By Sanjay Kumar
Towards the denouement of Secret Superstar, one just wishes that Insiya’s patriarchal-puritanical father would, a la Amrish Puri in DDLJ, shed his obstinacy to say, ‘Jaa, tu ji le apni zindagi’ (live the way you wish to live). It does not happen and yet it happens…it happens via her mother. When she speaks, she speaks for all those who have been condemned to the margins of existence in the name of faith, custom, compliance, and conformity. The movie offers a platform to discuss critical questions relating to the unfolding of modernity among the Muslims of India. And why is it impossible to reverse the tide of modernity?
Gramsci’s idea of interregnun – “the old was dead but the new could not be born and this interregnun allows morbid symptoms of wide variety” – could be the starting point of discussion. As of now, it is clear that the old cannot be reborn and the new – though inchoate, timid, and tentative – inheres hope and carries momentum that is impossible to be reversed. Of course, the process of change is not drastic or monumental; it is incremental, imperceptible, slow, barely visible to the naked eyes but it is there nonetheless. How and why is change towards modernity becoming irreversible?
The movie shows the limitations and aspirations of the middle class. And the middle class with its focus on individualism, achievement, consumerism, penchant for demonstration, and belief in the instrumentality of the market economy seeks to realise its aspirations by overcoming the limitations. So even a puritanical husband in the movie would ask his wife to shun veil on one occasion, when they plan to attend a marriage in a modern Muslim family. As the size of the Muslim middle class in India grows and as they are required to negotiate with a wide variety of situations for which nothing ever prepares them, it is only inevitable that they would seek solutions in secular domain. And the hold of tradition would only loosen.
As rightly depicted in the movie, it is the power of Muslim women which is in the process of becoming a force multiplier. Three generations of women but all of them one way or the other resent the hold of patriarchy and associated claustrophobia. It may be mute and silent in the case of Insiya’s grandmother; smouldering but still reluctant in the case of her mother; but when it comes to Insiya, she is defiance personified. And she would stop short of nothing when she has made up her mind.
A common education system is the best guarantee as far as the intimations of modernity are concerned. As kids from different backgrounds are thrown together and as they understand each other, they shed their prejudices and explore points of commonality. Friendships and even love could develop and mental barriers are bound to crumble. I am sure it must be everyone’s experience. Pitted against the anxiety to perform and getting a job in a high-talent but scarce-opportunity market, both their predicament and sense of possibility are essentially secular.
The movie shows a number of gadgets, technology, and media – internet, social media, traditional media, YouTube – and the ambidexterity with which the new generation uses it. A case could be made that technology is a double-edged weapon but the movie rightly shows the way these are being used to connect, to reduce physical and emotional distances, and to say what has not been said before. So while technologies could foster conservatism, it could also be a very valuable ally against conservatism and in support of modernity.
Poetry, music, and cinema are essentially subversive. No good poetry could be puritanical; no good cinema could be conformist and music represents the triumph of spirit over both mind and matter.
The movie shows very explicitly that change does not come with a bang; it is the aggregation of very mundane, very small, very unremarkable events that happen every day which in the end graduate to critical mass. So regardless of patriarchal pretensions and theocratic backlash, the change towards modernity among the Muslims is destined to run its course.
And only one thing that could thwart and torpedo it (which is not part of the movie but which must be said) is muscular majoritarian brouhaha. Others like fatwa-issuing ulemas and triple talaq-uttering males – who cares for them!!!
Sanjay Kumar attended Delhi University to pursue graduation and post-graduation. He is heavily invested in movies, history, literature, and popular culture. He is based in Patna, Bihar, India.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Narrating Care: Disability and Interdependence in the Indian Context’, edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata, India and Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad, India.