Director: Amit V Masurkar
Writers: Amit V Masurkar, Aastha Tiku, Yashasvi Mishra
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
An elusive tigress is a fertile metaphor. In Sahirr Sethhi's Student Emmy-winning short, Zoya, which streamed on MUBI in May 2020, this metaphor was personal. Zoya is the name of both the missing tigress that a crabby conservationist (Rajesh Tailang) seeks in Madhya Pradesh's Kanha Tiger Reserve and the estranged daughter whose forgiveness he seeks. Assisted by a young biologist (Manjot Singh), he spends weeks laying camera traps, scanning memory cards and tracking pugmarks. His mission is a private cry for salvation. In Amit Masurkar's third feature film, Sherni (meaning "tigress"), the lens zooms out to suggest that salvation in an Indian bureaucracy is seldom an isolated journey. The metaphor is personal but also political, social and cultural. The film's title refers to a woman – both human and tiger – who is displaced from her habitat due to an apathetic system, before being labelled a disruptive "man-eater" for simply trying to survive. One pursues the other because one understands another.
Vidya Balan is Vidya Vincent, the new Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of a jungle region in Madhya Pradesh: her first field posting after six years on a Mumbai desk. Her stint is marked with a crisis. First, some cattle are killed. Then two villagers are mauled to death. Assisted by a zoology professor named Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), Vidya and her team set out to locate the feline culprit. But the mission is anything but private. Her sheepish boss, Bansal (Brijendra Kala), is in cahoots with a local legislator who turns the "tiger issue" into a campaign cow, in turn inviting the wrath of a bitter ex-legislator. Pressure from above throws into the mix a commercial hunter named Pintu (Sharat Saxena), a macho-man hell bent on feeding his bloodlust. Somewhere in between, Vidya, a spiritual cousin of the titular Dalit election officer from the director's previous film Newton, is reduced to an upright pawn on a tilted chessboard. Her honesty annoys her superiors. Her procedural search for the predator reflects the search for her own identity in a society that interprets female agency as a negotiation of space and place. An example is a scene where Vidya, during a modest office party, surreptitiously nurses a glass of whisky in a corner, out of official sight: Her place in society dictates her choice of space. Moments later, emboldened by the arrival of an old mentor, she returns to the open garden with her glass in hand. In a way, his soothing presence lures her out of hiding – an instinct echoed in a crucial climactic moment featuring the tigress and a trap.
The writing of Sherni is exemplary in the way it demystifies the "creature movie" template and, by extension, the fraught relationship between man and nature. The clarity of the world-building is such that I could practically map the cause-and-effect chain behind the premise. As in any storied democracy, Vidya is confronted with the mess of her predecessors – the previous DFO turned precious cattle-grazing land into a teak plantation, forcing the villagers to feed their animals in the jungle, which in turn leads to the attacks. In one of the film's first scenes, we see Vidya taking to task a self-serving contractor who has neglected the dry watering holes in the forest – it isn't spelt out, but this 'tiny' oversight impedes the natural order, creating the unrest that Sherni is centered on. As a result, the tigress is rarely used as a device of narrative suspense. We learn early on that, not unlike her corresponding human, the animal is essentially navigating a maze of red-taped doors. (An initial shot displays a "please close the door" sign on the office wall). To draw a graphic analogy, the zero-sum-game of Pac-Man comes to mind: Hunger is the common trigger, the ghosts are closing in.
At one point, Vidya's eyes light up when she realizes that the tigress is inching towards a National Park. But her face goes pale when the map shows a copper mine obstructing the path. The symbolism is silent: Vidya's field job, that once promised the freedom of her career's national park, is actually the 'development' that hinders her progress. The exposition in Sherni is subtle and organic, framing the dialogue as an inextricable expression of the screenplay. Tiger trivia ("likes shade, open paths, returns to the site of prey") is conveyed through conversations among officers and instructions to rural residents. Information isn't force-fitted, it blends into a scene. We learn of the politics through angry villagers. Vidya's driver tells her about the geography of the area: an interconnection of forests and fields that endangers both people and animals. Her exchanges with subordinates further reveal that the balance is precarious, and all it might take is one errant screw for the structure to collapse. The verbal framework leaves no doubt about why – and how – the central conflict is a consequence of systemic rot.
