Feature Name: Sherni
Cast: Vidya Balan, Brijendra Kala, Vijay Raaz, Sharat Saxena, Mukul Chadha, Ila Arun
Director: Amit Masurkar
Run Time: 131 minutes
Sherni opens with a hazy image of a forest warden dressed as a tiger. He imitates the beast’s stride and growls until his colleagues interrupt his enthralling act. His act was for setting up a camera in the jungle, but with that opening, Amit Masurkar also blurs the line between man and animal. Are we separated from nature because we are civilised, and what does it mean to be civilised?
Sherni, which is currently available on Amazon Prime Video, is based on the 2018 controversial death of Avni, a tigress in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal region. Despite environmentalists’ efforts to raise awareness about coexistence and sustainable living, killing a raptor has long been linked with masculinity and courage. In fact, it was the first Malayalam film to gross Rs 100 crore.
Vidya Balan plays Vidya Vincent, a recently appointed Divisional Forest Officer. There aren’t many ‘woman’ cops in the department, and she is repeatedly exposed to mansplaining throughout the storey. The males in her immediate vicinity stop her, tell her she doesn’t know as much as they do, and are at best patronising in their care. Vidya Vincent, on the other hand, does not strike out at her coworkers or even object; this is just another element of her profession. You see a glint in her eye, but that’s all she does — she goes on with her work without feeling compelled to ‘prove’ herself. She’s a kind cop who prefers to fix an issue over winning a debate. The actress, who was tremendously enthusiastic in her last film Shakuntala Devi, delivered a powerful performance.
Masurkar weaves numerous threads throughout the tale to reveal the human-animal struggle in all of its complexity. On the one side, there’s the real worry of the villagers (including the fiery Jyoti) who need to travel to the forest for a living, and on the other, there’s the power players’ political games. Then there’s the need to strike a balance between environmental concerns and growth.
In the midst of this pandemonium, the Forest Department must continue to preserve the jungle. Brijendra Kala, who plays Vidya Vincent’s employer, Bansal, is funny as a bureaucracy who only wants to get out of his predicament. He’s nasty, but he’s also a lot of fun, with his self-important faces and ability to slip away just as the situation is heating up. Masurkar’s sarcastic, humorous comedy.
Despite the near match in circumstances, I was concerned by the fact that the lady cop who discovered Avni’s cubs in real life, Sidam Pramila Istari, was not mentioned anywhere in the credits. Sidam spent days searching for the tiger cubs, walking many kilometres with scraps of meat in her palm. This incredible accomplishment is explained away in minutes in Sherni, deflating the interesting narrative. I also wish we knew more about Vidya Vincent’s decision to pursue a career as a Forest Officer. Was it a combination of circumstances (she doesn’t appear to be an animal lover) or something else that motivated her?
Despite these quibbles and issues, I like Sherni’s contemplative quality. As it draws to a close, it does not leave the spectator with a false sense of optimism; rather, it leaves one with a sense of loss and sorrow at what we have become. We have a lump in our throat that we are unable to swallow.