Taapsee Pannu ignores the Saand Ki Aankh critics: 'excited' about making female-led films

'This is my career’s toughest role and the biggest challenge I have taken. I am really thankful for this opportunity'

Indian Bollywood actress Tapsee Pannu poses during the launch of 'Flipkart Video Originals', the first nonfiction show under its original content called 'Backbenchers', in Mumbai on October 15, 2019. (Photo by Sujit Jaiswal / AFP)
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Taapsee Pannu has called Saand Ki Aankh "the most challenging and difficult" film of her career. In it, she plays a woman in her 60s who takes up shooting as a sport by chance and ends up succeeding against all odds.

It's a true story, but in choosing this film, has Pannu hit the bull’s eye?

We're yet to see: she talks to us about the challenges around the film’s production, but more difficulty remains ahead in the promotion and release of the Anurag Kashyap-produced film this week, which clashes with two other big-banner movies on October 24: it is Diwali, after all.

Many people seem to be put off by young Pannu and co-actor Bhumi Pednekar playing two aged sportswomen (why not just employ older actors?). The subject matter of Saand Ki Aankh is based on the true story of Chandro Tomar, 87, and sister-in-law Prakashi Tomar, 82.

The now octogenarians picked up a gun in their 60s while accompanying Chandro’s granddaughter Shefali to a shooting range, and then, remarkably, went on to win numerous medals at the national and world levels.

They achieved all of this while hailing from a conservative family in the rural north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The pressure was such that when Prakashi won her first medal at a national level only a year after picking up a gun, she hid the medal because her husband and the elders in her family were ignorant of her endeavours.

Chandro remains the world’s oldest active trap shooter.

“No doubt, this is my career’s toughest role and the biggest challenge I have taken. I am really thankful for this opportunity,” says Pannu, who plays Prakashi’s part. “This is such a different kind of film. I had to look such a different age and although I am from Delhi, I am not much familiar with the village life … the dialect of the Tomars.”

Although the Tomars are from Johri village in Uttar Pradesh, they speak Haryanvi, the language of the neighbouring state, which has a generally more orthodox populace.

From top left: Bhumi Pednekar, Taapsee Pannu, Chandro Tomar and Prakashi Tomar. Courtesy Reliance Entertainment
From left, Chandro Tomar, Bhumi Pednekar, Taapsee Pannu and Prakashi Tomar. Reliance Entertainment

Shooting is still not a very popular a sport in India, even though it is a big source of world medals for the country. When the Commonwealth Games Federation decided last month to omit shooting as a sport at its next event, India decided to boycott the Games.

It's time for more female-led films in Bollywood 

Saand Ki Aankh is essentially a twin biopic on the dadis (or grandmothers) and their exploits on the range. The subject matter means this is a two-female lead film – a rarity in male-driven Bollywood, which is a pet peeve for Pannu.

Pannu waited for two years to perform in the film, only because no one else would come on board for the other shooter's role.The film is the brainchild of Anurag Kashyap, the man behind many a successful offbeat film, but there were very few takers to play an older woman in a sports-centric film. Pannu said yes to the film 10 seconds after hearing about the script. In fact, she herself went up to the makers of the film – the director is Tushar Hiranandani – because she heard on the grapevine of a female-lead film, something she says she was itching to do since Gulaab Gang released in 2014 with two stalwarts Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla.

“With such films, you wish it is going to work, and it will work,” Pannu says. “You spent a precious amount of time of your life into it. Besides, it's a two-female lead film releasing on the biggest date of the year … I am so excited about it.” Pannu is referring to the Diwali release date.

Releasing films on festive occasions has generally been the domain of male superstars. Salman Khan always has a film lined up on Eid, Aamir Khan targets a Diwali release whenever possible while Akshay Kumar and John Abraham wear their patriotic sleeve for roles in films lined up for India’s Independence Day.

Companies generally release their biggest films in festive periods, and they have generally only backed male stars in the past. Both Pannu and Pednekar have spoken about their desire to see female actors in a stronger position when it comes to career filmography and remuneration for their talent.

Understandably much is at stake with Saand Ki Aankh: Pannu gets worked up when it's noted that both actresses just do not look the part for this film, and that it would have been better to cast senior names such as Neena Gupta or Shabana Azmi.

When it's suggested that the makeup artists or director didn't do a good enough job at convincingly ageing the actresses, she's very defensive: “Listen, these people are not here in the industry by chance. They are good at what they do. They are there for a reason.”

The firefighting skills of Pannu are well known, she is active on Twitter and takes on trolls. And she appears to have faith in everyone involved in this project, which is cherished to her. But her passion focus alone may not be enough to achieve the intended target. We will have to wait and see.