Amit Masurkar was 20 when he quit engineering midway to pursue a career in films, and 32 when he made his first, Sulemani Keeda, a truly indie slacker film about two struggling screenwriters in Versova. As likeable as Sulemani Keeda was, few would have predicted the smooth shift in gears Masurkar would make in his next film, Newton, a film that coincided with its leading man Rajkummar Rao's rising stardom and was eventually India's entry to the Oscars. If Newton was mainstream to Sulemani Keeda, Sherni is even bigger—bigger star (Vidya Balan), bigger producers (Bhushan Kumar), and by virtue of its design, bigger reach. "I don't want to be very niche. I want more people to watch it," he says about Sherni. The subject is conservation, and by making the story about tiger—an apex predator, whose well-being confirms a healthy ecosystem—Masurkar hopes to drive home the big picture: climate change. If—like Newton—the "seriousness" of the subject is undercut by irony and humour, the final minutes, at the Natural history museum that showcase stuffed, extinct animals, offer no such laughs: just sad, scary truth staring at us from the future.
When the lockdown was announced in March, 2020, Sherni was one of the major Hindi productions that had to be halted. Luckily, they were already nearing the end of the first schedule in a village in Madhya Pradesh. The team would move to the Balaghat forest in November when the country opened up again, when the crew wore PPE suits when they shot indoors, and masks when they shot in the open. There were zero cases on the set, Masurkar tells me. In an interview, conducted on phone, he speaks about how Sherni came into being, having fun with production design, trekking in Sahyadri, and hating safaris.
Sherni has some structural similarities with Newton. Did it emerge out of that film?
It didn't emerge from Newton. The only common thing is the location and the fact that both the main characters are working in the government. Otherwise there is nothing common as such. Newton was an allegorical tale about democracy, where the people represented certain ideas and it was about how "democracy" in Newton's eyes functions only when he picks up the gun. It was a different kind of journey. If you look at Jungian archetypes it's a Fool's journey. It was about a naive guy who is in a way like Don Quixote, who is inspired by lofty ideals. That was the character and I had written it with Mayank Tewari.
Sherni was written by Aastha Tiku and her reason for making it was conservation and cooperation—that one person can't bring change and you need sustained effort by the entire community. The character of the protagonist in Sherni is more experienced and mature. The story was spread over 3 or 4 months and there are dozens of characters. So the scope of the film was different, compared to Newton.
In what ways were you involved in the development of the script?
I was the bouncing board. We also had a research associate, Siddhesh Kankekar, who collected a lot of data. Aastha has a research background and she has a background in philosophy. She was the one who saw the patterns and tried various tools in order to understand the various character arcs. It was a long process of research. We met a lot of forest officers and consulted conservationists.
For example, we had scientific consultant Ramzan Virani, who not only made sure that we got the pug marks right on shoot and also the sound design. Our sound designer Anish John would send him reels and he would nitpick, 'This doesn't make sense, because this insect doesn't live in this region, it is from another region.' So he would take that out. Birds and insects sound different at different times of the day, in different seasons. So Anish had to get that right.
What were some of the challenges of shooting the film?
We had a big A-list Bollywood star, a lot of great actors from Mumbai, Delhi and other places, and non-actors who were facing the camera for the first time—real forest guards, villagers. My DOP Rakesh Haridas comes from a very strong documentary background. He is familiar with making the camera look like a friend, and not make it seem intimidating. Documentary filmmakers can make their subjects feel comfortable. It played a big part in making sure all these actors looked like they were part of the same film, performing on the same octave; so did the costume design (Manoshi Nath, Rushi Sharma, Bhagyashree Rajurkar). In the next stage, the editor (Dipika Kalra) made sure the performances match.
We also shot the film completely hand-held because it feels more authentic and it gives you a lot of freedom to move the camera. We used very little light to make it look naturalistic. In the indoor scenes at night we replaced the practical lights with specially designed ones.
The scenes featuring the villagers feel very real. Are they people who have been in similar situations?
Yes. They are the people from a village called Bhootpalasi in Madhya Pradesh where we shot, and they spoke in their accents. They have seen tigers in the very same jungles. We learnt a lot from them while shooting. The houses we have shot in belonged to some of them. One of the casting directors, Romil (Modi), his assistants and one of my ADs, would spend time with them for a couple of hours everyday. They would do improv exercises and train them to face the camera. This process was happening in a different place simultaneously while we were shooting. They would keep sending me videos and I would keep selecting from them.
What was your approach in directing Vidya Balan?
Vidya's character is a forest officer who is jaded and disillusioned with what she is doing. So we wanted her not to be the Vidya she is in, say, some other films of hers–exuberant or lively. It was written like that. We didn't want her to have a saviour complex. We just wanted her to have empathy for what she does. We didn't want her to be nice for the sake of being nice, or polite for the sake of being polite, but somebody who does her job, somebody who has her own problems in her life, but somebody who listens, learns, collaborates.
In Sherni, Vijay Raaz's character Noorani is an expert in moths; he is a small–scale scientist in his own esoteric way. The Head of the Forest department, Bansal (played by Brijendra Kala) is a connoisseur of shers. What is the idea behind such characters?
