By Pragyan Mohanty Oct. 28, 2019
For an industry as distracted by, and obsessed with stars, it’s hard for senior actresses to find age-appropriate roles that do justice to their talent. Worse, when there arises an opportunity for a movie to cast them – like Tushar Hiranandani’s Saand Ki Aankh, that revolves around two sharpshooters in their sixties – they lose out to young actresses more likely to have box-office pull.
One of the most powerful performances in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy was that of Razia – the repressed, raging mother of the film’s hero, Murad. Ace Marathi actress Amruta Subhash plays Razia and portrays her life of drudgery as well as the defiance simmering within with remarkable assurance. In real life, the 40-year-old actress is only six years older than her on-screen son, Ranveer Singh who stars as a college student dreaming of becoming a rapper. While Subhash’s casting can be viewed as a testament to her virtuosity, one can’t deny its adherence to Bollywood’s notorious history of pushing actresses of a certain age to play maternal roles – often to men older than them. In fact, for an industry as distracted by, and obsessed with stars, it’s infinitely harder for senior actresses to find age-appropriate roles that do justice to their talent. Worse, when there arises an opportunity for a movie to cast them – like Tushar Hiranandani’s Saand Ki Aankh, that revolves around two sharpshooters in their sixties – they lose out to young actresses more likely to have box-office pull.
The casting of Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar, inarguably two of the most talented actresses of the younger generation, for characters that are 30 years older to them, has been heavily criticised by older actresses like Neena Gupta, Seema Pahwa and Soni Razdan. And why not? It’s ironical that a film on the two grandmothers whose excellence in sharpshooting is an indictment against patriarchy and ageism didn’t feel the need to employ actresses of similar age to play them. To look like Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, Pannu and Pednekar had to undergo a transformation, rely on prosthetics. If an older actress was instead cast in these two roles, they could have simply played Chandro and Prakashi Tomar.
In several Hollywood movies starring older women protagonists, filmmakers have cast different sets of age-appropriate actors to play the young and senior parts (Think The Wife, The Notebook, and Titanic) and Saand Ki Aankh could have taken the same route. It would have addressed their commercial concerns, the process would ensure a fair playing ground for older actresses, and the end result on screen would have been far more organic. Instead, the makers defended their decision by invoking their right to take a creative liberty. Except, it’s an unconvincing argument that only bares their inherent ageism, given that the younger and older versions of the two Tomar husbands are played by two different sets of actors.
Saand Ki Aankh’s insistence on having the same actor play a character from ages 16 to 60 is very much in line with Hindi cinema’s traditional style of storytelling, best exemplified by Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957). The film tracks its heroine Radha’s progression from being a demure young bride, a single mother braving societal odds, and tilling land to provide for her family, to a dignified old woman who won’t tolerate injustice even if it extracts a personal cost.
Saand Ki Aankh’s insistence on having the same actor play a character from ages 16 to 60 is very much in line with Hindi cinema’s traditional style of storytelling.
One may argue that Bollywood’s chequered history with age-inappropriate casting isn’t restricted to women. Over the years, male actors have also essayed characters older than them. For instance, 29-year-old newcomer, Anupam Kher playing a grieving, disillusioned retired teacher in his sixties in Saaransh (1984) was a casting masterstroke. Sanjeev Kumar was simultaneously playing both lead and elderly roles in the most fecund phase of his career. And more recently, Salman Khan turned septuagenarian in Bharat. But what differentiates their outings from the plight of older actresses is that male actors are rarely typecast and continue to enjoy a long and diverse filmography that see them being cast in every kind of role imaginable. In 1978, Sanjeev Kumar played Amitabh Bachchan’s father in Yash Chopra’s Trishul as well as a married, philandering salesman in his forties in BR Chopra’s Pati Patni Aur Woh. The actor continued to bag lead roles in the following years. For superstars like Khan, playing a senior citizen is at best, an experiment of repute, one which will have no serious implications on his stardom or career. The fact that the 53-year-old actor will soon be seen romancing 21-year-old Saiee Manjrekar in Dabangg 3 is proof enough.
Contrast this with Rakhee Gulzar who was Bachchan’s heroine is many films during the ’70s and ’80s; she played his mother in Shakti (1982) and her career as a leading lady effectively ended in the next few years. In the past, actresses like Sulochana, Nirupa Roy, Reema Lagoo – Bollywood’s quintessential mothers – were cast as moms to actors as old as or even older than them. Not much has changed in the present day where Shah Rukh Khan’s mother in Zero is played by Sheeba Chaddha who is six years younger to him.
Recently, Hollywood actress Kelly McGillis summed up this slight in a frank response to her exclusion from the upcoming Top Gun sequel. While Tom Cruise is reprising his role as the daredevil pilot, Maverick and even has a new (and younger) love interest, McGillis, the leading lady of the iconic 1986 flick wasn’t even approached for the project. “I’m old and I’m fat and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about,” she told Entertainment Tonight, effectively calling out the industry’s fixation with mining the currency of a woman’s youth. Back home, too, McGillis’ words ring true.
The scale has always tipped unfavourably for actresses over 40 in mainstream cinema. But in recent times, the resurgence of seasoned performers like Gupta, Pahwa, and Ratna Pathak Shah as lead protagonists in films like Badhaai Ho, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Lipstick Under My Burkha, felt like a step forward. Moreover, the spurt in the digital space that produced Shefali Shah’s turn as the tough-talking DCP in the Netflix drama Delhi Crime and Suhita Thatte’s eerily chirpy saleswoman act in the short film Mamta Tonic are some fine examples. In that sense, Saand Ki Aankh could have been the next big step in this direction. With a worthy story, impressive budget, and the Anurag Kashyap brand behind it, the movie had a fantastic opportunity to shake off the old ways and truly be representative of change just like the film’s incredible real-life inspirations. Only if the makers were as bold as the Shooter Daadis.
There’s Master Bittoo, there’s Master Raju, and there’s Master Rajoo — who is not Master Raju and is Master Bittoo’s big brother. The writer lives for random film trivia like this.