As an eager forest officer wanting to do some good, Vidya Balan has dug into her role as DFO Vidya Vincent. She is given a new posting after spending an excruciating amount of time being a desk officer. Contrary to her expectations, she finds the posting boring and mulls the possibility of quitting her job. Her immediate superior, played by the fumbling Brijendra Kala, is more interested in Ghalib and organising afternoon luncheons than the forests and its animals. The place is a quagmire of human-animal conflict and political slandering between rival factions. But, as Vidya is drawn deeper into the workings of this place, she starts to find her footing, first with her staff, then with the villagers and then with the Tigress herself. In a telling scene, Vidya and her staff are returning back after an encounter with a Sloth Bear. Citing a similar encounter, one of them remarks that the previous DFO growled like a Tiger to drive the animal away. He was like a superman, they tell her. Vidya almost lets out a sigh with the realisation that she will have to prove herself to her all-male junior staff. Despite how they treat her, she has a healthy respect for their knowledge.
Vidya Balan is very believable as the forest officer – particularly in the way she has slowed down her speech and softened it to depict someone whose first language is not Hindi. In the film, we hear her first before we see her, as she conveys to her team in the jungle that something is not right in that particular spot. The softness in her voice is oddly at ease with the jungle and is weirdly unsettling at the same time. This sets the tone of the film. Neeraj Kabi, who is making a habit of demanding your unwavering attention whenever he is on screen, is effective as the senior officer who has crossed to the other side. He emanates this smell of rotting duality, that is sometimes frightening and is a human manifestation of systemic corruption.
Amit Masurkar is an exciting director who is making films on unconventional subjects and keeps us engaged with his kind of cinema – Newton being his other film. Here is a filmmaker who seems genuinely invested in his subject matter and there is palpable honesty how his films feel. Particularly, his depiction of the forest officials and their humdrum life in the jungle is spot on. But unlike Newton, this film feels a bit dragged out in the latter half. The wild audacity of a tigress is missing from the screenplay. It feels tame and a little too toned down. We watch Vidya manoeuvring herself in and out of the paddy field of matrimony towards the sanctuary of the forest, exactly like the tigress that she is trying to protect. When she says she is not the person she used to be with so much surety in her voice, we are left to wonder why she married at all. At this point, Vidya has found her purpose. She wants to save the tigress from the hunter for hire, the politicians, from her seniors and everyone around her. But, in the end, the tigress in the film is snuffed out by the maniacal hunter and so is Vidya Vincent – by the well-oiled bureaucracy that is only interested in maintaining the status quo.
Towards the end of Sherni when the sarkari vehicle rolls into the compound, you half expect Vidya Vincent to open the doors and slide out. You still want the hero figure in the Hindi film to emerge victorious, but director Amit Masurkar robs you of this high. In doing so, he has given his film a rare longevity, making Sherni stay with you long after Vidya Vincent closes her doors.