Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar presumes its viewers have prior knowledge of the world to be able to fathom the layers of meanings the film does not explicitly express. None among them is as politically significant as its lethal critique of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
In the film, Riyadh becomes the trope for social conservatism and religious orthodoxy. It is the land where women, particularly the millennial brigade, should dread to reside in; it is a wasteland for those who wish to pursue artistic dreams, a marriage mart where bachelors are rated suitable on the style of their beard. Saudi Arabia is a killjoy.
Secret Superstar narrates the travails of a Vadodara-based Muslim schoolgirl, Insia, who is endowed with the talent to write and sing songs and nurses the ambition of participating in a singing competition. Her family comprises mother Najma, brother Guddu, father Farookh — a violent misogynist, and his aged sister, Badi Appa. Farookh beats Najma often; him, they all dread.
Certain her father will never let her participate in a singing competition and court fame, Insia wears a burqa to post songs on YouTube. The burqa is a tool of both subterfuge and subversion. Insia is a runaway success. It inspires the music director Shakti Kumar to commission her for belting out a song for a film, which wins her a nomination for the Hindi film industry’s most prestigious award for the best playback singer.
Between Insia and her dreams looms Saudi Arabia, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
The film, early in its unspooling, tells its viewers that Insia’s father, Farookh, has applied for a job in Riyadh. Insia hopes her father will be recruited, not because their lives will improve economically, but because she and her mother Najma will no longer have to live in the father’s forbidding shadow. Insia assumes her father will not shift the family with him to Riyadh.
The logic underlying her assumption is not revealed by Secret Superstar’s director and writer, Advait Chandan. He presumes his viewers will figure out the logic on their own. After all, don’t they know of the harsh labour laws of Saudi Arabia, where only expatriates above a certain income level are permitted to bring along their family? Like the viewers, Insia too perhaps knows of fathers who separate from their families in India for 11 months in a year to earn a livelihood in the Gulf.
Such labour laws exist in other West Asia countries as well. This is why the film director’s choice of Riyadh isn’t a coincidence. The director could as well have had Farookh apply for a job in, say, Dubai. But it couldn’t have been the director’s choice because it is socially liberal. As in India so in Dubai, Insia could have resorted to subterfuges to work around her overbearing father for achieving her dream of becoming a singing sensation.
Saudi Arabia is another story — its pervasive conservatism doesn’t even provide scope for subterfuge. It is the graveyard in which women’s freedom is buried deep. For Insia, a life in Saudi Arabia implies she must abandon her dream. She has to break free.
Her break to freedom has another compelling reason. When Farookh breaks the news about the job he has bagged in Saudi Arabia, he tells Insia that he plans to marry her to a boy known to him. Farookh shows the prospective groom’s photo — older than Insia, he sports an Islamic beard. We don’t recoil from the stereotype because we intuitively know that he, like Farookh, will not allow Insia’s dream to flower, that too in a country which denies rights to women.
Secret Superstar’s critique of Saudi Arabia turns devastating at the end. Through the film, Najma and Insia haven’t been depicted wearing the burqa outside the home. Insia only wears it to record songs for YouTube.
But the veil isn’t just a tool of subterfuge and subversion, it is also one of social compliance. For instance, Farookh tells Najma that she doesn’t have to wear the burqa to a wedding feast for which they have been invited. This is because, as Farookh explains, their hosts are not conservative.
In India, therefore, the burqa can be worn or discarded depending on the circumstances. It doesn’t fetter women in perpetuity; it doesn’t rule out the possibility of Muslim women making their career choices.
Not so in Saudi Arabia. We can’t but reach this conclusion because the only time the three women — Najma, Insia and Badi Appa — wear the burqa outside home is at their departure for Saudi Arabia. The director presumes his viewers will know that women must alight from the plane in Saudi Arabia claustrophobically covered. In contrast to India, the burqa in Saudi Arabia becomes a metaphor for squashing the very individuality of women, their right to make choices.
It is at the airport that Najma and Insia rebel and, with Guddu, storm out. Left behind are Farookh and his aged sister. Farookh, obviously, will board the flight. The film’s only villain, a misogynist, will thus reside in Saudi Arabia. Giving him company will be his sister, who is submissive because she is economically dependent on her brother. Saudi Arabia then becomes a trope for the land misogynists (and dependent women) choose to live in.
Secret Superstar not only critiques Saudi Arabia’s culture, it also nudges the Hindus of Gujarat to reassess their perception of Muslims.
Just as viewers need to ask why the director chose Saudi Arabia over other West Asia countries, they cannot but wonder: Why was Insia’s family based in Vadodara, Gujarat? Vadodara is not intrinsic to the story. The film could as well have been based in a city near Mumbai — say, Pune.
A participant on a chat site claims he lives just 50 meters away from Hajji Park, where the film was shot. Hajji Park was renamed Modern Colony during the shooting of the film, he said. Either the colony’s name was edited out or I missed it.
Nevertheless, Insia’s family members are neither devout nor fanatical. They are never seen praying; their Indian-ness is emphasised — for instance, they say, Khuda Hafiz, not Allah Hafiz, as people do in Saudi Arabia. Insia is modern because she is adept at playing the guitar, using the laptop, surfing the net, and is aware of the potential of YouTube. Her aspirations are as modernistic as any kid of her age.
In basing Insia in Vadodara, the director presumes his audience knows that Gujarat has become a byword for the fraught relations between Hindus and Muslims. It is the state in which Muslims are stereotyped as terrorists and clandestine supporters of Pakistan. It was at Vadodara where Best Bakery was burnt down in the riots of 2002, charring 14.
Through Vadodara’s Insia, the director is implicitly suggesting to the Hindus of Gujarat that their assessment of Muslims is skewed. It wasn’t always like this. It isn’t, even now, in the children’s world. Through the charming relationship between Insia and Chintan Parekh, the adults are nudged to remember their own childhood days, full of innocent camaraderie, not stained by the puss of hatred. This is the only possible explanation why the film is based in Vadodara, barring, obviously, the factor of coincidence.
Secret Superstar’s charm lies in conveying a range of meanings without taking recourse to preachy dialogues. This is why its critique of Saudi Arabia is compelling, it nudge to Gujarati Hindus inoffensive.