Saand Ki Aankh movie review: Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar are smashing good fun as UP’s inspiring Shooter Daadis
Saand Ki Aankh is a timely reminder no matter what our differences may be with them, we all stand on the shoulders of the Chandros and Prakashis of the world.
castTaapsee Pannu,Â bhumi Pednekar, Viineet Kumar, Prakash Jha, Sara Arjun, Himanshu Sharma, Pawan Chopra, Kuldeep Sareen, Navneet Srivastava, Nikhat Khan, Shaad Randhawa
If Saand Ki Aankh had been fiction, chances are it would have been dismissed as “improbable” and “typical Bollywood masala”. We know this about the truth yet keep forgetting: it is not just stranger than fiction, it is gutsier, funnier and more adventurous, as this gloriously entertaining film reminds us.
Saand Ki Aankh is based on the lives of sisters-in-law Chandro and Prakashi Tomar who first picked up a gun in their 60s and have gone on to become multiple-medal-winning shooting champions. Now in their 80s, the Shooter Daadis of Uttar Pradesh’s Johri village have riddled glass ceilings with bullet holes and paved the way for more women (including Prakashi’s daughter Seema who is an international champ in the sport) to step out of their homes in a state otherwise notorious for gender discrimination and violence.
Two quick points before diving deep into this review: first, Saand Ki Aankh is smashing good fun, as are Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar playing the feisty leads; second, however impressive the two actors may be, the casting of young women to play old women subtracts from the impact of the film by placing a question mark on the team’s commitment to its own messaging. This is an industry in which director Rajkumar Hirani and producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra cast a then 44-year-old Aamir Khan, 39-year-old R Madhavan and 30-year-old Sharman Joshi as teenagers in 3 Idiots as recently as 2009, where male superstars for decades have continued to play youth while in their 50s in reality, but women actors beyond their mid-30s are/have been routinely discarded, which is why it hurts so much that even in a progressive film such as this one, women artistes in their 60s have been deemed unworthy of playing women in their 60s.
It is possible to enjoy Saand Ki Aankh and find it inspiring, yet be aware that, however giant a leap it may be for womankind, it is but a small step towards a day when a Bollywood producer might put their money on a project with a Ms Pednekar and a Ms Pannu playing the younger Chandro and Prakashi while the Tomars’ 60-plus avatars are played by a Neena Gupta and a Ratna Pathak Shah (my dream cast for this film) or Shabana Azmi, Hema Malini, Rekha or any one of the numerous talented and gorgeous women who currently grace Hindi filmdom in supporting roles. For the record, this is exactly how the men in the story have been cast: the young Tomar husbands are played by young actors, whereas older actors play them in their later years.
Now that I have let off steam about this disappointment, let me tell you what a rollicking ride Saand Ki Aankh is.
The narrative opens in the late 1990s on the first occasion when Chandro (Pednekar) and Prakashi (Pannu) deceive their husbands and leave their village for a shooting tournament. The story then flashes back to the ’50s when Prakashi enters the household as a bride. She and Chandro instantly connect. Their friendship carries them through a dreary existence that includes unending work in the fields and at home, pregnancy after unwanted pregnancy (unwanted by the women, while their men do not care either way just so long as they get to have sex and sons), and the resentment they harbour against their spouses whose occupations are restricted to impregnating their wives, selling crops the wives have harvested, pocketing the money and lording it over the women.
Plenty has been reported about the Tomars in the media. Theirs is a fascinating tale calling out to be made into a film. Saand Ki Aankh is directed by debutant Tushar Hiranandani whose 15-year filmography as a writer covers a spectrum of comedies ranging from the misogynistic Great Grand Masti to the pleasant Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge. He does not do to this film what Hindi cinema has long assumed should be done to all women-centric narratives: he does not make it a weepie, nor write a male ‘saviour’ into the Tomars’ saga, nor turn the women into violent avenging angels of the sort that have crowded mainstream films about rape survivors from Zakhmi Aurat to Mom.
Saand Ki Aankh (written by Balwinder Janjua and co-produced by Anurag Kashyap) is hugely funny and uplifting, yet it never makes light of the grave risks Chandro and Prakashi took while travelling for competitions initially without informing their regressive, restrictive menfolk. In that sense, Hiranandani maintains a perfect tone as he takes us on this rip-roaring ride, deep into a fire that patriarchy could not douse.
The conservative men in the film are not caricatured, they are ridiculed in a cleverly understated fashion. The women do find support among some men in the family, the village and beyond, but Saand Ki Aankh fortunately does not belong to the Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan School of Cinema that has yielded films like Mission Mangal and Tiger Zinda Hai in which fictional men appropriated the real-life achievements of real-life women to give these male superstars larger-than-life roles of the sort they covet. The Daadis’ coach, for instance, is a well-rounded, neatly written character, but at no point do Janjua and Hiranandani paint him as a knight in shining armour ‘rescuing’ the women from their fate: if there is any rescuing to be done, the women do it themselves. He is at all times portrayed as a darling, a visionary and an ally, but never a saviour.
Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti’s cinematography, Devendra Murdeshwar’s editing and Vishal Mishra’s delightfully buoyant music are designed to ensure that the coach is not allowed to steal Chandro and Prakashi’s thunder. Who the camera lingers on, who gets those lionising low-angle shots, who the editor and director end each scene with – these choices go a long way towards establishing the supremacy of one character over another in a narrative. With its carefully considered decisions in these departments, Saand Ki Aankh leaves us in no doubt that Chandro and Prakashi are its protagonists, period.
Hindi film soundtracks have for a while now been toplined by men. Even in last year’s otherwise forward-thinking Veere Di Wedding in which women dominated the storyline, men inexplicably dominated the music (including with a song in which the female leads lip synced to Badshah’s voice). In Saand Ki Aankh, women rule the songs all the way down to the celebratory number running over the closing credits.
As important as all this is the choice of narrator. Most Bollywood films have men, preferably men with booming baritones, introducing and recounting stories, the unspoken implication being that a voice of authority must perforce be male. Saand Ki Aankh opts instead for a little girl (Sara Arjun), the very one for whose sake a 60-something grandmother picked up the gun in the first place.
Ms Arjun – award-winning star of the Tamil film Deiva Thirumagal and the Malayalam Ann Maria Kalippilaanu – does full justice to her role as a diffident kid who sprouts wings under Chandro and Prakashi’s watchful eyes. She along with the consistently wonderful Viineet Kumar (earlier Vineet Kumar Singh, best known for Bombay Talkies and Mukkabaaz) playing the Daadis’ coach, director-turned-actor Prakash Jha as their older brother-in-law and sweet little Himanshu Sharma (Dear Dad) as a hapless pawn turned advocate for the heroines’ cause, form part of Saand Ki Aankh’s large and able supporting cast.
Given the task of playing women double their age, Pannu and Pednekar come up trumps in their turn as cheery, fire-breathing warriors. They manage this despite the inconsistent make-up and lighting, which, among other things, leaves their hands youthful forever.
While the two actors occasionally slip up in their gait and posture as old women, they look so confident as shooters that it is as if they were born to wield fire-arms (I will defer to language experts to assess their accents in the Hindi-Haryanvi dialect spoken in this film). Pannu and Pednekar have sharp comic timing, they play off each other well, and it is as much to their credit as the director’s and writer’s that neither star lures the spotlight away from the other, instead delivering equally finely tuned, sensitive performances.
TV serials in languages across India are filled with nasty women scheming against other women. While women are no doubt often women’s enemies, it is just as true that the entertainment media and the popular public discourse tend to downplay the backroom alliances that women have formed for centuries in their bid to survive back-breaking patriarchy. Saand Ki Aankh stands out as a fine illustration of women who look out for each other, not just in Chandro and Prakashi’s life-long friendship but also in their quiet understanding with the other women in that massive joint family.
The only truly problematic patch in the narrative comes at a party thrown by an erstwhile royal family to which the Daadis are invited. A clash of cultures is inevitable at their maiden encounter with champagne, forks and finger bowls, but instead of being merely amusing, the storytelling here briefly gets patronising towards them for the first and only time in the film. Thankfully this rough spot passes soon enough.
Saand Ki Aankh’s often exuberant facade belies its thoughtful nature. As much as they are means of repression, the ghungats worn by the leads, like the veils in Lipstick Under My Burkha, also become means they use to escape repression. I was not comfortable with a character justifying the forced sterilisations of men undertaken during the Emergency, but the women’s bemused reaction to this autocratic move serves as a striking comment on how the oppression of the oppressor could unwittingly benefit the oppressed.
Saand Ki Aankh has all the pizzazz that its name, which is explained within the film, suggests it will. Even in its most comical moments, it is deeply moving because the women are fighting for rights that no human being should ever have to demand: the right to dream, the right to make their own decisions, the right to just have a good time. Watching it is to set off on an emotional rollercoaster of reactions, running the gamut from delirious joy at the heroines’ achievements to anger on their behalf, fear, laughter, tears and whoops of celebration.
Since the MeToo movement spread across India last October, an ugly generational divide has emerged among feminists, with some seeing no irony in directing ageist taunts at “older feminists” and refusing to acknowledge the contributions of those who have battled before us. Precisely a year later, Saand Ki Aankh is a timely reminder that no matter what our differences may be with them, we all stand on the shoulders of the Chandros and Prakashis of the world who endangered themselves to crash through closed doors so that you and I may now walk through them unscathed.
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