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“With ‘Sherni’, I wanted to move away from the hero archetype”

Ritika Bhatia | Updated on July 12, 2021

Team effort: Sherni deals with the themes of coexistence, cooperation and conservation   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AMAZON PRIME

A unique environmental drama, the recently released ‘Sherni’ is earning accolades from leading Indian conservationists for its accurate portrayal of the modern wildlife crisis

* Sherni has bravely attempted to tackle the several facets of local and state politics, and the unbalanced dynamic between the State and its subjects

* The film does have a few definitive parallels with the Avni tigress case of 2018

* Protagonist Vidya is caught in the middle at the workplace, and in her personal life as well

****

Sherni opens with a majestic drone shot of the Balaghat forest, and slowly zooms in on an absurdist scene depicting an officer prowling on all fours, his menacing growls piercing the quiet forest, almost foreshadowing the role humans have taken as the apex predator of the jungle. The scene dissolves into a routine procedure run by forest guards to check camera placements in pursuit of the tigress T12, an alleged man-eater who’s been giving local villagers and manipulating politicians sleepless nights. Enter Vidya Vincent, the new divisional forest officer (DFO) appointed to the area and in charge of leading the State’s efforts in capturing and relocating the ferocious tigress.

Sherni is directed by Amit Masurkar, whose earlier credits include Rajkummar Rao starrer dark comedy Newton (India’s official entry to the 2018 Oscars), and the slacker comedy Sulemani Keeda. With Sherni, he returns with yet another well-intentioned government officer trying to navigate the bureaucratic jungle (again in an actual jungle). Structural similarities apart, Sherni is tonally a much more sombre, studied affair than his first couple of films, and a lot of that comes from debut screenwriter Aastha Tiku’s vision of the narrative. “The only similarity between Newton and Sherni is the job of the protagonist and the setting of the jungle, otherwise the treatment is totally different. Newton was about democracy, this film is about coexistence, cooperation and conservation,” Masurkar tells BLink over a Zoom call alongwith Tiku.

In the game: Sherni takes the time to meticulously establish every aspect of the forest and its ecosystem   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AMAZON PRIME

 

The film is inspired from real life, well-researched, and superbly led by Vidya Balan who delivers a restrained performance, and a stellar supporting cast. While the makers abstain from this comparison, the film does have a few definitive parallels with the Avni tigress case of 2018. Avni, or T1 as she was officially known, was shot dead in the Yavatmal region of Maharashtra after months of hunting led by a controversial civilian hunter and forest officials after she allegedly killed 13 people in the span of two years. The murky events of her killing led to a massive uproar by wildlife and tiger conservationists who claimed it was a cold-blooded “murder”; the case is still on in the Supreme Court. The tigress in Sherni is known as T12, and she proves to be as elusive as Avni for the forest officers in the film, tasked with capturing and relocating her to a national park, after a series of run-ins which left multiple villagers dead.

Tiku sheds more light on the genesis of the film’s story. “The focus has always been on the idea of conservation when you look at all the cases of man-animal conflict, which is a huge issue. Especially in India, because we still have some forests and wildlife intact — it is a very common problem that occurs on the fringes of villages on the outskirts of forest land. It’s common when you go to Uttarakhand, Kerala or Maharashtra, wherever there are natural forests.”

Sherni takes the time to meticulously establish every aspect of the forest and its ecosystem, the politicians who use the issue to gain an edge in an upcoming election, the businesspersons taking over the forested land or the villagers caught in between it all. The film also familiarises the viewer with the common scientific practices used by forest officers to track wildlife such as pug marks and animal scat. Most importantly, its depiction of the Forest Friends, a group of youth from the surrounding villages and the critical part they play in the conservation process is remarkable and they are the only characters I wish had got a larger role in the film. Especially the character of Jyoti, a local woman played by a lovely and effective Sampa Mandal, who stands up for the rights of the villagers to graze their cattle in the forest, but who still retains empathy for the wild animals whose habitats are being encroached upon.

