Director: Tushar Hiranandani
Cast: Bhumi Pednekar, Taapsee Pannu, Prakash Jha, Vineet Kumar Singh
Everyone shoots straight from the hip in Saand Ki Aankh, an on-the-nose movie about Prakashi Tomar and Chandro Tomar, two rural grandmothers who shot to fame after taking up the sport of sharpshooting in their 60s. The men who lose to them in competitions shake their fists at the air like Captain Haddock. When asked their age, the Tomars respond with a violin-ly sad "Counting years is futile when you live only for others". When asked about their diet because of how steady their hands are, they reply "gaaliyan (abuses)". There's an early shot of their sad faces framed in between pants hanging on a clothesline. Commentators remark, "the women are wearing salwar suits, let's see if shooting suits them". Even the head of the household, like Gulshan Grover's baaad maaan, has a signature villain phrase: a menacing "yeh toh hona hi tha".
I'd like to believe that the film chooses this loud language because shooting is not a subtle sport – you see a target, you aim for it, you hit it with a big bang. It's noisy, eventful and either black or white. But the real reason isn't half as thoughtful. The director is Tushar Hiranandani, a long-time Bollywood writer who deals in either crass comedy (the Housefull, Masti and Dhamaal franchises) or screechy melodrama (Ek Villain, Half Girlfriend). There is no middle ground. As a result, Saand Ki Aankh is made as a defiant dramedy – the drama is such that it's derived from comedy, and the comedy is such that it's diluted by drama. For example, early on we see a tiny village show of Mother India interrupted by a government-inserted condom ad. The men assert their morality and throw the women (who, in a fleeting moment of beauty, notice how their view of the world depends on the colour of their ghunghats – "this is a blue film") out of the tent, after which it abruptly turns into a scene from a sex comedy: An old man cackles like a horny despot and requests for reruns. Later on, at a posh palatial dinner, Prakashi asks the waiter for a "fock". What she means is "fork," and even though this sort of cheap innuendo makes for easy chuckles, it reveals a poverty-porn gaze not dissimilar to that of Western filmmakers towards brown characters in their movies.
Even the 1975 Emergency is used to cartoonize the sight of village males hiding from sterilization squads in the fields. Their running is sped up like a Chaplin movie: a curious genre porridge that suggests we laugh at the film instead of with it. This scene exists only to validate a recurring gag of the Tomar grannies – they tie a knot in their dupattas (to denote emasculation) everytime they trick the household men. It's very gimmicky. That we find some of this entertaining reveals more about us than the movie. It reminds us that we belong to a culture that thrives on embracing cheap humour when confronted with uncomfortable truths. The treatment of Saand Ki Aankh is merely an extension of this social ailment.
The problem with men making films about winsome womanhood is that everything becomes an exercise in overcompensation. They write female protagonists as characters who say things that we should hear, not as women who start hearing their own voices
There's another sequence in which the sisters are invited by the Alwar Royal family as chief guests. All of it – from broken English to being fascinated by branded shades to downing wine and finger bowls – is played for laughs. There's something oddly condescending about these moments. Almost like Hiranandani and his writers don't want us to think; they just want us to accept the novelty of the narrative, irrespective of what they do with it. It's the equivalent of me expanding upon the irony of how the man who co-wrote a film called Dishoom chose professional shooting as the subject of his directorial debut…but isn't that lazy? The makers are used to turning sex into a joke. Here they turn women into the joke – ignorant, illiterate, 'cute' but slumdog champions so everything is forgiven. By making such a spectacle out of gender disparity, they end up reiterating the very prejudices that the film tries to expose.
This tone enables some cheeky details. The Tomar sisters "mentally disintegrate" their husbands to live this secret life. One day it's a bad dream that might require a pilgrimage to a Chandigarh temple; another day it's a new guru who needs them at an ashram. They exploit misogyny and superstition and male egos; their intellectual superiority is almost too clever for its own good. Another example: A teenager called Sachin – also the name of the most famous sportsman in the history of Indian sport – is sent as a chaperone for these 'religious' trips. At one point, they trick the boy into missing the train so that they can do their own thing. In other words, women's sharpshooting gets the better of men's cricket.
Young actresses Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar spiritedly play the "shooter dadis," iffy prosthetics and all, in a casting decision that urges the viewer to focus on what they stand for rather than who they are. This isn't too different from Akshay Kumar playing every Indian real-life hero – irrespective of age, caste or colour – from "Pad Man" Arunachalam Muruganantham to Mission Mangal's modest ISRO scientists. It's not a coincidence that Sachin here is an avid Khiladi fan. While he rushes to the nearest cinema hall in different cities, the Tomar sisters become Akshay Kumar and Aamir Khan to their own sharpshooting granddaughters. I like how the younger girls are shown to struggle with the pressure of their surnames on the junior shooting circuits. I also like how the male coach (Vineet Kumar Singh) is more of a generic cheerleader, evident in the way his gameface (stubble, shades, faded jacket) is directly derived from Chak De's Shah Rukh Khan. In such cases, you can sense the screenplay (by Balwinder Singh Janjhua) desperately battling the glitzy dialogue and shabby direction to make the film better than a simplistic she-v/s-he sermon.
But the screenplay succeeds lesser than it fails. The problem with men making films about winsome womanhood is that everything becomes an exercise in overcompensation. They write female protagonists as characters who say things that we should hear, not as women who start hearing their own voices. The emotional outbursts play to the gallery, filled with lines designed by men who want audiences to react rather than their protagonists to act. In order to atone for their own deep-rooted masculinity, male filmmakers tend to exaggerate every aspect of these stories – feminism, sexism, bigotry, drama, comedy, life. So you have Pannu and Pednekar often breaking character to assert their newfound wokeness (conceived by urban males in a writing room) in 'seeti-maar' fashion – "we will shoot in skirts, not pants," "you are the husband of Prakashi Tomar, not the other way around" and so on. You have Prakash Jha being the narrow-minded patriarch who growls that "guns are for men" in various ways, while his brothers make versatile angry-bird expressions. You have contestants and crowds hooting at the sisters like low-budget extras. You have eve-teasers speaking like misguided rastafarians ("bro I've always wanted action on a train maaaan"). And you have a script that climaxes not once but thrice in the last thirty minutes. If you think I just made an R-rated joke, Saand Ki Aankh might be for you.