A lot of the film's design upholds the human-wild duality. Some of it is visual. Sherni opens with a blurry shot of what looks and sounds like a prowling tiger, before the figure sharpens to reveal a human doing a 'realistic' imitation to test a camera trap. An initial cut juxtaposes the open jungle against the regimented fatigue of the forestry department – where stacked files, peeling walls, creaky fans and rusted desks camouflage into each other. A tiger kill is never shown – firstly because physical horror isn't the film's priority, and secondly because one 'victim' is basically attacking another victim. But one scene shows the prey from the perspective of the predator. Crouched on the ground and draped in white, the human resembles a hapless goat from this angle – an optical illustration of the theory that such deaths are largely provoked and accidental.
Some of the design is steeped in the vagaries of language. The word "beast" summons the image of the rifle-toting hunter – and his clique of sexist government babus who, once intoxicated, howl like wolves and dance to vulgar songs. "Zoo" evokes the mentally caged but colourful characters Vidya is surrounded by. "Circus" implies the news coverage and social media storm following the breaking story – an ode to a similarly satirical montage from Newton. "Monkey business" is the title of the powerful protest song scoring this role-reversal montage. The warring legislators are named PK Singh and GK Singh, a reminder that all politicians are identically deceptive to the voters they promise to serve. The alliterative name of the protagonist, Vidya Vincent, induces an undercover superhero – but more importantly, a woman doing what is traditionally considered a man's job. A nod to this occurs not just in dialogue (a subordinate describes the previous DFO as a 'superman'), but also in a sequence where Vidya's family is in town. On getting a work call, a decked-up Vidya abandons a guest dinner and hands over her earrings to her scruffy husband: Putting on her plainfaced cape means shedding her shiny jewellery.
It may not seem so, but Sherni is an important – and timely – film in Vidya Balan's career. Her remarkable sense of spirit is often misinterpreted by mainstream Hindi directors, making it easy to pigeonhole her in broad-stroke feminist roles like Shakuntala Devi, Mission Mangal and Begum Jaan. But Sherni is a calming cocktail of everything Balan is and can be – a dash of Kahaani, a sprinkle of Tumhari Sullu and No One Killed Jessica – as a quietly determined lady coming to terms with the misgivings of patriarchal middle-India. It's somewhat fitting that her Vidya, too, is a nervy but pathbreaking professional in a male-dominated field. One might argue that, like Newton, Vidya is too righteous. Too pure. But her flaw is exactly this, in the context of an 'environment' she is battling to both protect and defy.
The supporting cast is solid, especially the unheralded Brijendra Kala and an ageless Sharat Saxena. Whether it's a post-chase asthmatic attack or him fathoming the difference between a butterfly and a moth (who knew moth translates to "parwana," a staple 90s-Bollywood lyric?), Kala's idiosyncrasies ensure that the film's levity is behavioral and not contrived. It's good to see Mukul Chadda in a high-profile film – as Vidya's long-distance husband, Pawan – though the makers err on the side of goofiness to highlight the wife's stoic virtue. The false note is Neeraj Kabi, who seems to be typecast as the brooding, soul-selling veteran. Evidently comprising non-professional performers and natives, some of the peripheral cast look awkward on screen. But I like that the camera spotlights the young women in the setting: an alert lady officer, a fiery panchayat-committee member, a wry forest guard.
But perhaps the most striking riff on language is the name of the tigress: T12. For the biologically inclined, T12 is the name of the largest bone in the middle-vertebral column. In short, it denotes a "spine" – one that keeps the system upright and paralyzes the body if injured. Vidya knows these stakes; she knows what the two represent in the anatomy of democracy. Consequently, the most haunting end credit sequence in recent memory features just that: a spine moving in a museum of paralysis. A spine enables the manner in which the plight of the villagers mirrors the fate of the Indian working class during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the covert danger, they must choose between living and earning a living: a choice is not a luxury they can afford. A spine also enables the manner in which the perplexed Muslim zoologist looks on, when the Hindu MLA hijacks an event to deliver an eerily familiar election pitch: This is our territory, not theirs. If the tiger enters our space, we will teach it a lesson. After all, in a full-blooded film like Sherni, it's the spine that bridges the void between truth and tragedy.