Nearly twenty minutes into Sherni – the recently released Vidya Balan-starrer that chronicles the search of the Forest Department for a man-eating tigress in the jungles of Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh – the director Amit Masurkar gives us an enthralling scene that stays with us even after hours of the film's ending. It's a bewitching sequence that very well encapsulates the film's central theme. It features a zoology professor, Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz at his usual best), putting up a stage show to educate the local villagers about the correct code of conduct they should adhere to when accidentally confronted by a tiger. The dramatised enactment by Noorani and his team of young actors is largely comical but also thoughtful. The crowd, which comprises small kids and oldsters, not only giggles but also ponders frequently. Through this performance, Noorani intends to make the villagers acquire more watchful and sensitive behaviour towards the fauna of the region. He tries to tutor them about the gravity of ecological balance, as it's always the selfish and hedonist man who deranges the natural order.
But as he schools them about the value of clinging to their own fief and, more importantly, respecting others' habitat, his own stage gets hijacked by the local MLA of the town, GK Singh, and his army of supporters. His campaigners take charge of the rostrum by whooping the catchy slogan, "When GK returns to power, our time will flower." They very deftly convert what was an awareness program into a mini election rally. In no time, GK begins to fiddle with the sentiments of the village denizens. The majority of the villagers in Balaghat earn their livelihood by livestock grazing. But their animals (and even their lives) are now possible prey of a wandering tigress called the T12. The watering holes inside the forest have dried up, owing to the indolent forest officers, and a parched T12 has nowhere to go but astray inside the farms of the village to quench her thirst. GK views her as an offender – as a serious felon. He uses the terror of the tigress to his benefit. While addressing the crowd, he makes tall commitments and imperiously claims, "This is our territory, not his! If the tiger dares to enter our space, we will teach him a lesson." Watching this bedlam unfold rather angrily is Noorani and the new Forest Divisional Officer, Vidya Vincent (a superlative Vidya Balan).
A sequence like this is not new to Hindi films. We have seen similar scenes where shrewd statespersons manipulate public opinion in their favour by successfully weaponising the fears and concerns of the majority. And without any doubt, in some another feature, it would have been just another trifling, clichéd sequence. But in a film like Sherni, an excerpt like this holds substantial significance. The irony embedded within this small portion of the film is rather severe but also fascinating. It draws a difference between how distinctively varied individuals view nature and wildlife. An insider, such as the GK Singh, who has been living near the jungles for years now still lacks empathy for the environment around him. He views it with a very parochial lens, believing that the tiger is a menacing threat and should be captured and hunted down. Accompanying him in his 'colonial gaze' is another insider – a top-ranking officer of the Forest Department, Bansal (an excellent Brijendra Kala). Bansal is so fed up with his posting that he impatiently awaits his transfer order. The only native who shows some affinity and warmth to the draining mother nature is Noorani. While the incompetent state actors, GK and Bansal, condemn the tigress for being a repeated trespasser, it's only Noorani who feels the other way. He sympathetically holds that the reducing forest cover has compelled the tigress to move outside her natural territory. She is no encroacher but a sufferer: of unchecked industrialisation and an incredibly ineffective bureaucracy.
The director Amit Masurkar (who previously directed Newton) very conscientiously holds a narrative that is home to as varying viewpoints as these. He and the screenplay writer, Aastha Tiku, model their protagonist, Vidya Vincent, as a disillusioned idealist with utmost care and finesse. Sherni is as much her story as it is of the lost tigress, T12. Just like the tigress, Vidya too has been displaced from her natural environment and transferred to the jungles of Balaghat. Like the tigress, she too is ridiculed, taunted and looked down upon by the toxic men around her. Her presence on the field is repeatedly mocked by the opportunist opposition leader PK Singh. And her well-thought-out plans to catch the tigress and safely transport her to the national park are not paid much attention to by Bansal and a chauvinist private hunter, Pintu (a stubborn Sharat Saxena). But unlike Newton, Vidya doesn't intend to either rebel against the status quo or heroically lead the way for change. She's been part of inept state machinery for nine years now and is too fatigued to spark a revolution. But that doesn't make her too jaded to even do minute things that can bring some difference.
She is mostly quiet and wishes to carry out her actions with not much commotion. And consequently, she speaks less and listens more. Her ability to listen generously to the voiceless generates enormous empathy in her heart for them. Despite being a quintessential outsider, she genuinely feels for the rights of the forest-dwelling tribal communities. Her eyes are filled with indignation and distress when she is told that a common grazing land has been deceptively converted into teak plantations under the ambit of the state's afforestation programs. She wishes to do something for the wronged forest dwellers but very well knows that an officer like her is too small a cog to bring significant change. And here, by designing a powerless protagonist, Masurkar and Tiku adroitly avoid the urban saviour trope that most mainstream Hindi films conform to.
At some point in Newton comes a powerful dialogue, "Great change doesn't happen overnight, sir. This jungle took years to grow." There it held a great value, but its true essence is felt here. Masurkar and Tiku know that issues like man versus animal conflict and deforestation can't be fixed at once. It's something that requires decades of planning and execution. It's not an individual but a community-oriented process. And ergo, despite having a compelling central character in Vidya, they both place the heartbeat of the film in the smaller, local characters. The film is held together by the poignant portrayal of Noorani, Jyoti (a delightful Sampa Mandal), and a bunch of villagers and forest friends. After all, in the end, heroes like Vidya will eventually get transferred or resign – but it's the silent mutinies by these locals that will save the dying jungles and its vulnerable species.
Despite Sherni having odd pacing (something that I think worked in the film's favour, but will inadvertently trouble a few), it's a film that is riveting, dynamic, timely and poses all the right questions. While on the surface level, the narrative is rightfully about the conservation of wildlife, undoubtedly it's a film that is more than just an environmental drama. Just like any other political satire, Sherni too is filled with potent metaphors that have multiple interpretations. For instance, the tigress, T12, which the guileful state authorities are looking to lynch, can be interpreted as an undeniable metaphor for any of the oppressed communities of our society. Consequently, the socio-cultural commentary becomes far more profound and haunting. After all, deciphering a brand new and more meaningful exposition on every viewing is symbolic of good cinema, and Sherni is no less than that.