Synopsis – An upright Forest Officer who strives for balance in a world of man-animal conflict while she also seeks her true calling in a hostile environment.
My Take – While director Amit Masurkar‘s critically and commercially successful Newton (2017) took us deep into the jungles of Chhattisgarh all in order to provide us a humorous but impactful take on the farce around local elections, this time around, in this latest Amazon Prime Video release, he takes us across the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, to give us a taste of familiar patriarchy amid a dangerous hunt for man eating tigress.
Based on the controversial killing of Avni, a tigress in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra in 2018, here, director Masurkar and writer Aastha Tiku deliver a strikingly fresh story on the perspective of the rules of the jungle, and detail the trials and tribulations of honest forest officers who have to sacrifice a lot to safeguard the wildlife and create awareness about co-existence and sustainable living.
Though a story about hunting may naturally have all the flamboyance associated with masculinity and bravery, here, director Masurkar provides a unique treatment by keeping the proceedings gripping yet adopting a free of drama calm style of narrative, which doesn’t exaggerate or play up emotions even when there are ample opportunities to do so.
Strongly anchored by yet another incredible Vidya Balan performance, this authentic and the raw film is clearly another winner for director Amit Masurkar.
The story follows Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), who has been recently been appointed as a Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in the Bijaspur Forest Division. Though she is not happy with job, her husband Pawan (Mukul Chadda) advises not to leave her safe government employment, as his private corporate job may be in danger. However, life begin to complicate when a tigress nicknamed T12, who had been recently spotted close to a village graduates from attacking the local cattle to local residents, with her kill count slowly rising.
While Vidya, several members of her department and conservationist college professor Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz) are convinced about capturing the beast and setting her free in the nearby national park area, things begin to complicate as election season begins ramping up.
Making matters worse is the fact that her superior Bansal (Brijendra Kala) is incompetent, leaving her to deal with the local MLA G K Singh (Amar Singh Parihar) and his opponent P K Singh (Satyakam Anand), both in their bid to outdo each other, and Ranjan Rajhans aka Pintu Bhaiya (Sharat Saxena), a local hunter who believes the only solution to save the village is by killing the tigress.
Here, director Masurkar and writer Aastha Tiku provide a no-frill grim story and neatly lay out the issues at stake in the form of the debate between conservation and livelihood, the threat to animal habitat, the lasting damage caused by corrupt government officials keen on buttering up their political bosses.
The film draws out the human-animal conflict in all its complexity by bringing in several threads into the story. On one hand is the genuine concern of the villagers who need to go to the jungle for their livelihood, on the other are the political games played by those in power. And then there is the need to balance environmental concerns with development. In this chaos, the Forest Department has to do its job of protecting the jungle.
The film highlights the importance of maintaining an ecological balance which most humans tend to ignore. Without being too preachy, the film drives home the point well.
The film, though appears stretched and meanders in the middle a bit with all characters going on a wild goose chase to look for the tiger, failing each time to capture it. Much like Newton, this film too has several moments of silences where the characters emote through the expressions and do not speak much.
Thankfully, the screenplay is full of sarcastic comments on the functioning of administration and local politicians who all seem to be doing what they think is right for the local public at that point of time. It also takes a sly dig at patriarchy and the inherent nature of men to not take a woman in charge too seriously but it never lets Vidya as a protagonist break down. The film also sheds light on a few interesting unknown details from the importance of environmental impact assessment studies to the intricacies of tiger tracking in the jungle by means of technology or otherwise.
However, I must say, like Newton and director Masurkar‘s directorial debut Sulemani Keeda (2013), this too is not everyone’s cup of tea. Despite being labeled as a spine chilling animal hunt, the pacing, especially in the second half, may not be of everyone’s liking. Also, though the cinematography is top-notch and matches the ambience for the film, the editing could have been tighter, with a few scenes coming off as repetitive.
Nevertheless, the cast is uniformly excellent. Vidya Balan sheds her natural exuberance to deliver a restraint performance as a woman who knows her job and her ways around a system that has problems in plenty. She doesn’t need to be a standardized Bollywood heroine for you to appreciate every scene she is in. You feel her frustration, helplessness, anger and sheer will from the screen. The stand-out supporting performance in the ensemble comes from Vijay Raaz who gives Hassan a lovable earnestness that mirrors Vidya’s sincerity.
Sharat Saxena fits his role like a perfect glove, and plays it superbly. In other roles, Brijendra Kala, Mukul Chadda, Neeraj Kabi, Ila Arun, Sampa Mandal, Suma Mukundan, Satyakam Anand, and Amar Singh Parihar are also good. On the whole, ‘Sherni’ is a thoughtful and insightful film which works due to its authenticity and the rawness.
Directed – Amit Masurkar
Rated – PG
Run Time – 131 minutes