One only has to hear the words ‘women’, ‘sixties’, and ‘sharpshooters’ used in the same sentence to appreciate the premise of “Saand Ki Aankh”, which is based on the amazing true story of Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, a pair of sisters-in-law from Johri village in Uttar Pradesh, who, in their sixties, became two of the oldest sharpshooter champions in the world, winning several medals each in competitive tournaments over the years.
Stressing on their age and gender is crucial. Because they hail from the kind of feudal set up where women didn’t step out of their home without the permission of their men. The kind of set up where the men smoked hookahs all day while the women worked hard in the fields and in brick kilns, only to return home to prepare their husbands’ meals. This, and other grim details like the fact that women were practically baby-making machines, rearing as many as a dozen or more children each, or the fact that they lived huddled like cattle, identified only from the colour of the ghunghats they draped over their heads, is conveyed for the most part with well-intentioned humour by director Tushar Hiranandani.
Bhumi Pednekar and Taapsee Pannu play Chandro and Prakashi, who live with their husbands and assorted children and grandchildren in a home lorded over by the family patriarch, their overbearing, controlling brother-in-law Ratan Singh (Prakash Jha). His is the final word on everything.
But Chandro and Prakashi sneak out to learn shooting at a makeshift range set up by a well-meaning doctor (Vineet Kumar Singh), then lie to attend various championships when it’s clear they’ve got impeccable shooting skills. The two take these risks, hoping their daughters and granddaughters can learn shooting too, and stand on their own feet to escape their miserable lives.
So “Saand Ki Aankh” is a feel-good, inspiring story of two women who challenged patriarchy by picking up the ultimate symbol of masculinity. Lest that point be too subtle, we get at least two scenes in which Ratan Singh caresses his gun while declaring in true-blue Bollywood villain style: “Yeh bandook mardon ka gehna hai, mardon ke haath mein hi acha laage.”
The absence of subtlety, and the broad-strokes storytelling are conscious choices on the part of the makers. When Chandro and Prakashi attend their first tournament they’re laughed at by the gathered crowd, who, predictably, become their cheerleaders when they win. That scenario is repeated at least twice. But it’s the way the ladies land their punchy dialogues, and it’s their winning sisterly chemistry that makes you warm up to them early on. The film’s tone remains consistently upbeat, and that’s another big strength. “Saand Ki Aankh” is unabashedly hopeful and uplifting, as if demanding that that the viewer drop his defenses.
It must be said here that the film is far from perfect. The slim plot feels stretched; more than once the narrative meanders into silliness. The last act is especially clunky and seems to go on and on and on. I could point out at least three places in the film that felt like the climax, but turned out not to be. At nearly two and a half hours, it’s unmistakably long. Doesn’t help either that the make up is inconsistent and embarrassing. Taapsee and Bhumi never look like women in their sixties and it’s because they’re slapped with patchy, unconvincing pancake. Vineet Kumar Singh is a victim too, marked by fake-looking white streaks in his french beard.
It is a testament to the film’s strong emotional core that despite these shortcomings it manages to make you feel and care. It practically hammers home its message of empowerment, making it impossible not to root for Chandro and Prakashi. Always dressed in their traditional attire, even at tournaments, lifting their ghunghat just high enough to focus on their target, they frequently hit bullseye. Good luck trying to hold back as the strains of that catchy track “Baby Gold” fill the theatre.
Expectedly it’s the leading ladies, Bhumi Pednekar and Taapsee Pannu, whose sincere, spirited performances keep the engine running. Both actresses throw themselves into the roles, finding that sweet spot between vulnerability and strength. Bhumi steals a march with the best lines, but Taapsee is just as solid. The makers surround them with a fine ensemble, particularly Vineet Kumar Singh, who brings an understated amiability to his role as the local doctor who becomes their coach, and also Prakash Jha who hits just the perfect chauvinistic tone.