It took Nature millions of years to achieve it. It was almost as if She was experimenting with chemicals of all manner available to her, creating fire, ice, and explosions in test runs that took thousands of years. And then, She found it. The equilibrium between multitudinous components that she’d so painstakingly brought together. Every piece governed by Her law, every law impacting others’ rules such that any contravention would set off a series of auto-correct processes to keep that equilibrium intact. Until mankind (what an oxymoron, this portmanteau) decided, much before Captain Kirk, to go “Where no man has gone before”. As the current pandemic and multiple devastations have announced loud and clear, we also went where we weren’t meant to. The question that must haunt us all—but doesn’t— is, have we learned anything at all?
In Sherni (meant to map to Tigress), writer Aastha Tiku and director Amit Masurkar (Newton) quietly and softly answer with a firm “No.” Pitching Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan) into the jungles of Bijashpur, she’s thrown headlong into local politics as she discovers everyone’s connected to someone, starting with the local contractor who’s supposed to ensure the watering bodies live up to their name and function, for fauna’s sake. The contractor, as it happens—not by coincidence— is the nephew of the local MLA G.K. Singh (Amar Singh Parihar) and is strenuously expending all resources to ensure he wins in the upcoming elections. His counterforce is P.K. Singh (Satyakam Anand) who’s desperately looking to ensure he doesn’t. Both are handed gunpowder in the form of a tigress who’s stalking the surrounding forest area and begins to attack human beings, because they’re straying into the foliage that they weren’t meant to, for husbandry grazing, because the original areas have been diverted by the local powers-that-be for profitable plantation.
This chain reaction of an imbalance throws open a manhunt for the tigress, both power-hungry sides wooing the villagers with promises of the animal’s head and safety for all. Caught in this all-masculine macho screech of a crossfire, Vidya faces mounting pressure and disdain with an equanimity that throws off her detractors. Her job’s to ensure the tigress remains safe and is tranquilized into the national forest, and director Masurkar makes her neither a gun-toting savior nor does he turn his movie into a high-decibel emotional watch. On the contrary, he keeps the goings-on quiet, observing with cinematographer Rakesh Haridas, the guiles and folly of what’s gotten the village folk and the animal in this sticky face-off. All the while, the movie’s also instructional without being pedagogic, of what an ugly morass of a job a DFO’s is, the price to be paid for the ugly face of development that springs up unexpectedly, of how the local populace knows their area and the inhabitants much better than any textbook; of how men tasked with a political and mendacious mission override tribal wisdom: here, it’s the gruff-and-tough hunter Ranjan Rajhans, going by the misleadingly innocent name Pintu (Sharat Saxena in fine form) who aims to please his benefactors and shoots to aim for the bounty and his bristling ego.
Vijay Raaz slips into his erudite and knowledgeable role with ease, donning the DNA of a man who wants to do the right thing. The rest of the cast is wonderful too: Aradhana Paraste, Lokesh Mittal, Prateek Pachori, Ashwini Ladekar, Mukesh Prajapati, Anoop Trivedi, Sampa Mandal, and Krishna Kumar, all lend genuine sincerity to their characters who, like the vast majority, keep the wheels of nations moving, stuck in the slick mud of biases and money muscle, struggling, but keep spinning they do.
Director Masurkar doesn’t intend Sherni to be a thriller or an action-thrumming cinema. He doesn’t aim for high drama or manipulative scenes to work your tear glands. He says it like it is, much like a presentation that Nangia’s making at a conference event, but like a speaker who knows their stuff, who embellish their talk with gripping examples. There’s just the one scene where he succumbs to high-volume analogy—making a bunch of drunk men imitate animal noises—and it sticks out to jarring effect.
Carrying this enterprise on the power of her formidable talent, Vidya Balan brings just that right dose of empathy and control into her performance. She shakes her head an imperceptible bit when she’s compared to her predecessor, someone who’s earned the sobriquet of “Superman.” The dalliance with that sexism and hypocrisy continues behind her back when she’s referred to as the male superhero. What do you do when heroics are inherently tied to heroes, not heroines? She’s at home in the jungle and at work, straining every moral muscle to do the right thing. And yet, here’s where the director brings in the other equilibrium at play. One that is man-made. Vidya is the other tigress in the movie, whose move into the fields of patriarchy causes an uproar and fear. So far controlled and directed by men, her presence disturbs that very male-dominated equilibrium that caused the natural one to go off-balance. In this political tension for the balance of power, the weights are stacked against her. And for a word that derives its roots from Libra and balanced scales, the irony is hurting. From saving the living from dying to saving the dead to make a living is but the cruel action of an equilibrant force.
Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Sherni is streaming on Prime and rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition).
Director Amit Masurkar Time 2h 11min
Writer Aastha Tiku
Stars Vidya Balan, Brijendra Kala, Vijay Raaz, Mukul Chaddha, Neeraj Kabi