Saand ki Aankh hits the bull’s eye…in its unstinted praise of older women. We can mention other women in this roll call of celebration, not just the feisty dadis who became legendary for the shooting skills they discovered accidentally in their 60s. In recent months, there are other older women we have come to admire in films that are as far apart, such as Mission Mangal and De De Pyar De. We loved the savvy working mother who is also a committed scientist, Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan) in Mission Mangal and cheered Manju (Tabu), the cool ex-wife helping her separated fiftyish husband get his 20-something new love in De De Pyar De. Of course, we have all taken the extraordinarily adorable Pinky (Neena Gupta) of Badhaai Ho to our hearts and shared both her embarrassment and courage in having a baby so late in life. What has happened to Hindi cinema? Have directors and producers suddenly discovered the appeal of the older women? A really welcome discovery.
These three new films valourise older women from different backgrounds as strong individuals who will do what is right at the right time. And against odds that are huge and not so huge. All are feel-good films, warming those unlocated cockles of the heart. These films, so very varied in theme, tone and texture, redefine older women and put them centre stage, far from the penumbral margins they were banished to as mere plot devices…all those saintly mothers, carping mothers- in-law, beloved bhabhis, helpful/harmful/shrewish (as per the plot requirements) chachis, buas, maasis et al. Two of the films are drawn from real life — fictionalised in varying degrees, of course — and the spotlight is on these unbelievable achievers. Women of substance, each and every one of them. The success of these films, following that of Badhaai Ho, breaks some assumptions and misconceptions of what the audience wants and accepts. What works are good stories — and not just another love story — where the characters (women in this instance) are rooted and credible. As the cliché goes, age is just a number. We say an exuberant yes.
The phrase, in praise of older women, has become coded shorthand for the allure of a sexually experienced woman who often imparts erotic expertise and emotional maturity to callow young men. These women under discussion are not defined by just gender or station in life. They are all women who have risen above their circumstances to make an impact — on their families, workplace and society in general. Yes, even a new age family drama that pushes the envelope when it comes to mature relationships in a comedic vein. They are all remarkable individuals who leave a lasting impression long after the film has been seen, dissected and digested. They share life experiences and impart some necessary lessons in how to make the best of circumstances and emerge the winners.
The Tomar sisters-in-law, Chandro (Bhumi Pednekar) and Prakashi (Taapsee Pannu) in debutant director Tushar Hiranandani’s high spirited, yet gritty, story, set in a UP village that yokes women to patriarchy in such demeaning fashion that you wonder how these stoic women managed to survive. Chandro and Prakashi not only survive with robust humour and sustained courage, but finally teach the useless men — useless in everything but spawning kids by the dozen — a lesson they will never forget. They make sisterhood a practical everyday experience, not caught in the kitchen politics that anchor and drive television sagas. Shefali’s is the youthful voice that narrates her dadis’ inspirational saga without awe and a lot of affection. It introduces the huge clan of the Tomars and the repressive way of life that comes with the joint family presided over by the dictatorial patriarch Rattan Singh (Prakash Jha, having directed so many films set in the Hindi heartland, slips under the skin of his character with authority and familiarity).
The narrative voice is important because this young teenager is obviously recounting family lore passed down over two generations. We learn in flashback how the two older bahus of the house, Rattan’s wife who finally unveils her face to tell her authoritarian husband a few home truths and Chandro welcome the new bride Prakashi. They advise her to choose and stick to one colour for her ghungat. The brothers know their wives by the colour of the ghungat to take them up to the room upstairs where each couple has set days and Sundays are for those who are particularly horny. The naughty Shefali tells us about the excitement of tent cinema where Prakashi sees Mother India as a blue film: her chosen ghungat is blue. After the epic film is done, the men drive out all the women and kids for watching an ad for condoms. That apparently has no impact on them, because pregnancies continue over the years. Chandro and Prakashi go on to become new age versions of Mother India, legendary shooters who overcome ridicule to inspire their granddaughter to win an international silver.
