When asked about the challenges of playing a teenage singer-songwriter in Secret Superstar that releases later this month, Zaira Wasim talks about her “annoying habit” instead. While shooting the scenes that show her playing the guitar, she was instructed to just pull at the strings. She, however, was hell-bent on playing the chords perfectly. “There were times I had to give so many takes. They would tell me it didn’t matter how it sounded. But I had to get it right. Otherwise, I would not be able to act,” says Wasim. “I was a bit OCD about it.”
In Dangal, the 16-year-old impressed with her performance — she won the National Award for best supporting actress by depicting a young Geeta Phogat’s transformation from a regular schoolgirl in Haryana to a wrestling sensation. For Secret Superstar, she slips into the character of a Baroda-based youngster called Insia, who dreams of becoming a singer despite stiff opposition from her conservative father. She chalked out her “top priorities” accordingly for the project — learning the guitar and looking convincing as a singer-performer. “I had to make sure it did not look like I was acting. There are times you might miss a beat or two. Ensuring that I don’t miss it was difficult,” she says. But was it easier than learning to wrestle? “Both are equally difficult. I was scared when I first learnt how to wrestle. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off — it would not have been possible without my coach Kripa sir (Kripa Shankar Bishnoi),” says the actor, who was born and brought up in Srinagar.
Wasim’s dedication to picking up the nuances of her characters is something that Aamir Khan, her co-star in both the movies, waxes eloquent about. At the launch of Secret Superstar’s trailer, the producer-actor said that he was impressed by her perfectionism: “As an actor, whenever we play a musical instrument, we often try to play it accurately. She (Zaira) has gone a step further, she has spent a lot of time with Meghna Mishra (singer) because she wanted to understand how to sing. They used to rehearse together.” The endorsement also comes from Advait Chandan, director of Secret Superstar, who says Wasim makes every detail look natural. “There is a scene in the trailer where she is throwing a fit on the terrace, breaking a bucket. That scene was not rehearsed. But she was really throwing a fit. For me, that was amazing,” says the debutant director.
Essaying Insia’s emotions was not without challenges. “In the song Main kaun hoon, I go into Insia’s headspace when she is dreaming, yet questioning herself at the same time. When she returns to reality, she is clad in a burqa… I had to make sure that I was getting it all right,” she says.
The teenager, who became a household name with Dangal’s popularity, rules out any drastic change in her life. “Before Dangal, I was very shy and didn’t speak much at social occasions. I used to get very anxious. The only difference now is that I am more loved. People take my pictures. Every time they take my pictures, I get nervous. But, it is changing gradually as I am meeting more people,” says Wasim.
Born in Srinagar on October 23, 2000, to Zarqa Wasim and banker Zahid Wasim, Zaira’s journey as an actor wasn’t a planned affair. “Casting director Mukesh Chhabra’s team had come to my school (St. Paul’s International Academy, Sonwar Bagh, Srinagar) while casting for some other film. I thought of giving it a shot. After the audition, I did two commercials. On the basis of those commercials, I was called for Dangal.” In fact, she was chosen to headline Secret Superstar before Dangal’s shoot started. “Even though I was rehearsing for Dangal every day and that was my priority, I was very excited about my second film.”
And how did she react to the news of winning the National Award? “Honestly, it did not register initially. I was sleeping and woke up to my cousin’s call. She was upset with me and said, ‘You have not told me about the National Award’. I was like, ‘What?’. She told me that the news was flashing on TV. And when I looked at my phone, there were some 20 messages from friends and family,” she says, with a laugh.
But being seen as a Kashmiri youth icon has its share of difficulties. She faced criticism after she met chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in January and that led her to post, what she called “an open confession/apology”, on social media. The post read: “I hope people remember that I’m just a 16-year-old girl and I hope you treat me accordingly. I’m sorry for what I did but it was not a deliberate decision and I really hope people can forgive me.” Is it a burden being a role model? The publicist intervenes and requests us to ask questions related to her movies. Wasim chooses to answer: “I want people to build their own and focus on themselves. Success is different for each and every person.”
Wasim’s dedication to her craft also extends to her studies. “When I signed Secret Superstar, I was very happy. Then it hit me that my Class X exams were due. My mother’s strict instruction was that I had to get good marks. After the shoot for Secret Superstar was wrapped up, I had two months in hand to study for it,” says Wasim, who secured 92 per cent in her board examinations. By her own admission, she is obsessed with her three cats — a black one called Dodo, a brown kitten Jerry and a white one called Snow. “Also, I don’t have a lot of friends. My life is all about spending time with my cats and family.” But Wasim, now in Class XI at Jammu’s Heritage School, is also very keen on furthering her academic record, in addition to her acting credentials, “Education would be my top priority. Let’s see where life takes me.”