The forest drama is a close-to-reality take on the man vs. animal conflict, helped immensely by the presence of Vidya Balan and Vijay Raaz
The man vs. animal conflict can be narrated in several ways. The deep, dark jungle can be romanticised and turned into a battlefield for a heroic tale of a saviour standing against the many stakeholders who threaten to tilt the balance of the fragile ecosystem. Or it can be viewed through a realistic lens that appears deceptively simple, like director Amit Masurkar does in Sherni. The title refers to a man-eating tigress on the prowl and also alludes to the divisional forest officer Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan). She isn’t an archetypal screen heroine who roars her way out of murky waters, but is understated and determined to navigate the mundaneness of her government job to assert herself.
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In Newton (2017), Masurkar showed his astute understanding of the social fabric, through an electoral officer’s attempts to facilitate polls in a troubled region. There, the play-off between hope and reality lent itself to a black comedy. He narrates Sherni like an insider who knows the workings of the administration rather well. Even the few comic moments stem from an insider’s perspective.
Sherni, with its story and screenplay by Aastha Tiku, leads us into the magnificent jungle, keeping the sights and sounds as close to reality as possible. If the jungle and the prospect of safaris are exciting for outsiders, it’s a day-to-day workplace for the officers. We first sight Vidya too, as a matter of fact. No drama, no heroine-like entry.
We learn that she’s been pushing files for years before being posted as a field forest officer. Everyday patriarchy stares her on the field. After the tigress has claimed its first victim, a character comments that during a crisis, they are having to deal with a ‘lady forest officer’. Vidya doesn’t retaliate. She bides her time, just like the tigress making its way through the borderlands towards the jungle.
Sherni is brilliant in its portrayal of the people Vidya has to work with. She finds an ally in Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz) who, like her, takes a scientific approach to the man Vs. animal struggle. She looks up to Nangia (Neeraj Kabi) who talks eloquently about the cost of development on the ecosystem. Junior officers, male and female, offer support. It’s in such company that she finds her will to plod on and stand her ground when the hunter Ranjan Rajhans (Sharat Saxena) and two opposing political groups begin to use the crisis for their own benefit.
Then there are the wily shapeshifters.
The metamorphosis of Vidya happens gradually, with her growing protective nature for a pet cat as well as the big cats. At one point an officer states that we, humans, might spot a tiger on our 100th trip but the tiger may have already seen us 99 times. There are beautiful points of view of the human characters framed against the wilderness, as though seen through the eyes of the majestic beasts.
- Cast: Vidya Balan, Vizaj Raaz, Sharat Saxena and Neeraj Kabi
- Director: Amit Masurkar
- Storyline: A jaded forest officer leads a team of trackers and locals intending to capture an unsettled tigress, while battling intense obstacles and pressures, both natural and man-made
- Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Sherni is also part forest procedural — the striking opening scene of an officer crawling and mimicking a tiger to test if the hidden camera can capture footage, and later the task of collecting DNA samples from the bodies of the victims when tempers run high.
At no point does Masurkar overtly dramatise the proceedings. If we expect a parallel between the tigress T12’s journey back into the deep jungle with Vidya emerging victorious in her sojourn, it doesn’t happen on expected lines. Instead, the story that appears crushingly true makes us wonder how success is measured. Should one win a high stake battle or stay content with making smaller changes? Does anyone actually care?
The restrained nature of the protagonist and the narrative makes the tale formidable. Rakesh Haridas’ cinematography and the subtle, effective background score by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar, as well as the music by Bandish Projekt deserve a mention.
Sherni’s triumph also stems from its actors. Vidya owns her part and makes her internalised portrayal appear easy. Her character is also a lesson in screenwriting — of countering patriarchy with a quiet resilience. Masurkar also explores her rapport with her family, where she asserts herself with mutual respect.
Vijay Raaz is natural and remarkable in his part, knowing he’s an important cog in the larger wheel. Sharat Saxena, Neeraj Kabi, Ila Arun and the actors who form the political clique and the villagers all seamlessly fit in. Brijendra Kala gets a few fun moments when he regales poems to an unsuspecting audience.
Sherni doesn’t have the predictable high-on-adrenaline approach one might expect from such a premise, but it leaves you thinking long after. That’s a win.
(Sherni streams on Amazon Prime Video)
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