The men finally not only accept but celebrate the success that was accomplished in secrecy. Saand Ki Aankh would have hit the bull’s eye in terms of film craft if the director had paid attention to the uneven, patchy make-up. But Pannu and Pednekar triumph over these glitches to bring the Tomar sisters-in-law to life, vividly, mastering body language and the dialect, which to untrained ears, sounded like a hybrid of Haryanvi and a Hindi rustic variant.
Then there was the woman who made rocket science as easy as frying puris when the gas is getting over in the cylinder. Start and stop the flame is Tara Shinde’s (Vidya Balan) answer to making use of an available PSLV rocket that can’t carry enough fuel to reach Mars’ orbit. You question if it is necessary to dumb down rocket science not only for a largely ignorant aam janta but also to demonstrate it to a sneering NASA-returned expert brought into to boost ISRO’s ambitious space programme. Though Akshay Kumar plays the titular hero, the whimsical Rakesh Dhawan who has been downgraded, it is Tara Shinde who takes control with her enthusiasm, never-say-die optimism and nurturing qualities when it comes to building a dedicated team. India’s Mars mission did have a strong contingent of women engineers and space scientists, a fact acknowledged in the end credits with their photographs, titles and names. Like the Hollywood Oscar nominee, Hidden Figures, that also took dramatic licence to underline the racism and sexism black women scientists faced in the days of segregation while they did significant work for NASA, Mission Mangal also highlights the personal problems of these unknown women. It lapses into cheesiness at times, but the overall impact is celebrating woman power, epitomised by Tara Shinde and the colleagues she inspires.
Vidya Balan’s Tara Shinde is the best thing in Mission Mangal. She is much more than the project manager with a can-do attitude. She tries to convince the skeptical inexperienced team that they can pull it off even with a curtailed budget and impossible deadline. In the team are four young women scientists, specialists in subjects as varied as satellite design, navigation and rocket propulsion. They all have backstories, but Tara’s is the central. Tara exudes warm wholesomeness along with dedicated professionalism. A cool mom to her teenaged kids unlike her uptight husband, who gets hassled when the daughter comes home late and loses his temper when the son reads the Koran and offers namaaz (necessary dose of secularism dispensed casually without a heavy hand by Tara, she is both a domestic goddess and a calm scientist who tries to whip up sagging spirits by hosting a birthday party: to celebrate the day when they all decided to be scientists. Balan also shows that a professional woman need not wear business suits but can be in the comfort zone of saris and gajras in her hair. Her attitude is modern and accepting, be it her insolent son’s interest in Islam or the daughter going off to clubs without informing them.
With Tabu, you can be sure of surprises. After the crackling performance as the deliciously wicked serial killer in Andhadhun, Tabu plays Manju, the pragmatic ex-wife who helps her separated husband Ashish (Ajay Devgn) over predictable misunderstandings to finally win Ayesha (Rakul Preet Singh) who is younger than their own daughter. De De Pyar De is an Indian offshoot of Modern Family, the American series. It is co-written by Luv Ranjan, known for his anti-romcom slew of hits. The usual cynicism regarding the loyalty of young women on the make is toned down to admire the tolerance of a mature and intelligent woman like Manju. Ashish is still married to Manju, his college sweetheart, but has been living in London where he meets the bouncy Ayesha who bartends over the weekend to spice up her life as an engineer with a clingy boyfriend.
A one-night stand to an affair to a decision to marry meets its speed breakers when the two come to Manali. It is a lovely property that belongs to Ashish’s parents, who entrust Manju with running the hospitality business. The film is a situational comedy where Ashish (declared dead by his hostile daughter to her would-be father-in-law) has to pretend to be Manju’s brother. There are barbs flying between an insecure Ayesha who makes it a point to insult Manju’s age and is at the receiving end of the older woman’s confident repartee that shows up her childishness. But even Manju’s sangfroid slips.
When the situation gets out of hand with the daughter’s unreasonable demands, it is Ashish who offers a shoulder and that leads to comfort sex. Nothing earthshaking, but Ayesha can’t understand or accept. Manju is the bigger person who takes divorce papers to Ayesha in London to reassure the young woman that an ex-wife who anyway has a smitten suitor waiting in the wings is no threat to this marriage. Maturity is its own reward. Tabu triumphs over both the young women in the film with her cool confidence that can crack the whip when occasion demands. She holds the reins.