Director: Srijit Mukherji
Writer: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Sayani Gupta, Neeraj Kabi, Akshay Kapoor
Cinematographer: Tiyash Sen
Editor: Pronoy Dasgupta
Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga is so fundamentally frustrating that it's almost difficult to criticize. It's the kind of film that reaffirms why Hindi cinema hasn't had a decent social satire since Peepli Live. The language of satire is rooted in an extended expression of the truth; it's the art of being told something that was hidden in plain view all along. You stretch this observation long enough and it automatically descends into farce. But satire has been one of the biggest casualties of the social media age. The information and opinion overload on platforms, as well as meme culture, leaves very little hidden in plain view. As a result, modern film-makers feel the need to not just do more but say more through their stories. In the end, the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction genre makes way for a clumsy fiction-is-stranger-than-fact hybrid. Sherdil is precisely that film.
The tragedy (or anti-satire) is that, on paper, as a simple one-liner, the premise is great. A village sarpanch, Gangaram (Pankaj Tripathi), is turned away by the authorities when he seeks compensation for villagers whose farmland is being destroyed by wild animals. (Sherni was no satire, but it deftly revealed this issue from the perspective of a privileged forest officer). While leaving, Gangaram notices a government scheme in which families of those who die of tiger attacks are offered INR 10 lakhs as compensation. He then spends the rest of the film trying to be eaten by a tiger in the jungle. As per promotional material, the story is inspired by a true practice near the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, where villagers left their elderly for tigers to prey on so that they could claim monetary compensation.
It's true that Pankaj Tripathi is the only actor that can turn thin air into a canvas of conversation and gesture. But it's also true that, given this reputation, a lot of film-makers resist "directing" him
But the makers don't trust the facts – or Indian audiences and their fraught relationship with dark humour – enough. More is done, much more is said. Forget poverty, industrialization, politics and deforestation, even religion is shoehorned in: Most of the second half features chaste vegetarian Hindu Gangaram forming a bond with an introspective Muslim dreadlock-sporting poacher named Jim Ahmed (because Jim Corbett), only so the men can convey that "hunger is the only religion" in different verbal permutations. At one point, in what might go down as the see-it-to-believe-it scene of the year, the two defecate near each other after a bad meal – the wet farts are pitched to a high volume – while Jim Ahmed ponders about the futility of religions prohibiting meats because it all becomes tatti (shit) anyway; Gangaram promptly adds classes (rich, poor) to the discourse. As it turns out, I was picking at a vegetarian samosa during this scene.
If it isn't already apparent, Sherdil is the worst possible option in terms of idea-to-screen translation. The film-making is bizarre, almost as if it were vying with the premise for attention. When Gangaram and his wife argue at home, the camera keeps panning between them instead of cutting; no reason, just like that. When they share an emotional moment by a river, the score suddenly morphs into a rock-ballad-style track with an electric guitar riff, with the shot drifting away from the couple to end at a nearby waterfall. I have no idea why. When a judge reads out his verdict, loud animal noises hijack the scene so that the man-beast core of the premise is hammered home. Rural characters are reduced to intermittent simpletons and lazy cultural surrogates. For instance, Gangaram is made to look like a cartoon in front of the government clerk and the poacher he befriends in the forest, but the same man becomes an eloquent preacher with the villagers, his wife and the court. Whenever he compares himself to freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives for the nation, he poses like a statue and the music reaches a heroic trumpet-fuelled crescendo – it's meant to be quirky, but the execution makes Gangaram look deluded. There's also a 'narrator' in the film who is revealed to be not a journalist but a…cop. At least he's writing a diary and not a book.
The dialogue is a front for multiple internal monologues. When Gangaram learns that animals with full stomachs don't attack humans, he quickly comments that humans keep attacking even after full stomachs – all this, while confronting a tiger. If I were a tiger in Bollywood today, I'd be prowling for prey only around visual effects company compounds. A lot of the first half features Gangaram alone, clueless in the jungle. With no scope for exposition, we are made to literally hear his thoughts. This device disappears in the second half, because Jim Ahmed appears and broadcasts not just his thoughts, but also Gangaram's, the director's, yours, mine, the country's and the tiger's thoughts. Neeraj Kabi is a fine actor on his day – and it's not entirely his fault that his Jim Ahmed is the cinematic version of boomer uncles who insist on speaking in Urdu to make their theories sound profound. All the words aren't surprising; there's not a single visually interesting frame in a film based almost entirely in nature. I'm not saying such movies have an obligation to look vivid or pretty. But they shouldn't look so generic either; it looks like half of Sherdil has been filmed in the same fifty yards of jungle. Even the shot of a panther on a tree at night appears almost bureaucratic in its composition.
It's true that Pankaj Tripathi is the only actor that can turn thin air into a canvas of conversation and gesture. But it's also true that, given this reputation, a lot of film-makers resist "directing" him, letting him do his thing and hoping for moments to create themselves. This happens quite a bit in Sherdil, where entire stretches of song and action feature Gangaram walking in the forest and looking nervous. The camera looks at him from all directions. He reacts to plants and spiders and elephants and deer. But you can tell that there's no real brief. It's to Tripathi's credit that he manages to diffuse that absurd "shitting" scene with a sense of serene humour. The rest of the narrative is too loose, giving his character no emotional or physical continuity, as if he were the shape-shifting hero of a children's movie.
The sight of Gangaram trying to provoke a tiger made me wince – not for the film, but for Tripathi's unwavering conviction in a poorly designed moment. Ditto for his courtroom speech, where he diagnoses a broken system and implores the judge to give his village their dues – until that cacophony of animal noises takes over. The line between actor and character gets blurred. And satire lies in the eyes of the beholder.