Through Noorani's character we wanted to show that one needs to have a holistic approach to conservation. In Noorani's house there's a picture of Salim Ali (famous Indian ornithologist) right behind him. But he is a moth expert (although some people think he is a butterfly expert) who is talking about tigers. It's all linked. Noorani is a "systems thinker." He understands the interconnections between these sciences and the politics and he understands the interconnections between the people. We met a few of people like that. They are not obsessed with publishing papers; they are truly sage-like in the way they go about their work. They are really passionate about what they do, and they approach it with deep love and sincerity.
What about the character played by Brijendra Kala?
He is somebody who probably would've been…he's an artist, you know, who sings well—you see that when he sings 'Accha Sila Diya'. He has a thing for poetry. He doesn't want to do this job, he's calling up and asking for a transfer. He is probably doing this job as a means of livelihood to sustain himself. He is probably someone who is a soft guy, who enjoys life, likes poetry, likes music, but is stuck in this job.
It's like the Raghubir Yadav character in Newton, who is a pulp writer by night, and who got stuck in a government job.
Yes. It's always interesting to have people who have some love for the arts in your films. I like such people. Wherever we go to meet people, no matter what field they are in, you realise that many people have many hidden skills. Somebody may play the flute. Somebody may write poetry. They will show you these things, they will talk about it. I met forest guards who sing really well. Not everybody has the privilege to do what they love with their lives.
There's the delightful scene where we meet Noorani and Bansal for the first time. There's a pun that's cross–vernacular (moth/'maut'). A few seconds later, Bansal says he wants to say a 'sher', and you can see a huge photograph of the tiger in the background—here the pun is also audio–visual. In a later scene, the humour is completely visual, when antlers form a sort of devil's horn around Bansal.
There are many more. If you look at Noorani's house, there's a picture of a tiger moth. You'll find more if you watch it again. The fun is in discovering. There are similar easter eggs in Vidya Vincent's house— if you look around with the word 'Vincent' in mind, you'll see paintings.
I had a very good production designer, Devika Dave, someone who is passionate about production design and she had a very good team. We had a lot of discussions about motifs like the dead birds and the tiger photograph in Bansal's office, or the files which are on top of the cupboards all over so it looks like trees. We wanted the office to look like a jungle when Bansal is running around. Or Vidya's office, where we wanted those files to look like leaves. So we made sure that we got lots of files and stacked them all over the office. It helped us create the world of the film. The map of Bijashpur that you see in the film is hand drawn by her assistant Vaani Kaul, and there is that little toy tiger. There are little details like that.
There's also Vidya's tiger pattern bag that Neeraj Kabi's character finds "interesting".
That was written by Aastha as a play on how she collects these different decorative items when she goes to different places. He finds it interesting—but then in the next scene you see that somebody has died. In a way we wanted to use that as a cut point, between these two scenes–as to how officers are transferred from one job to another and can curate what they want to take from these places but for the people who live there, the reality is more stark.
Are you someone who likes to explore nature? What has been your relationship with the subject of the film?
I like nature but I don't like safaris. I went to one safari and it was quite traumatic. You saw a tiger and three cubs and you had 17 or 18 jeeps that were traumatising the mother tiger, just following the tiger everywhere and she was kind of scared for the life of her cubs. And after that I have never gone to a safari again. Before that, I had gone as a kid to see lions in Gir and also tigers in Karnataka. But otherwise my connection to nature has been mostly through trekking. We were 14-15 years old when my school friends and I would go with older kids to camp in the Sahyadri, in different forts; we did that in college too. It's a very Mumbai-Pune thing.
And conservation is something you know about if you are a little aware and read papers. Of course, when you get deeper into it you discover things you didn't know before.
Once you start getting deeper into conservation, man–animal conflict is one of the first things you learn about. It's a complex issue. Was the idea of the film to capture this complexity?
We didn't just want to capture the complexity but we also wanted to give a solution, that conservation can't be hero-driven. Vidya Vincent's character neither saves the tiger nor she finds the cubs—they are found by the locals, the forest friends. Conservation is a community driven process. It requires time and effort from a whole lot of people.
You show a hunting party looking for the tiger after it is proved to be a man–eater. Is that what happens when a scenario like that arises in real life?
I don't know what the official versions are. A lot of it is obviously fictionalised, but the general patterns are the same. There are private hunters. Some even have websites and Facebook pages. India is still much better than other countries because the laws to protect wildlife are extremely strict.
Is there something else about the film you want to talk about?
The music was a tough thing to crack. For the song, "Bandar Baat", composed by Bandish Projekt, lyricist Hussain Haidry has used the tale of Billi and Bandar from Panchatantra. But for the background score we were very clear that we didn't want it to sound like a "jungle film" with peculiar percussions and drone-like instrumentation through which cinema has exoticised the jungle. If you notice we have not tried to look at the jungle as a mysterious, dark, dangerous place. We have looked at it as something open, accepting, warm. That is the philosophy with which we approached it visually as well.
We had to choose the right instruments and the right tempo in scenes. Both Naren (Chandavarkar) and Benedict (Taylor)—who I have worked with in Newton—are extremely sensitive. Not only do they have an understanding of the theoretical aspect of classical or electronic music, they are also empathetic people and they understand what is required for the story.