Tiku elaborates on the thought process: “During my research I collated a lot of data, read academic papers and case studies, not just in India but outside as well. The point was to identify issues that exist together to create this conflict — whether you talk about leopards or tigers or elephants. We also read academic papers to see the patterns that emerge to build an interwoven narrative that is not just about animal rights but also about human rights. It’s about humanity at large and about climate change and conservation — and how any attempts at engaging must involve the local communities.” This is where the film is set apart from other wildlife films of the recent past, like Lijo Jose Pellisary’s visually haunting Jallikattu, a primal ode to the traditional testosteronic energy of the man-animal conflict. While it made for a compelling dramatic parable, it aided little to the understanding of modern issues of conservation caused by urbanisation and corporate annexation of forests.

Sherni has bravely attempted to tackle the several facets of local and state politics, and the unbalanced dynamic between the State and its subjects. Masurkar has an astute understanding of local politics, corruption and bureaucracy in Indian governing systems, an aspect he portrayed with great success in Newton as well. “To be very honest, it’s just a coincidence. I haven’t made a conscious effort in ‘uncovering’ anything about bureaucracy. It just happens that when you explore these kinds of subjects and go into the depth of it — you have to bring in the people who have the power to do something in that situation. If we are exploring power structures, it helps to do it from the point of view of a protagonist who is in the middle of it. Someone who can exercise their power but who is also controlled by someone else. Newton in that situation was in the middle, Vidya in this situation is in the middle.”

Vidya is caught in the middle at the workplace, and in her personal life as well. Every day she must navigate the million landmines of patriarchy, whether being dismissed as a “lady officer” in the field or being deliberately left out of office parties where the boys’ club prefers to unwind by singing and dancing to whiskey and Bollywood item numbers. She must navigate the valid concerns of the locals under threat from a potential man-eater tigress, opposing politicians capitalising on the issue, as well as the film’s primary antagonist Ranjan Rajhans (played ably by veteran actor Sharat Saxena), a politically connected “hunter-turned-conservationist” and his menacingly unscientific methods. Her only allies are Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), a professor of moths in a nearby government college, the Forest Friends and Jyoti, and Mr Nangia (Neeraj Kabi), the forest department head. Her family life is no less complicated, in a long-distance marriage with a husband she feels disconnected from, and a mother and mother-in-law still coming to terms with her unusual choices. In one particularly hilarious and relatable scene, she’s expected to wear a gold jewellery set before going to a dinner, while Pawan (Mukul Chhadha), her husband, is wearing shorts and calf-length socks with his floaters because clearly only a man has the luxury to dress for comfort. The traditional pressures of procreating are also areas of a modern generational conflict. When her mother tries to reason with her, “What will you do when you grow old?” Vidya replies without missing a beat, “Yoga, reading, writing, travelling!”

While she counters patriarchal mores without the pomp and bluster of a traditional “heroine”, we as the audience never really get a peek into the inner workings of her mind and character, and its motivations remain largely opaque to the viewer. Tiku calls it a deliberate attempt at etching a new kind of female protagonist. “If you look at classical literature, women are often defined by the roles they play — how good they are as mothers, daughters and sisters. For this film I wasn’t worried about making the character likeable, I didn’t want the audience to understand or empathise with her as much as I wanted them to see her as a professional in this setting who has her heart in the right place.”

While meticulously detailed, the narrative would have benefited from tighter editing, as the film only picks up pace in the last 40 mins leading towards a heartbreaking yet subtle climax. Technically, the film is an accomplishment and would’ve been a joy to watch on the big screen. The handheld camerawork by Rakesh Haridas takes you right into the heart of the jungle. At no point is the tension stretched to a melodramatic level, aptly aided by a subtle, effective background score by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chadavarkar. The CGI animals, especially T12 and her cubs, are beautifully rendered.

Sherni heralds a new kind of environmental slow-burn thriller led by a strong female protagonist. It lays a precedent in Hindi cinema with its astute portrayal of wildlife conservation in India and the value of cooperation in conservation. While it may not have the traditional hero’s epic narrative arc, it certainly offers a real-world antidote to it. In Tiku’s words, “I don’t know if the hero archetype is relevant in today’s world. If you explore it further, whether in classical literature or even cinema, heroes are people who don’t collaborate, they always take action on their own. I don’t even know if they have any empathy or they just tend to function on a superficial moral radar. So I personally felt that in today’s time and age when we’re talking about intersectionality and a holistic understanding of different contexts, I wanted to move away from that archetype and build a new narrative of co-existence.”

Ritika Bhatia is a film and communications professional based out of New Delhi

Published on July 12, 2021

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