Believe it, if you will: in the 2000s, two housewives from a conservative clan in Uttar Pradesh picked up guns while in their sixties, became ace competitive shooters, and inspired their daughters and nieces to represent India in the sport.
The feel-good saga of sisters-in-law Chandro and Prakashi Tomar is tailor-made for a movie, and one has duly been made, called Saand Ki Aankh. Why then do the events in screenwriter Tushar Hiranandani’s debut feature ring false, and why does the biopic miss its target by some distance?
There is a simple reason for why this grannies-with-guns saga fires blanks: the elderly women are played by Taapsee Pannu, aged 32, and Bhumi Pednekar, aged 30. The make-up and hair-and-wig departments attempt to complete a job that older actresses would have done far better. Pannu and Pednekar have silver-coloured tresses, and wrinkles are scattered across their supple faces. They also affect stoops and sometimes remember to slow down their movements, but they can never be mistaken for anything but young actresses at a costume party where they are playing their grandmothers.
The miscasting is especially ironic in a film that makes a lot of noise about feminist issues, demands that women be treated on par with men, and insists that there is no such thing as an expiry date. The Pannu-Pednekar pair are just about convincing as sisters-in-law but their every other action is suspect, especially since they are paired with age-appropriate male actors, including Prakash Jha as the obdurate patriarch who likes the women in his family to be veiled at all times.
Jha’s Ratan Singh presides over a clan that is bursting at the seams. The women have done their duty and produced scores of children, but behind the veils and inside the kitchens, Chandro (Pednekar) and Prakashi (Pannu) successfully carry off minor rebellions.
Things get escalated when the matriarchs accompany a daughter and a niece to a shooting range set up by the progressive doctor Yashpal (Vineet Kumar Singh). While attempting to encourage her daughter to shoot, Prakashi picks up a gun and hits bull’s eye.
Chandro turns out to have the same dexterity with weapons as Prakashi (must be something in the water). The women cook up various excuses to participate in contests for senior citizens. The ensuing medals are stashed away at the back of the house, and since the men stick to the front porch with their hookahs and sense of entitlement, nobody is any the wiser. The house receives no newspapers, it appears, and since even the rest of the village shares a disdain for news or doesn’t make it as far as the sports pages, the grannies giggle their way to glory until their deceit is discovered.
The screenplay, by Balwinder Singh Janjua with dialogue by Jagdeep Sidhu, takes 148 minutes to make its equal-opportunity arguments. There are some good jokes at the expense of the men, and the scenes in which the Tomar women discover worlds beyond their cloistered homes are entertaining enough. But it’s a matter of time before the impish humour that worked well up until the interval gives way to speechifying. By the time the feminist outbursts arrive, Saand Ki Aankh has already outstayed its welcome.
The movie aims high, and wants to say many important things about the lack of opportunities for women, in sports or elsewhere. But its uneven tone and the easy-peasy manner in which the lead pair accumulate awards rarely allows for an nuanced understanding of just how the Tomar women did it.
The screenplay includes a clever discussion on the climax of Mehboob Khan’s classic movie Mother India, in which Nargis’s character picks up a gun and unerringly shoots dead her wayward son. There is another way in which Saand Ki Aankh resembles older Hindi films, in which visibly young actresses were aged by painting their hair white and adding a few worry lines to their foreheads. It just about worked at the time, but there’s hardly any excuse anymore for inadequate prosthetics or poor casting.
A dream sequence in which Prakashi imagines the family’s female members being shot dead by the men is passed off as a joke. A lengthy flashback to the opening sequence even before the interval has arrived indicates that the narrative has gotten out of hand early on. The feeling of watching a comic-book take on an actual feat is reinforced by the end credits, where we see the women who have inspired the biopic. They look feisty, wonderful, inspirational – and very old.