Written and directed by Advait Chandan, Secret Superstar is a poignant mother-daughter story featuring Zaira Wasim and Meher Vij in key roles. It’s available for streaming on Netflix.
Five years is a really short time to be revisiting a film, but Secret Superstar is a special one. For me, more so personally, because Insia’s relationship with her mother Najma is a lot like what I share with my own mum.
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Much like Insia, I got my first laptop when I was in Class 10. It was 2008; unlike today, it was not common for schoolchildren to have laptops back then. But my mother understood its need and got me one. I didn’t have to convince or plead with her; I didn’t even have to ask. Much like everything else, I had it even before I realised I needed it. I think my father found out about the new laptop six months later; he was just that uninvolved in my upbringing.
He’s a good man with a strong moral and spiritual compass. Quiet and content as a Sunday afternoon, he has been a devoted son and a doting father. It’s just that he was too busy building his business when my siblings and I were growing up. He ensured we never lacked for anything — we always had the best education, toys, clothes, gifts, bicycles, bedrooms, vacations. But all through my school, he could never tell which class I was in. He still doesn’t know what I studied for graduation or even my master's. As for my mother, she knows my shoe size, exactly why I broke up with a best friend, every story that I work on, the song that I’m currently listening to on loop, what time I slept last night. She never asks, she doesn’t have to. She just knows, like she always has.
I was 20 when I first left home for college. With me, I had four giant bags, a head full of plans and excitement, and my mother, worried sick. You see, it was a mad gamble on her part. Daughters in my family are loved, sheltered, protected, and married off to rich boys from influential families at 25. They didn’t go to strange cities and lived on their own away from everybody they knew. What if I got corrupted? Or never returned? Or worse, eloped with a stranger? The night before we left, my kind relatives threatened my mother with all these questions and more. I thought we’d never board the flight the next day. But we did. Mid-air, she held my hand and asked, “Are you nervous?” I wasn’t. I was just rearing to go. She looked at my face, flushed with anticipation, and smiled. “I am,” she said, “Very, very nervous. Just do your thing and take very good care of my daughter, will you?”
The one year in Bengaluru ended in a heartbeat. Soon, it was time for placements. A major newspaper in Delhi was among the first to come and I was selected. Where the parents of most of my batchmates were concerned about their getting a job, I remember being on a call with mine, trying to make them understand that getting a job was good news, that they should be happy their daughter would work as a journalist with a leading media organisation in the national capital. I don’t know what story my mum narrated to my father, but he told me, “Didn’t you go for just a year to study? What is this new job thing? It won’t be as easy as you think, managing everything by yourself. Why do you want your life to be so difficult?” He just couldn’t understand. But thankfully, mum could. Five days later, she was with me in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar, helping me set up my first flat.
However, my father was right. It wasn’t easy. In fact, the more time passed, the more difficult it got. I began to change cities more frequently, disillusionment started to creep in, burnouts began to manifest physically — I started to fall sick quicker than I could cope. But my mother did not lose patience with me even once for not taking care of her daughter the way she had. Each time I’d go astray, she would tell me how to be and what to do, but it isn’t easy for people with no sense of moderation to find balance. So every time I’d fall, she’d scoop me up, nestle me snug on her warm, tender chest, and let me be for as long as I took.
Most parents have an idea of proper that the people they live around force on them. But not my mother. This has been her greatest gift to me and my siblings— she never forced propriety on us. Every time someone compliments me on my writing, or my sister on her PhD that she is currently working towards at the Delhi School of Economics, or my brother trying to find his feet in the arena of sports management, it is a compliment to my mother. Much like Insia’s, our mum is the Secret Superstar who had the chutzpah to believe in her children and their dreams, no matter however seemingly mad, bizarre, or unruly. She managed everything else, work and expectations, so we could put in the long hours, uninterrupted, and take another step forward towards wherever it was that we wanted to go.
I have another story, from when I was in Class 9. My school was only till Class 10. Since our teachers didn’t want the students slated to appear for board exams to get disturbed, children from Class 9 formed the student council. We had a full cabinet — president, prime minister, sports minister, speaker, et al — all of them elected through votes. Till then, no girl had ever been the school’s president, the council’s most powerful seat. We were given a day to think over the posts we wanted to stand for. I came home and told mum about it all. She looked at me and asked, “You want to stand for president, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said, adding, “But a lot of other boys want to stand for it too. What if no one votes for me?” “They most definitely won’t if you don’t announce your candidacy.” she smiled. The rest, as they say, is history.
Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.