Zaira Wasim's performance in Secret Superstar has brought hope back into ‘commercial’ Hindi cinema
In an ordinary year for Hindi cinema, it is Zaira Wasim who has emerged as the face of a new kind of actor — entertaining and yet, wholesome.
In a promotional video for Dangal titled ‘Making of The Dhaakad Girls’, you get an interesting nugget of information about Zaira Wasim, with visual proof to boot. Zaira, who plays young Geeta Phogat in Dangal, didn’t inspire much confidence in the makers, when it came to fitness and wrestling technique. It wasn’t until the shoot commenced that they realized the girl had what it took (and so much more), to nail that particular part.
Zaira was outstanding in Dangal – her dhobi-pachhad outdone only by the swagger she showed, of someone who knows, if nothing else, how to win. So good was she in the film that it didn’t seem likely she could outdo herself anytime soon.
And then, less than a year later, came Secret Superstar. It may not seem so at first because of their vastly different scales, but Secret Superstar is a more complex story than is. The latter follows the graph of any good sports film, which also means that it favours drama more than character intricacy; and that’s what sets the former apart. The journey of a talented teenaged Muslim female singer (her religion and gender are intricately linked in the context of the film) from obscurity to stardom progresses linearly as you root for her all along, but there are layers to her character – as there are to the life of any teenager.
You see her being unreasonable and brash towards her mother, because that’s the only person in her life who has given her that space unconditionally. You see the otherwise feisty, indefatigable little Insia being shy around her first crush. You see her almost give up with despair and frustration, but hang on to the slightest sliver of hope, because she didn’t get the age-old memo about women being second-class citizens. (Or, more likely, she chose to ignore it because *beep* that.)
In an ordinary year for Hindi cinema, in a year when even fans of outrageous ‘commercial’ cinema finally jumped onto the Rajkummar Rao bandwagon, it is Zaira who has emerged as the face of a new kind of actor. For far too long, makers of tripe have gotten away with ‘that’s what the audience wants’ and ‘you don’t know how difficult it is to make tripe’.
Dangal and Secret Superstar point towards the direction that commercial Hindi cinema must move in – still wholesome, melodramatic, entertaining and escapist – but with a degree of sensitivity towards society and people; and these are the kind of films that a talent like Zaira would excel in.
In Secret Superstar, you see long takes where she delivers dialogue, her face in big close-up, as she is emoting anger, frustration, joy and so much more. Most screen actors get twitchy when they have to hold an emotion or an expression for too long without a cut, because we tend to have shorter shots in Hindi cinema. We move from a mid-shot to a long shot to a close shot to an extreme close up of some other object and so on, all in the space of a scene, or even a single long line of dialogue.
Zaira, though, radiates every emotion her character must feel, and it is a joy when you realise, with multiple viewings, that she seems to hit the mark just right each time. Watch her blush when her feelings towards her young classmate are revealed, because she has to tell him her password; or watch her throw herself before her abusive, violent father to defend her mother from a thrashing she knows her mother will have to face no matter what; or watch her pull off predictable, clichéd moments like, when she suggests, to a senior music director, that they convert a sleazy item number into a sensitive, uplifting song.
Zaira Wasim is the kind of actor that makes the director look good, and that’s such a rare ability to have.
After Secret Superstar, she deserves to have roles and stories written specifically keeping her talent in mind. Hopefully her upcoming films will challenge her further and push her to pull off characters and performances that will give a bold, original voice to commercial Hindi cinema.
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