Secret Superstar: On fighting domestic violence and finding autonomy

Secret Superstar: On fighting domestic violence and finding autonomy

The film opens with a scene showcasing the singing talent of a young, teenaged school girl, singing passionately on a local train and binding everybody together- our protagonist Insiya, played by Zaira Waseem.  The audience is immediately made aware of the fact that this is our superstar, who will be singing throughout the film, but the ‘secret’ part is revealed very slowly and subtly. From asking existential questions such as “what’s the point of life without dreams?” to subverting familial obligations (which are expected doubly from a woman) to realize those dreams, it is a beautiful film showing strong female characters who stick together and ultimately emerge victorious. 

After the train journey ends, an immediate contrast is drawn by showing the girl’s mother, Najma played by Meher Vij, beaten in the eye- probably by her husband, as is suggested by the conversation between the mother-daughter duo. It is then established that Insiya’s father indeed is an abusive man, as he threatens to beat her mother at every little thing- forgetting to put salt in dal, for buying her daughter a laptop, for misplacing her necklace (that she brought along with her when she got married, just saying). In one instance, he even beats his wife in front of the kids, Insiya and her 5 year old brother. 
Now it becomes a bit clear to the audience, our superstar’s dilemma. That our superstar is faced with the burden of secrecy as her father will never allow her to sing in public or for public consumption becomes clear, as is prevalent in many Muslim households. At many instances, it is made clear that Insiya’s education until the 10th standard is simply so she can get married with ease, and not for the sake of education.
Soon, we see the mother-daughter duo rejoiced to hear about the posting of the father in Riyadh for a job, but it is short-lived when they realize that he will take them along. Insiya, having given up on her dreams to become a superstar and of getting her mother to separate from her father also gives in. Set in Gujrat, the protagonist often travels to Mumbai. It is on a connecting flight from Gujrat to Mumbai and finally Riyadh, where the major action takes place and the chain of ‘oppression’ is broken by Insiya and her mother, Najma as they refuse to leave Mumbai and decide to follow Insiya’s dreams.

The Title
The title, ‘Secret Superstar’ is both- very powerful and…an oxymoron. While the word ‘superstar’ implies fame, the word ‘secret’ alongside it tells us the harsh reality that despite having the talent many marginalized women have to live with- never getting to see their talent get the acknowledgement that it deserves.
Although the protagonist in this film subverts the very idea of a mainstream ‘superstar’, moulding it in a way that is convenient for her- wearing a burqa to record songs, demanding that her name not be revealed in Shakti Kumar’s film for which she sings a beautiful song- so much so that she even alters the lyrics of a seemingly misogynistic item song with ‘babes’ and moaning sounds put in random places as per her own convenience. The title is chosen with keeping this idea of subversion in mind. Even though she ultimately gives up the hijab and her anonymity, it is made clear that she made a superstar out of herself while she was still burdened to be anonymous, navigating the little space that she was given. This is what women are capable of- building their own worlds and slowly navigating through men’s worlds and creating spaces for them there.
As the film ends, a message comes up saying that the film is dedicated to motherhood. Now this implies that the secret superstar, as is the name of the film is not Insiya, but her mother, who stands with her throughout her journey while also fighting her own oppressive circumstances.

Hijab- a Metaphor for Anonymity
Insiya’s life changes when she follows her mother’s advice and makes a YouTube video with her hijab on, calling herself a ‘secret superstar’. As she gets more and more famous, it is here that the major conflict of the film arises. 
Hijab then becomes a metaphor for anonymity in the film. It can be looked at from two points of view. Now, the hijab that her father forces upon her is a forced anonymity. But the idea of using this very tool to come out in the open (in her YouTube videos, Insiya’s identity is guarded by her hijab) and navigate her own space is not just subversive but also very empowering. 
Even though she ultimately finds courage to give up her hijab- and her anonymity as she receives the award for the ‘best singer, female’, she also shows a way to the hundreds of women who might want to become ‘superstars’ but are enveloped in the same regressive ‘secrecy’ forced by religion or culture, who can’t afford to just abandon their families and their financial and social security like Insiya can, owing to her talents.
Women for women, solidarities in the film and the theme of Motherhood
One of the most powerful themes of the films is the solidarity between the woman characters in the film, of which the most special is the mother-daughter duo. They share more than just a typical mother-daughter love- their oppressions are of similar nature, and their oppressor is the same. From the very beginning, we are shown that the mother-daughter duo bond over a singing show called ‘Singing Idol’, vouching for strong female singers in the show, as if their suppressed desires are being played out on TV by them. Insiya even sees herself on the TV, imagines becoming a superstar- which she ultimately does. Mother and daughter also pick on the problematic aspects of the show, such as Shakti randomly addressing women as ‘babes’ on stage. 
At one point, Najma, upon realizing that her daughter is pining for a laptop does not waste any time and sells her gold necklace to buy her one- despite knowing that she will get into a lot of trouble. It is because of this laptop that Insiya’s father forces her into smashing that the fight becomes about winning her own, new laptop- and her freedom.
The film, unlike many others does not glorify motherhood as only a one-sided, unstopping sacrifice. Insiya as a daughter is extremely aware of the sacrifices that her mother had made for her. in the beginning itself, Insiya is shown putting ointment on her mother’s wounds, the ones inflicted by her own father. She often cleans up after her mother and is not afraid of asking her to seek divorce. At no point does she try to force her out of her ‘oppression’, rather the film and the daughter both allow her the time and space to ultimately reach that decision on her own. Insiya plays a big role in this process, of course, from suggesting divorce to getting a lawyer involved, she tries it all before she finally backs out because of the good old excuse comes into the picture- financial dependency. Insiya makes her mother promise that she will leave her husband once she lands somewhere good- and then with all her effort, she sets out to do it for her mother’s sake. Hence, it is more of a relationship of solidarity between the two women.
Towards the end, a female singer Monali Thakur gets the award for best female singer. Without thinking twice, she passes on her award to Insiya- the sensational ‘Secret Superstar’ because she thinks she deserves it more. This is also an act of extending solidarity as she allows Insiya her moment of victory, which she very much deserves as she has fought for it on so many levels.

