In a “real” story, Zaira would get too big to ignore, and Meher’s husband would have to hit her, hard, and Meher would finally leave.  Not for herself, because her own identity has been so beaten down that she can’t think of leaving for herself, but to save her daughter’s life.  That’s sort of what the ending is, but it is wrapped up in the magical filmi stuff, it’s not an actual hitting of Zaira, it’s throwing her guitar in the trash at the airport.  And Meher gives this whole filmi speech that is completely unbelievable from the character we have seen so far.  It makes it seem like the only time a woman can leave her abuser is in this over the top filmi way, not like the “real” scenes we saw before, where she just put up with it all.  I know it’s a movie, but if it’s a movie that gave us so much reality up until now, I feel like it has a responsibility to give us a reality at the end, not just a fantasy that you can dream about at night while nursing your wounds, but something you can dream about in the broad light of day and turn into a plan.

So, that’s what I didn’t like.  Which is a lot.  But here’s what I did like!!!!  The opening is brilliant.  We see a group of teenage girls on a train playing Antakshari.  And they are tossing back and forth all these sexy item songs, “Munni Badnaam” and others.  And the boys in the next compartment are playing card games with sexy body builder cards.  And the old people are wincing at all this noise.  And then Zaira takes out her guitar and the girls hush because she is about to sing.  And she sings a sweet song about little dreams and hopes.  And the boys stop playing cards to listen, and the old people smile, and the girls smile along too.

There, right there, that’s a nice message.  That this young girls are only provided sexual images of themselves, nothing else to aspire to.  But this film will give us something different, something sweet and nice and real and not sexualized or anything else.  A girl who is a full person with dreams and hopes, as are all girls.

The rest of the film, the parts with Zaira and her life, that message follows through.  She is a complicated person in a complicated situation, and she doesn’t fit into the simple boxes that society tries to give us for women.  Her romance isn’t a romance like we usually see onscreen, it is a sweet boy who thinks she is cool and tries to cheer her up at school, and that’s all it is, no big love of a lifetime.  Her schoolwork isn’t like other school scenes we see, she is bad at tests and doesn’t pay attention and doesn’t really care either because her future lies elsewhere.  And her home isn’t like other homes.  It is small and cozy and divided.  Her mother and Zaira and her little brother form a family.  Her great aunt sitting in the corner and her father are another family, a separate one.

Ages ago in one of my earlier DDLJ sections, I talked about Amrish Puri as “abusive”.  We never saw him hit anyone, he educated and was proud of his daughters, he even had a sweet love story with his wife.  But that household was divided.  Something shifted when “father” came home.  Farida and Kajol, they were too close, mothers and daughters shouldn’t be partners against Father.  Mothers shouldn’t need their primary emotional support from their daughter.  And there shouldn’t be this desperate fear of Father finding out about their “real” lives, about the music they like, the books they read and the little love stories they have.

This household that we see in this film, it is structured the same as the DDLJ household.  The oldest child and the mother are best friends and partners in all ways.  The household is happy and bright.  And then Father comes home and everything revolves around making him happy, avoiding his anger.  That is how abusive households work.  And this film perfectly shows that, shows the daughter that is somehow also the parent and the friend.  The mother that has never had the chance to fully explore her identity outside of the house and therefore never quite grown up.  The household that lives in constant fear of what Father will do.

And it also shows how the “outsiders” of society, the “bad” ones, can turn into saviers.  Tirth, Zaira’s understanding friend, his parents are divorced.  It makes him a little more aware, a little more open-minded about things.  And Aamir, when Zaira finally meets him, starts off seeming like the ridiculous pig he appears to be from news stories, twice divorced and a serial cheater.  But eventually she learns that underneath he is more than that, he is caring and understanding.  And he doesn’t question her when she says that her parents need to get divorced.  He takes her to a lawyer and even offers to pay for it.  There is no moment of “but Indian society is based on marriage, how can you question it!”  I wish we’d gotten more of him, more exploration of how he became this piggish looking person on the outside, why his marriages failed, how he feels about his estranged children who are briefly mentioned.  As it is, the character is entertaining, but doesn’t quite gel.  And the whole movie industry story line doesn’t quite gel either.  Is it supposed to be a bad and fake place?  Or a place that can provide an escape?  Or maybe both?  We see all along that Zaira and Meher get enjoyment and relief from their lives by watching TV, seeing the gossip shows and the awards shows and everything else filmi related.  It helps them get through the day, but maybe it is also a distraction from their problems, helps them to put off actually solving them.

Oh, and the other thing I liked, the music obviously.  Amit Trivedi has once again come up with a unique soundtrack to fit a unique group of characters.  My only complaint would be that all the songs sound kind of similar.  But then, that’s the point, they are all written by our heroine.  Well, almost all.  They should sound similar.

