Bhumi Pednekar, 29, and Taapsee Pannu, 32 — two of Bollywood’s most versatile and charismatic talents — breathed life into the inspirational lives of ‘shooter dadis’ (shooter grannies) Prakashi Tomar and Chandro Tomar, the world’s oldest sharpshooter champions who broke out of their repressive lives, in ‘Saand Ki Aankh’.
However, its trailer was ridiculed for its epic miscast and blasted for its age-inappropriate lead players.
While the makers were hailed for focusing on stories about older women and aiming for better representation, they were relentlessly attacked by their own clan for their casting decisions.
Indian National Award-winning actor Neena Gupta and Soni Razadan made their displeasure known and questioned the casting of younger women in older roles. Whatever happened to authenticity, they wondered out loud?
Pannu, whose credits include the stirring thriller ‘Pink’ and ‘Badla’, found the drama that unfolded off-screen perplexing.
The high-profile actor agrees she was an unnatural choice, but she found their collective censure misplaced.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect resistance from actors who are a part of this industry. I thought they will be appreciative and encouraging that we have tried something original,” said Pannu in an interview ahead of her film’s release on October 24. She has just one request to her dissenters.
“Please feel free to lash out at me and abuse me if you think I am not able to successfully convey my emotions on October 25 [the release date of her film in India]. Criticise the hell out of me for taking it up, but just because I am not that age or that the skin is not mine, don’t hit out at me. Then, you are questioning my existence as an actor,” said Pannu.
She plays the feisty Prakashi Tomar from Uttar Pradesh who breaks the shackles of patriarchy by becoming a sharpshooter champion in her 60s along with her equally repressed sister-in-law Chandro Tomar (Pednekar).
Pannu, who brought the conversations of consent and sexual violence into mainstream cinema with Indian National Award-winning ‘Pink’, believes that the miscasting debate around her latest film isn’t ‘logical’. It’s also wrong to question an actor for taking up a particular role and they should be condemned only if they are unable to convey the emotions behind their daring roles, believes Pannu.
“Actors in the past have played roles of an age that they don’t belong to and they continue to do so. For instance, the sexual orientation that an actor plays in a film may not comply with who they are in their real life. You don’t always take a gay man for a gay role. And, if you begin to comply to such parameters, then you are questioning my very definition of being an actor,” said Pannu.
Her partner in crime and her close friend in real life Pednekar is equally sagacious while defending her decision to be a part of ‘Saand Ki Aankh’, directed by Tushar Hiranandani. While she’s fully aware that the condemnation wasn’t a personal attack on them as actors, she considers it as a non-personal observation and comment on today’s times.
“The truth of the matter is that there aren’t enough roles for women in Bollywood. Period. I didn’t feel cheated [with the miscasting debate]. But I was surprised when it came from actors who I loved and respected … I understand the place that they come from … But I will do what I have to do. I am an actor,” said Pednekar in a separate interview. They are unapologetic about their career calls and they won’t let anyone dampen their spirits.
While Pannu gunned for the fierce role from the very beginning, Pednekar was kicked that a women-centric drama was going to release during the Indian festival Diwali, a period usually reserved for male actors in glitzy dramas as they are considered more bankable and lucrative at the box office.
Pednekar claims it took director Hiranandani several years to nail the casting and flag off the project.
This film will shatter stereotypes and is one of those projects that could ‘go very wrong or very right’. Economics and commerce of Bollywood will be spun on its head this Diwali, believes the dynamic duo.
“Some actresses didn’t want to take up this role because it wasn’t a glamorous role and some didn’t want to do a rural film. It was a mix of reasons, but he stuck to his conviction and passion. It took him four years to get this casting and you have to respect his decision … This is a role of a lifetime and we have put ourselves in a vulnerable position,” said Pednekar.
Both are treading wholly unfamiliar territory in this film. From learning how to pull the trigger of a pistol to pasting cow dungs on the wall like a professional, the city-bred actors had to get their hands dirty to play the real-life shooters, who are now in their 80s.
“It’s an inspiring story of women in ghagras [full skirts] to guns,” said Pednekar with a laugh. Both had to do back-breaking legwork for this film too.
Pannu spent more than a month living in a countryside home in an effort to be authentic and convincing as a hardy, weathered and stout rural granny.
But being sprightly at 60 wasn’t as easy as it looked, claims the actors. While Pannu considered her mother, who is closer to the age of her character, as a reference point, Pednekar corralled her real-life observations on older women to bring home the role.
“I grew up in Delhi and it was our family tradition to spend our summer vacations in Punjab. So the houses looked familiar and their way of life wasn’t new or odd to me … But to get into the psyche of this woman was a challenge. Sixties is a tricky age where a woman doesn’t limp and she’s pretty active. You don’t have an exaggerated body language either.” Subtlety would be the name of the game here.
Pednekar, who floored us with films including ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, ‘Sonchiriya’ and ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’, also believes that her festive release would go a long way in shattering patriarchy, that has been normalised over decades in an Indian household.
“This film is a larger comment about the existing patriarchal structure in our society. There’s no antagonist in this film. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of the patriarchal mindset because we have seen it play out in different generations ... This is what they have grown up with. These two dadis [grannies] represent the breaking of patriarchy.”
The movie chronicles the two submissive women who discover that they are lethal shooters with great aim and go about winning competitions without their regressive, domineering husbands’ knowledge. Director Prakash Jha will play the sexist patriarch and village chieftain who calls the shots in their lives.
“I am dedicating this film to all the mothers out there … My mother tells me ‘ap toh ho gaya’ [I am done now], but I want to tell her that she isn’t done yet. I tell her: ‘Your entire life you have lived for your parents before marriage, after marriage for your husband and kids and at 60 when you are life is sorted, you don’t know what to do with your life.’ This movie is for all those women and mothers out there,” said Pannu.
It’s a film that will also remind you that age is just a number and that there shouldn’t be an expiry to your dreams even if you advance in age, believes the stars who want to lead by example.
Their aim: a sure-shot film that celebrates human spirit in the face of resistance.
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‘Saand Ki Aankh’ releases in the UAE on October 24.
“Nobody should tell you that this isn’t your age to do something. It is your heart, your motivational instinct. Age is all in the mind and nobody should stop you. You have to stop giving up on how old you are,” said Pannu.
“People are so surprised to see two women like us being very good friends. That’s beyond me. I truly believe that women understand women the most and that girls don’t support other girls as a far-fetched and archaic belief … Chandro and Prakashi are like true soul sisters,” said Pednekar on her bond with Pannu, her co-star.