Religion and Class in the film
Although there are no direct references of religion in the film, it plays strongly, yet subtly. The whole film revolves around two women stuck with an abusive man primarily only because he provides them with financial stability. This is not a story in isolation- we know how important a role financial stability plays in a woman’s life, and her choices in life. Besides, the stigma attached with divorce is also one of the reasons that Najma decides to stay with her husband despite being constantly abused by him.
Her education is to serve the purpose of finding her a good husband, and she is not allowed to play music for public consumption- all reservations originating from out-of-context parts picked up from Islam to suit and further the patriarchal control of men. The presence of the lens of religion in the film is important to note, and so is the lack thereof.
Similarly, class is not outrightly spoken about in the film. One has to be a diligent audience to pick up references that suggest that they belong to a lower middle class family. The fact that buying a simple laptop for Insiya becomes a battle for her mother suggests how financially challenged they are. Farookh, the father also seems to be wary of losing money as he is seen beating his wife for losing her gold necklace (which she has actually sold to buy Insiya’s laptop). At one instance, Farookh is seen telling his wife to wear a gold necklace to a party so people don’t think he doesn’t buy her anything- this pretense is landmark characteristic of the bourgeois, middle class.

The Curious Case of Shakti- and his incidental niceness
Unlike other films such as ‘Dangal’, the female characters’ roles do not revolve around Aamir Khan simply because he is a mainstream Bollywood actor. Instead, he just acts as a tool to the emancipation of the female characters, which THEY bring upon themselves.
Shakti is involved in not just making sexist remarks on record on his co-singers but also in a more serious crime that is tarnishing his ex-wife’s image post -divorce. The film balances the problematic behavior and offers immediate punishment to him when he is shunned by the music industry for his highly sexist behavior. This man, despite all his shortcomings becomes an important tool in the emancipatory journey of Insiya.

The Good men of the Film
The film shows us various shades of men- without stereotyping them into one kind. If one man is an abuser, another is an absolver. It shows us the worst of men, Insiya’s father, and it shows us the best of them, Insiya’s brother Guddu, who tries fixing Insiya’s broken laptop with tape.
Guddu, who has often witnessed his mother being abused by his father is a special character because he offers the much required respite from the heavy plot of the film. At one point, Insiya’s anonymous account starts playing on the TV when her father is watching, and Guddu here that he comes to her rescue by dropping tea on his clothes on purpose to send him away. 
As mentioned above, a sexist man who doesn’t believe that women deserve awards, who cheats on his wife, calls random women ‘babes’- otherwise a highly problematic man, Shakti comes to full rescue of Insiya whenever she needs an intervention.
Although of course the projection of the childish romance between Insiya and her classmate Chintu is problematic- constantly pestering her despite her saying no- the film tries to balance it by later by making him her confidant and helper, one who helps her with her secret visits to Mumbai. 

Theme of Subversion
The film puts forth the idea that women can control their narratives and choose to opt out of their oppression if they want. It portrays strong female characters who are not rendered simply victims by the film. Overall, it’s an empowering tale of women who take matters into their own hands and are not afraid of taking bold steps- Insiya’s decision to pursue singing, her mother’s to leave an abusive husband, Monali Thakur to give away her award to another more worthy woman- all are fighters in their own rights. So the film is not just about one superstar, rather all those women who dare. They all, hence, are Secret Superstar(s). 


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