Saand ki Aankh, or the Bulls Eye, has an unusual subject for a Bollywood film: it is about Prakashi and Chando Tomar, two octogenarian grandmothers who became sharp shooters in their 60s.
A Bollywood film with two female protagonists is a rarity a film about two elderly women is almost unthinkable. Instead of making a positive buzz about its unusual protagonists, the film is mired in controversy because of its mismatched casting. Taapsee Pannu, who is 32, and Bhumi Pednekar, who is 29, play the roles of the two octogenarian characters.
Older actresses, such as Neena Gupta, and Soni Razdan, have pointed out that instead of using make-up and prosthetics to age these young actresses on screen, the film producers could have cast older actresses who crave roles appropriate for their age.
Pannu, and Parineeti Chopra have defended the film producers casting choice on the grounds of creative freedom. Pannu claims, I can play a person of any age and gender, race or sexual orientation thats what acting is about.
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What is lost in the game of one-upmanship between two generations of actresses is the role of representation in perpetuating the injustices of ageism.
Pannus response to charges of ageism is similar to Scarlett Johanssons when she withdrew from playing a transgender character in Rub and Tug. Johansson responded to the public backlash with the same argument about the creative freedom of an actor: You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.
Claims of artistic freedom as a response to charges of ageism or trans-discrimination miss the fact that creative freedom for one set of actors denies the same freedom and opportunity to a marginalised group. It misses the fact that all art, including films, is representation. As such, a film is a response to and commentary on the world.A film that casts two young actresses in their twenties to present the story of two geriatric sharp shooters is commenting on the value of older woman.
Remarks about creative freedom of actors assume that art is separate from the real world. While art is not a passive reflection of reality, it is not disconnected from it either. Arts relation to the world is two-fold: symbolic and material. The symbolic aspect of art is that it is a representation of the real world filtered through media such as language, colours, and sound. Art is a response to reality, rather than its mirror.
In this regard, Edward Said observed that representation involves transpersonal, transhuman, and transcultural forces as class, the unconscious, gender, race, and structure among other things.
Since art operates according to its own logic, it is able to affirm or challenge these forces through aesthetic choices. Art, therefore, has the freedom to reaffirm or resist the real world. The material aspect of art refers to the tangible effect of representation on the world.For example, stereotyping of minorities or erasing them from stories, and history, perpetuates the discrimination of the real world through the use of language and symbols in art. Such representations are pernicious because they precede actual policies, acts of exclusion and violence.
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Bollywood cinema, as a form of narrative cinema, has two layers of representation: at the level of the story, and at the level of casting (corresponding with the symbolic and the material, respectively). At the symbolic level, Saand ki Aankh resists Bollywoods patriarchal, youth-obsessed values.
Bollywoods commitment to youth and patriarchy suggests that older women are neither interesting, nor marketable. On the surface, Saand Ki Ankh subverts the normative order associated with narratives about the elderly. Its story about two rural octogenarian grandmothers allows for portrayal of complex women characters that traditional Bollywood films do not allow.
However, by casting 20-year olds for 60-year olds, the film undermines the revolutionary potential of the story. The use of 20-year-olds made-up to resemble 60-year olds signals that old age is acceptable only if it is dressed up in youth. These casting decisions also have far-reaching consequences on the professional lives of veteran actresses. The absence of stories in which older women are representing the complexity of the lives of elderly women precludes older actresses from obtaining meaningful work and relegates them to one-dimensional stereotypical roles. Given the preference for younger actors, older actors are unable to audition for roles of younger women.
For many veteran actresses, Saand Ki Aankh would be a wonderful opportunity. For young talented actresses, such as Taapsee Pannu or Bhumi Pednekar, on the other hand, this is one among many interesting roles they will get to play during the early stage of their acting career.
The issue of age-appropriate casting is about inequality, not authenticity. There is an important difference between identity categories (such as race, gender, sexuality, ability, and age) and professional identities (e.g., a sportsmen, doctors). Professional identities are not minority identities. In contrast, identity categories, such as race, gender, sexuality, age and ability, are tied to discriminatory structures. Minorities in these identity categories often face discrimination and are excluded from narratives or are reduced to stereotypes. This limits opportunities for actors who belong to that category.
A classic example of this problem is manifest in the selection of Priyanka Chopra to play Mary Kom. No one disputes Chopras ability to portray Mary Kom. But Chopra gets to play both north and north-eastern Indian, characters. A north-eastern Indian actress does not have such flexibility. Because Kom is from the northeast, and Hindi cinema, reflecting the national imagination, rarely has any northeastern characters, the film would have been a rare opportunity for a talented northeastern actress.
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Creative casting choices have deepened the symbolic aspect of representation in recent years. For example, the runaway Broadway hit Hamilton, by Lin Manuel Miranda, traces the life of the youngest Founding Father of the US: Alexander Hamilton.
In its casting, the Broadway musical used African American, Latinx, and Asian actors to portray the white founders of the US. Non-white actors for the white Founding Fathers made visible the forgotten people who built the US through slavery, indentured servitude and inequitable labor relations. In other words, the casting decisions for Hamilton underscores the inherent racism of the countrys defining documents such as the constitution, Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers.
Lin Manuel Miranda, actor and creator of the of the play Hamilton, addresses the audience after the plays opening night on Broadway in New York in this August 6, 2015 photo. Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Files
In addition to exposing the racism at the foundation of the US, Hamiltons unusual casting decision created opportunities for skilled non-white performers in Broadway, which is notoriously limited in its opportunities for people of colour. Hamilton shows how creative casting decisions can draw attention to forgotten aspects of history and provide opportunities for minority talent in an industry where the dominant groups determine who tells the stories, what they say and how they present it.
In the performance arts whether theatre or cinema casting choices are never innocuous in terms of their impact. Pannus right to creative freedom is possible if we live in a world that is free of inequality and discrimination. Until equal opportunities are available to people of minority identity categories, it is necessary for the allies of minority groups to be aware of the impact of their actions, including their exercise of artistic freedom.
Dr Sohinee Roy is an Associate Professor of English at North Central College. Her research interests are in postcolonial literature and culture.
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'Saand ki Aankh' Casting Misses the Bulls Eye - The Wire
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