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Sherni Review: Vidya Balan is Excellent in a Well-Crafted Film on a Tiger Hunt

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In Sherni (Tigress), filmmaker Amit Masurkar returns to the Central Indian forest range where his acclaimed Newton (2017) was shot. In a scene from the film, officers seated around the table at a divisional forest office discuss a camera-trap image of a man-eating tigress. “It is T13,” claims an officer. “It is Joni,” says another. When a guard, who hasn’t been allotted a chair, identifies the animal as T12 ﹣ “See that mark on its forehead!” ﹣the room breaks into a happy groan. “Neelam’s daughter!” exclaims an officer with a tinge of affection that stems from familiarity, and her boss makes a joke about the tigress’ complicated paternity.

The scene is not particularly ingenious but is delightfully staged. It makes quiet observations about a government department that is generally looked at as a group of pencil-pushers. Through scenes of everyday life in the forest village, intra-office politics and hard labour carried out by those at the lowest level of the workforce, Masurkar turns a government procedural into a downbeat yet gripping drama.

Look at the scene where the forest officials, led by Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), a newly arrived forest officer, lay a bait ﹣ a lamb ﹣ on the field and wait for the tigress’ arrival. The setting resembles a show — the officers and the lamb are performers, and the villagers, the audience. Out of the blue, breaking the silence almost Kafkaesquely, a horde of motorcycles storm the scene, foiling the plan. When the chaos settles, the camera focuses on the lamb munching on the grass, unaware of its luck. In Sherni, diligent procedure is always interrupted by bureaucratic passivity or external resistance.

The quixotic protagonist of Newton was worthless in his surroundings where work had to be done through wheeling and dealing. His idiosyncrasies provided the film with a lot of comic fodder. Here, Vidya has to wage a battle that is both external ﹣against the male club culture in the workplace where she is seen as a liability ﹣and internal ﹣against the human tendency to gravitate towards complacency in the absence of a sense of purpose. Her conflicts are understated, hence harder to understand and engage with; it is anti-Bollywood.

While gender politics is a prominent theme in Sherni, there is no screed. Masurkar and his writer Aastha Tiku make their point subtly, sometimes through a change of camera lens. In a brief scene where Vidya asserts her position to a local politician, she is filmed in shallow focus, emphasising her inner strength and isolation. In a later instance of a cultural event in the forest office, Vidya, dressed in a saree and holding a glass of whiskey, settles into the women’s seating area, throwing an uncomfortable glance at her male colleagues engaged in a banter away from the crowd. Vidya perceives her surroundings with hesitance and suspicion, widely relatable to the members of her gender.

The illustration of gender dynamics is, however, relegated to the background. It is the vexed relationship between the human beings and the forest that occupies the foreground of Sherni.

The screenplay neatly spreads out the complexities involved in wildlife conservation. T12, the man-eater, needs to be reined in. Vidya and her team want to ensure that the tigress and her cubs safely reach a national park, away from human settlement. A seasoned hunter (Sharad Saxena), who assumes his hunting skills define his manliness, enters the game, offering to shoot down the tigress. Bansal (Brijendra Kala), Vidya’s deceptively genial boss, would rather keep the hunter and his masters happy than protect the interest of the forest.

Following the animal’s trail, the film travels the region’s mutilated landscape. The apathetic government actions and corporate interests have resulted in the overlapping of the forest and agricultural fields. There are invisible forces, such as the corporate companies that destroyed the forest to mine copper and the colonial rulers who designed the official codes to benefit their industrial ambitions.

The problems are too many to be solved overnight. Instead of finding answers, Masurkar recognises the quiet moments of heroism in the narrative. When Vidya meets the villagers and promises swift reform measures, Jyothi (Sampa Mandal), a member of the village council, does something surprising. She doesn’t retreat to the sideline with a ‘Thank You’. She says, “We will see”; her face in a marvellous close-up shot. Her firm voice and gaze echo a history of betrayal.

The film’s dry sense of humour leaps out from the most unexpected places. After shooting down an animal, Pintu, the hunter, looks at his kill and remarks admiringly, “What a beauty!” It isn’t the animal he is appreciating, but his work.

Vidya Balan delivers an excellent performance as a character trying to make sense of her own thoughts and mounting despair. Vijay Raaz, who plays a self-taught conservationist and a local school teacher, bypasses his character’s generic structure by bringing to the fore his flair for comedy.

While Sherni is a spiritual sequel to Newton, there are some glaring differences. If the characters in Newton were shrouded in a moral ambivalence, in Sherni, their coordinates are well-defined. The powerful men who drink together betray the interests of the forest. The outliers and the powerless are reliable. The visuals of politicians distributing sweets to the villagers are juxtaposed with a shot of Vidya involved in welfare programmes, reminiscent of Vidya Balan’s public image as the face of Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan.

Somewhere in the latter half, Sherni tends to shrink into a simplistic film but in its final moments, Masurkar’s strengths resurface. He leaves the outdoors for the dark air-conditioned insides of a natural history museum. There are no visitors but the camera lingers on every exhibit. It is melancholic and ominous, pointing to an unpleasant future.

*****

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