Director: Amit V Masurkar
Writers: Amit V Masurkar, Yashasvi Mishra and Aastha Tiku
Cinematography: Rakesh Haridas
Edited by: Dipika Kalra
Starring: Vidya Balan, Vijay Raaz, Sharat Saxena, Mukul Chadda, Neeraj Kabi, Brijendra Kala and Ila Arun
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
A few years ago, in an interview, director Anubhav Sinha explained to me the concept of cheese in a movie. He said: In those stories that can alternatively be made as films that will be very dry, I put some cheese in. Cheese is the shot of Ayushmann Khurrana heroically carrying the rescued girl in his arms in Article 15 or Ashutosh Rana's thunderous dialogue-baazi in Mulk. I interpret 'cheese' as the delicate sprinkling of something extra to give a movie its throbbing pulse. And I wish Sherni had more cheese in it.
Sherni is director Amit Masurkar's follow up to his brilliant Newton. Newton was set in the forests of Chhattisgarh. Sherni is set in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. Like in Newton, here also, the protagonist Vidya Vincent is a government officer, trying to do the right thing in a rotten system. Early in that film, Newton tells his superior: I want to make a difference, sir. He has, what his instructor so memorably describes as, 'imaandari pe ghamand.' But Newton is a newbie. After nine years of service, Vidya has lost that flush of idealism. She is an efficient and reserved forest officer who holds her own in a boys' club. For entertainment, her superiors – all men – get drunk around a bonfire and sing Bollywood item numbers. She eats dinner alone, with a mewling kitten for company.
Sherni is about a man-eating tiger but the villains in the story are people – local politicians who make the tiger an election issue; a hunter named Pintu bhaiya, played nicely by Sharat Saxena, whose masculinity and pride rests on the number of animals he has killed; forest officers who have little interest in protecting wildlife; and greedy corporations who strip the jungles and rob animals of their natural terrain. The battle between development and environment plays out with devastating results – in the short term, for animals but in the long term, for humanity.
Amit has an astute sense of the working of government machinery – the low-level corruption and cronyism, the mediocrity and indifference marinating in every nook and crevice of the system, and the lethargy that a sarkari naukri breeds – early in the film, Vidya's husband Pawan tells her that she is lucky to have a job that is recession proof and has benefits and security. "Apne kaam se kaam rakho," he says, "bas apni salary lo aur ghar chalo." Later, in one of the best scenes in the film, Vidya's boss, Bansal is running through the office to escape the wrath of a local legislator who has arrived with his boys to rough him up for not dealing with the tiger on a rampage. It's political posturing and Bansal is scurrying in and out of rooms to avoid a thrashing. At one point, he hides in a room in which files covered in cobwebs are piled from floor to ceiling. That one visual captures the state of our nation.
Sherni has almost entirely been shot on location. Amit, DOP Rakesh Haridas and sound designer Anish John immerse us into the textures of the terrain – the sounds and sights of a rich, majestic world teeming with life that we can't see and barely understand. The visuals of insects and animals as transitions between scenes reminded me of the Malayalam film Kala. The beautiful night sequences in which flashlights and headlights dance in the darkness echo Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu.
The sherni's journey runs parallel to Vidya's – both are negotiating a landscape made hostile by men. The most memorable among these is Bansal, played superbly by Brijendra Kala. Bansal is, to borrow the popular phrase from The Family Man season 2, "a minimum guy." He sits in front of a large photograph of a tiger but he has little interest in anything beyond himself. Brijendra plays him with exactly the right mix of oiliness and cowardice.
Sherni has many stellar actors including Vijay Raaz, Neeraj Kabi and Ila Arun but the film is grounded by the gravitas and understated strength that Vidya Balan brings to Vidya Vincent. The actor lets go of her natural exuberance and works with restrained expressions. She is controlled and terrific. You sense that underneath Vidya's stoic exterior is a well of fury and frustration. Which never quite explodes.
Which brings me back to the cheese. Sherni has been written by Aastha Tiku with dialogue by Amit and Yashasvi Mishra. The film adheres to a documentary aesthetic with handheld camerawork, natural settings and meticulously researched details of the workings of the forest department – an unusual subject for Hindi cinema. But in stretches, the spare-ness underwhelms the storytelling. The screenplay becomes inert. In Newton, Amit was able to weave in dark humour but here, he doesn't make enough room for it. Though there is one delicious moment in which Vidya and Hassan, the Vijay Raaz character, mischievously subvert Bansal.
But Vidya remains emotionally opaque. I didn't get enough of a sense of her, which is why the film doesn't slice with the sharpness that Newton did. How did a woman like Vidya marry a personality-free man like Pawan? It's a North-South love marriage and in one scene, Vidya says that she is nothing like she was when they were together in college. But we don't know how this distance between them is affecting her. His friends call her Lady Tarzan and she smiles warily, hiding her irritation. Like she does when her mother-in-law asks her to wear jewellery for a dinner outing.
Perhaps less isn't always more. But despite stretches that feel repetitive and even dull, Amit steers the story to a coda that is chilling in its quietness. The end visuals work as a warning and an indictment. This is the world that we have constructed and we should be afraid.
You can watch Sherni on Amazon Prime Video.