(this one is still the best)

One final thing.  This is, in general, a well made film.  Well acted, decent script, good songs, all of that.  And I suspect the critics will jump on hailing it as a wonderful picture, and the multiplex audience will all talk about how Aamir has once again provided a “good” movie, unlike the usual trash.  And I just want to say, this is not the first “good” movie of the year!!!!  I’m not talking about subjective stuff, like whether or not you like action movies versus romances or anything like that.  No, straight up “solid script, decent acting, good plot”, there’ve been a lot of movies like that this year.  This film is no better or worse than Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Bareilly Ki Barfi, or A Gentleman.  It’s better as a whole than Raees, Tubelight, and plenty of others, but it is not “the one good film of 2017”.  And Aamir Khan is not “the only filmmaker who makes intelligent pictures”.  And that’s beginning to be a bit of a destructive dynamic, that all the critics and “intelligent” audience members will praise everything he does and not even take a chance on anything else.

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20 thoughts on “Secret Superstar Review (SPOILERS): An Everyday Story With a Once in a Lifetime Solution

  1. Pingback: Film Reviews | dontcallitbollywood

  2. How could you compare A Gentleman with the rest? Sheer blasphemy!!! That said I’m going to watch Sid’s Ittefaq if it comes to a theatre nearby. I was just thinking that it’s a pity we haven’t seen more of Shahida’s mom from Bajrangi Bhaijaan.Its great to see Meher Vij back.We don’t have that many great young female character actors in Bollywood these days.Whatever happened to the 3rd girl from Ladies vs Ricky Behl-the one who helps her father-in-law run his business or Minnissha Lamba’s rifle toting cousin from Bachna Ae Haseeno? Independent ladies both of them.But these days there’s only room for the “love-interest” in Bollywood movies.

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    • I love A Gentleman!!!! But again, setting aside taste, it was a solid script that tried something new, good craftsmanship (editing, camera work, etc.), and decent performances. A well-made movie, even if you didn’t like the content. So, another counter-example to the “it’s all repetitive trash” argument that people give about every non-Aamir Hindi film and it bugs me.

      got me curious about the Ladies vs Ricky Bahl actress. Aditi Sharma, she moved over to TV. Which is probably a happy ending for her, she can headline a TV series and do all kinds of interesting things she wouldn’t be able to do in the movies.

      On Sat, Oct 21, 2017 at 12:37 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • No complaints about A Gentleman.It was thoroughly entertaining, and delivered what it promised in the trailer.More importantly it didn’t drag.They could have done away with at least one song.But that aside the movie was worth the time and money.Sid and Jackie’s antics helped me immensely in dealing with some stress of my own.

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  3. IMHO, I agree as I so enjoyed A Gentleman and Bareilly ki Barfi. Gentleman reminded me in some way of True Lies. That combination of comedy and action by a quiet everyday working guy who has hidden his past. Sidharth Malhotra does a good job of both. Or perhaps I’m a bit prejudiced. Bareilly ki Barfi is a love story that gets complicated and then gets sorted by the group. Kriti Sanon is beginning to show some promise as her acting improves with each of her films.

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  4. I haven’t read this review (read the non-spoiler one), as I might watch this someday. But I’ve had a question ever since the first teaser released. Someone made a comment at that time that the film should be titled “Guitar Under My Burka”, and that has been my question ever since. In the Lipstick film, the girl concealed her identity and her thefts under her burka, which was perfectly plausible. But here, the girl is concealing her identity all right when she’s making her youtube videos, but how can she disguise her voice? One’s voice is considered a better unique identifier of a person even than the face sometimes. Now she might be able to disguise her voice for a time, but that defeats the purpose of the videos, right, which are to showcase her singing talent? The whole point of them as well as of the film, is her distinctive singing voice. So how does she avoid being recognized, at least by her family, if not her friends? Or is that how her “betrayal” is discovered by her father? I’d appreciate it if you could answer just this question, without going into other spoilers, if it’s possible. Basically I want to know if the makers addressed this crucial point and incorporated it into their story, or if they just blithely ignored it and went on their merry way.

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    • It is a flaw in the story, yes. Her mother knows all along, and her friend Tirth figures it out because he recognizes her voice. But we see her singing for her classmates right at the beginning, so you would think other people besides Tirth would figure it out. Her father has never cared enough to listen to her sing, and is unlikely to go on youtube, so that is fairly safe.

      It is also a tension all along that she is becoming famous for her singing and at some point is going to have to “reveal” herself if she wants to keep singing, because the youtube thing can’t last forever.

      On Sun, Oct 22, 2017 at 12:29 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Huh. What an odd way to phrase this story. I don’t know the details of the contracts and so on, but I would have thought it would be the theaters prerogative to cancel shows of the less popular film in favor of the more popular one.

