"Kya musibat hai yaar! Ab maa ke saath bachchon ko bhi pakdo", exclaims Bansal (played by the wonderful Brijendra Kala) on discovering that Sherni, the man-eating tigress also has two cubs. This statement encompasses the entire film.
Directed by Amit Masurkar (Newton) and written by Aastha Tiku, starring Vidya Balan as Vidya Vincent in the titular role, Sherni is a deep, ruminative study on the political apathy that plagues the country. The film, as the title suggests, is about a tigress (and in this case, also the woman) codenamed T12 who has killed some cattle and humans. She is surrounded by major obstacles in her path, like a copper mine, and is trying to find her way out. Masurkar subverts the creature film genre by smartly focussing on the nitty-gritty of the very administration responsible for maintaining the balance of nature and mankind. Shot primarily on-location in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, the environment sets up the mood for the film. It is hostile and unforgiving and Vincent has her task cut out as the newly appointed forest officer. Aided by local zoology professor Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), she has to capture the tigress alive (as per procedure) before more humans are killed. Bansal, her boss, is a chamcha of the local legislator and the least bit interested in whether the tigress is captured dead or alive. The legislator quickly sensing the opportunity at hand turns it into a 'political issue', one on which he fights the elections. Pintu Bhaiya (Sharat Saxena), a local hunter baying for blood comes into the picture once the 'big bosses' get involved. The rescue is no longer about the tigress – it has turned into a game of one-upmanship. In the midst of this, Vincent is the lowest in the pecking order. She often gets swatted aside with workplace sexism by being dubbed as 'the lady officer' or has to justify her actions for following protocol, while the others (all men in positions of power) are let loose with zero accountability.
Vidya Balan is absolutely terrific. She is reserved, understated and grounds the film. Her trademark laugh is used only once (a nice throwaway moment where she and the others are walking through a village discussing how she managed to get rid Pintu; she says jaan choothi). She is honest and upright, hellbent on doing things the right way. Her frustration and disillusionment (especially in the post-climactic scene involving her and Nangia Sir, played by Neeraj Kabi) is brilliant. She challenges the status quo by calling out Nangia as pathetic after T12 is shot dead by Pintu). Her ultimate return to some degree of idealism, where she tears her resignation letter at the end, is well translated. Vijay Raaz as the zoology professor is solid. He plays the role as a male version of Vincent; the only difference being his practical approach towards the issue. It is not personal for him; instead he genuinely wants to maintain the balance between the quest for development and nature. He wants to educate the villagers on why the balance is important. It was a smart move to have the fringe cast of mostly non actors from the region because it gave the film a sense of realism. Other characters essay their roles effectively. Sharat Saxena brings out the machoism and the ego of a man that is completely dependent on the number of kills he has made. Ila Arun as the mother-in-law who has never-ending demands and Mukul Chadda as Pawan, Vidya's nearly-foolish husband all do well within their limited scope. But the scene stealer is Brijendra Kala as Bansal. Bansal can be broadly classified as your typical government employee; least bit interested in anything else other that doing the bare minimum. He also provides some of the little humour (his scene with the ex-legislator chasing him in the office and resulting in an asthma attack is well crafted) that the film affords in an otherwise heavy screenplay. However, not all of Sherni comes together coherently. There are long stretches where the screenplay is inert and nothing really happens. In a film that's also pitched as a race against time, this absolutely kills the pace. In some portions there are cuts to scenes with men prancing around on Bollywood item songs which don't seem to completely serve any purpose. Some characters do not get a complete arc (like that of the ex-legislator).
But despite these small pitfalls, Sherni is still solid. The end is amazing and unexpected. Vidya gets a small win; her association with the local forest conservation team helps her save the two cubs. The director punctures the joy as she is given a punishment posting for questioning her superiors, all of whom are colluding. This is punctuated by multiple overhead shots of the vast stretches of the jungle throughout the film that have been dwindling due to rampant neglect and human conquest. The fact that Masurkar chose to end the film on hopelessness towards the system and its consequences, is a big statement – one that leaves us with a last punch to the gut as the film ends.