Directed by Advait Chandan, Secret Superstar is one of the best movies of 2017 for many reasons. Not only did it manage to bring together elements of feminism and Bollywood masala, it started a much-needed conversation about children trapped in violent families.
While Insia (played by Zaira Wasim) personified aggression and indignation, her little brother’s pathos was evident as a helpless witness of his father’s wrath on Insia and their mother. Insia channelled her grief and frustration into punching walls and dreaming of escape routes through her talent, while her little brother used his innocence and love to try and make their lives better in whatever small ways he could.
In a heartbreaking scene, he tries to fix Insia’s broken laptop with tape and glue, while in another, he uses the privilege of being a beloved male child to direct his father’s irritation towards himself, to shield the women of his family. Childhood trauma changes us in different ways and may lead to diverse mental health issues. The cycle of toxic masculinity and violence can and should be broken by paying attention to the mental health of children.
Insia claws her way through a trapped existence, taking solo trips to Mumbai and taking matters into her own hands by consulting a lawyer to find out what options her mother has. I do wish we had more of an insight into Insia’s father’s character. We see him releasing his aggression often, using his power inside the house and at one occasion, in public.
We often miss the fact that domestic violence is all about power.
I would have liked to see him interact with people he perceived to be more powerful than him and enjoy the contrast in his behaviour. We often miss the fact that domestic violence is all about power. We don’t see abusive men going around hitting other men on the street because they know they may be beaten in return. It is their wives and children who become targets as they are perceived to be weak.
The other stand-out story in this movie is that of Insia’s mother, Najma (played by a brilliant Meher Vij). Our victim-blaming society always puts the onus of standing up to abuse on the victim. Frequently we hear people ask, “If he was so abusive, why didn’t she leave him? Why didn’t she speak up”?
We need to understand the woman’s perspective in such a relationship. The inherent gaslighting by their partner, convincing them that they are worth nothing and he is, in fact, doing them a favour by tolerating them; the incessant nagging insecurities of a financial dependant mother of two; the fear of breaking out of the only life they have known – we need to pay attention to all these factors before we extol the virtues of being brave and strong. We need to understand that these women are brave and stronger than most of us.
As a society, it is our prerogative to create a supportive and accepting environment where women trapped in abusive homes can come out and seek our help. We need to reach out and try.
The cycle of toxic masculinity and violence should be broken by paying attention to the mental health of children.
If a person like Shakti Kumar (played by Aamir Khan) can find it in his heart to empathise with Insia and her mother, and accept their decisions without foisting a “Be brave and leave him” on them; we who call ourselves ‘woke’, can find the understanding in our hearts to not judge women who choose to stay in abusive relationships. We need to create alternatives that women can feel secure with.
Be a listener. Spot the signs and offer unconditional support. Let them take their own decision to break free.
The third story that really touched me in this movie was the pure teenage love between Insia and her friend Chintan. Rarely do we find a connection so aptly portrayed in all its innocence. Najma allows her to hang out with Chintan, trusting her judgement and giving her the chance to have some happy moments. Chintan brings her home to his mother and they sit on a table together enjoying mangoes. This scene moved many to tears.
I remember the days when a single call on the landline from a boy would mean a 1-hour lecture by parents on why we should concentrate on studies and how it’s not good to talk to or even look at boys. Teenagers have hormones, they have hearts and feelings. They will form bonds with the person they are attracted to.
Rather than placing endless restrictions on them, if families could welcome their friends and boyfriends/girlfriends into their homes, it would be far less distracting for teens than having to sneak around. But I do feel like this world is still not within our reach. With honour killings and forced marriages making news headlines, maybe this one movie can’t make a big difference in mindsets. But it does make a dent, it does try, and that is beautiful.
Featured Image Credit: Indian Express