Like the displaced tigress of the title, the human protagonist of Sherni, a just transferred divisional forest officer, finds herself trapped. Not that she isn’t up to the task. However, in an alien, dead-end, male-dominated environment, being good at one’s job simply isn’t enough if you are a woman.
Vidya Balan is impressive in her role
DFO Vidya Vincent, played with impressive restraint by Vidya Balan, has to fight tooth and nail to save the female feline forced out of her natural habitat due to continuing deforestation and dried-up watering holes. Just as important, she is constantly at odds with entrenched patriarchy.
The tigers and bears pose a real threat to a village on the edge of a forest, but the wild animals are less dangerous than the men charged with sustaining the delicate balance between the fragile environment and a myopic development model driven by greed.
Director Amit Masurkar (Sulemani Keeda, Newton), working with a screenplay by Aastha Tiku and dialogues penned by him and Yashasvi Mishra, renders a man-animal conflict drama as an understated, multi-layered, trenchant satire about the politics of gender and environmental conservation. Eschewing excess, Sherni does not growl and roar. It bites.
The supporting actors (Vijay Raaz, Neeraj Kabi, Sharat Saxena, Brijendra Kala, Mukul Chadda) bring to the proceedings a high level of authenticity. They are aided in part by a tertiary cast made up of faces that merge completely with the environs. With all the actors, known or unknown, professional or amateur, looking the parts they play, Sherni does not have to resort to cliched flummery to draw the audience into its beleaguered universe.
The Amazon Original movie is lit and lensed admirably well by cinematographer Rakesh Haridas. He achieves visual fluidity and depth both in the interior scenes and the wide-angle exterior shots, many of which are staged in the still of the night bathed in darkness.
The tranquility of the forest is frequently shattered by men out to fish in troubled waters. Among them is an odiously pompous hunter (Sharat Saxena) – about the only character in the film who borders on the conventional – a smarmy MLA (Amar Singh Parihar) and a hostile former legislator (Satyakam Anand).
Sherni traverses across a range of social, economic, environmental and political issues with measured steps. Distressed villagers robbed of grazing grounds for their livestock, wild animals cornered and compelled to venture out of the forest, self-serving politicians haranguing each other and making tall promises they have no intention of keeping, and hopelessly compromised officials disinterested in, if not incapable of, stemming the tide.
An irate mob attacks a forest guard and sets a government vehicle ablaze after a villager is killed by a tiger. In another sequence, two groups of political workers clash violently in similar circumstances. These confrontations do not, however, define Sherni in its entirety. The film resists the temptation of staging super-charged run-ins between the forces of conservation and politically connected people who believe in taking the easy way out. It trots out steady driblets of information and makes each layer that it unpeels count.
Sherni plays out in a forest somewhere in central India, not far from where Masurkar’s critically lauded Newton was set. Like Newton, Sherni centres on an upright and earnest government official trying to find a foothold on slippery ground. Vidya Vincent faces numerous obstacles as she goes about doing her job. The tigress on the prowl, even as it takes a toll on human lives, isn’t, however, her biggest adversary.
If anything, Vidya feels an affinity with the uprooted tigress trying to make its way, along with two cubs, across an unfamiliar terrain to return to the safety of the forest. Decisions that the manipulated forest department makes endangers Vidya’s own well-being as well as that of the jungle and the wild animals.
Belief trumps evidence
You know exactly what Sherni is trying to convey (tangentially but tellingly) when a minister peremptorily tells Vidya Vincent that no “proof” that she gathers will override the “faith” of the people. The truth, he suggests, is immaterial, thereby admitting that we live in an era in which belief trumps evidence and manipulation of facts gets the better of diligent pursuit of probity.
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