In one of the first scenes in Secret Superstar, Insiya’s (played by Zaira Wasim) mother, Najma (played by Meher Vij) is wearing oversized, maroon sunglasses. But the ginormous lens not withstanding, Insiya notices a visible gash underneath her mother’s left eye. When she takes off the sunglasses, a horrifying bruise on her face is revealed. When Insiya mockingly asks her how she got the bruise, Najma says she hit her face against the cupboard. Neither of them buy this and there’s an unspoken understanding that they’re not supposed to talk about what really happened — that Najma was hit by her abusive husband.
Najma and Insiya’s relationship is their only respite from their reality. They both watch singing competitions together, exchange song ideas and bet on who will win the best singer award at the next award ceremony. The little world of mutual admiration for all things music is the escape they’ve created for themselves in an abusive environment. But the biggest common ground they hold is Insiya’s dream of becoming a popular singer. Najma knows Insiya will never be able to achieve her goal thanks to her conservative dad, but she still can’t help herself from encouraging her daughter. She, like a lot of mothers, goes the extra mile to see a smile on her daughter’s face — whether it’s cutting corners or selling jewellery to buy Insiya things she needs to create music.
Insiya, even in her 15-year-old teenage angst, wants to change her mother’s life. She shakes in rage when her father hits her mother, uses her talent to get her legal help and even temporarily gives up her dream to be a singer to assuage her mother’s fears.
What they have is beyond a mother-daughter relationship. We see friendship in action in the unlikeliest of places — between two women divided by a generation gap. Temperamentally, Insiya has more in common with her father than her mother. They both share the same rage and physical expression of frustration. Najma, on the other hand, silently gulps down her pride.
Besides music, mother and daughter find a common ground in their hatred for Insiya’s father and his reign of domestic violence. But it goes beyond that. They don’t just stick together to protect each other from the patriarch of the family — they learn to respect each other as individuals.
We don’t often see this in Bollywood movies, even with strong mother-child relationships. On-screen moms tend to be closer towards their sons in troubled families like in Dear Zindagi, where Alia Bhatt’s mother leaned towards her son in light of her troubled relationship with her daughter. At most, we see mother-daughter relationships restricted to parent-child tropes. The closest a movie came to breaking that was Nil Battey Sannata, but even then they’re always mummy and daughter, never two individuals. The mother in Nil Battey Sannata dreams for her daughter and tries to be the drive that will lift them out of poverty. But Secret Superstar draws on an equal-footed friendship between two distinct women.
Distinct because Najma and Insiya have distinct characteristics on their own. Najma’s fearful nature is a result of years of abuse and inferiority complex. Even if pitiful at times, she has her own personality, something her daughter both detests and admires. Insiya’s character is at times loyal, and sometimes, selfish. If Najma’s strength is patience, Insiya’s is ferocity. Both women learn from each other and swap strengths at different points in the movie. Insiya dejectedly complies with her father’s wishes to keep her mother safe. She does her homework, studies hard, forgets about her dreams, agrees to move to Saudi Arabia like her father decides for them, so that her mother doesn’t face more trouble. Najma, eventually learns to find her inner voice and slaps her husband with divorce papers. Insiya learns Najma’s patience while Najma draws from Insiya’s courage to stand up to her husband.
This exchange of traits is akin to those of real friendships — women you’ve met and grown to love and respect. We see shades of this exchange in movies like Angry Indian Goddesses, Dor and Lipstick Under My Burkha, where unrelated women build each other up and learn from each other. It’s endearing, but it’s predictable.
Insiya and Najma’s story deviates from these where not just as mother and daughters, they respect each other as human beings and as women. They recognise each others’ autonomy — something they’ve never enjoyed in their abusive home. In an overwhelming climax, Insiya not only thanks her mother for her best singer award, but acknowledges that Najma is the secret superstar: the one who quietly bore the burden of Insiya’s dreams and fought for both their voices — Insia’s singing voice and Najma’s talking voice.
But it’s not just an abusive patriarch they fight. They also fight their own insecurities and helplessness. Najma looks for and finds courage in her daughter. Insiya finds reason to fight for a better life for her mother. Their intermingling struggles help them define their individualities. It provides a probable insight into how women find each other in abusive homes. There’s judgement, anger and frustration. But there’s also reconciliation, understanding and kindness. Perhaps, women build their own worlds filled with respect and affection for each other, inside an unfortunate world of abuse and harassment.
Even though Secret Superstar’s domestic violence-based storyline specifically speaks of one home in a tiny corner of Vadodara, Gujarat, the film resonates bigger feelings, like it was speaking about women and the world at large. In light of chronic harassment and oppression from a patriarchal society determined to throttle women’s voices, the movie shows that women create a network of Insiyas and Najmas to draw silent strength from (the recent #MeToo movement is a fantastic display of this little world of solidarity and courage). The ones who help us fight for ourselves and each other at the same time.
Sometimes these network of voices look like our mothers and sometimes like our daughters. But most times, they look like the person we’d like to see in the mirror — the friend found in the unlikeliest of places. Much like how Najma and Insiya found each other as people, as not just as a parent and child.
Co-published with Firstpost.