      On Mon, Oct 23, 2017 at 12:17 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. Pingback: Box Office: Golmaal Fails to Golmaal, Secret Superstar Fails to Shine, Mersal is a Miracle | dontcallitbollywood

  8. I went with 4 ppl to see this – 2 ABCD females and their NRI male dates. Fifth-wheeling it, I know.

    The nri males thought this was an uplifting movie that gives hope to dv victims.

    [So ironically if this movie was made for the men, as you say it and dangal were, then Aamir Khan has just backfired because he has given men a false sense of assuredness that all is fine in India because DV victims can get out, as evidenced by this movie for them.]

    But the abcd females had the *exact* same reaction that you did – that you can’t give us a poignant DV story (i.e. not just plot device but a richly drawn study) and then not even attempt to show the characters how to get out. So for the ABCD ladies, the movie was depressing because by implying that your only out is a superstar child’s hitting the jackpot, you are also implying that there aren’t realistic options for leaving for mere mortals.

    While this could be a male vs female perspective as you’ve suggested, I think this could also (or instead) be an American vs Indian perspective (or first world vs developing world), insofar as DV is frowned upon in India but almost taboo in the USA.

    A more obvious example of this dichotomy might be the Mira Nair movie Monsoon Wedding. Many NRIs and Indians think of this fondly as their favorite global Indian film (along with Bend it like Beckham). But many ABCDs and nonIndian Americans were shocked at the child sexual abuse storyline, especially that it was handled as just another unfortunate part of a messy dysfunctional family, like infidelity or religious comingling. Child sex abuse is even more taboo in the USA than DV – convicts get killed by their jailmates for being creeps – so if you put it in the storyline, you have to go all the way with it, completely condemning it, showing how to get out, etc.

    To further illustrate this point… Mira Nair and Vishal Bhardwaj recently remade Monsoon Wedding as a live Broadway-style musical, and it had a 3 month run at the Berkeley Repertory Theater (in Berkeley, CA) this past summer. They refashioned the storyline for a Western audience instead of a global one in several key ways. The biggest change is that they devoted an entire act of the play – perhaps 25% of the entire run time – to the child sex abuse storyline, showing the cascading effect it had on every member of both the victims family and the perps family, completely condemning the acts, and cutting the perp out of the wedding and forever banishing him from the family like a cancer.

    Probably the same way I would feel about Badrinath if I ever saw it – that the father that ordered the honor killing would continue to be accepted by or even tolerated by the family, that would kick me out of the storyline completely.

    Anyways, long winded way of saying that the level of societal tolerance for DV can color our expectations from the movie.

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    • That is all fascinating and perfectly put and makes total sense to me. The only thing I would add, with both domestic violence and child sexual abuse, is that part of that the greater social condemnation is also a greater social discussion of it. That is, I know domestic violence survivors and I know they are survivors because it is something they talk about, so along with the general greater awareness of the issue, there is also the personal reaction of “oh, I know this story, I know someone who survived it or didn’t survive it”. Which is different from a culture where these things are still not really talked about, so you would be less likely to have a personal connection to it.

      Not like you wouldn’t know if your sister or mother or daughter was being abused, but like you would be less likely to know about a co-worker or friend from school, because they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it. I’m not saying it right, I guess I just want to add in that part of changing the social discussion of issues is making them acceptable to talk about one on one as well, so we don’t need the movie that makes us care for domestic violence victims, because we already went through that when we learned about that new friend from school who barely survived an abusive boyfriend, we care already, we need the next steps.

      On Tue, Oct 24, 2017 at 5:15 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  12. Hi, I’ve been a silent lurker since your Baahubali posts and finally had to comment :-). First off, let me say I love reading your take on different movies. It often offers me a perspective that I’ve missed on my own.
    About ‘Secret Superstar’ though, I tend to agree with ‘reflect on life’s comment that dv is that much more normalized in Indian society and the tolerance level for it is quite high. Even on watching this movie, many people would have commented that the man was working hard outside the house and the woman was not being submissive or supportive enough. She was taking decisions without his approval and then complaining on the ‘deserved’ beatings she has got. People would have said that there’s nothing much wrong with the husband except for his hitting her and that surely this kind of hitting did not justify her leaving him at all when he was working so hard at earning and keeping the family financially safe and secure.
    So for me as an Indian woman, I didn’t take away the message that there is no escape from a sticky domestic abuse situation rather than becoming a music super star or finding a similar fairy tale. What I took home was the fact that at some point, a victim of domestic abuse must take a stand against the abuser and stand up to him. For the mother in this case, the final straw was the father’s dismissive command to dispose off the guitar.
    I believe that as much as we need the social support and constructs to handle domestic abuse, the first place a victim needs is the space in her own mind. Where she has decided that she has finally had enough and makes up her mind to move on. Without this single point being reached, no amount of googling on how to leave an abusive relationship could have taken her forward. And the moment in the airport was that moment for the mother.

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  13. Pingback: Happy Children’s Day!!!! | dontcallitbollywood

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