'Waqt hamein kha jaata hai aur hum ban jaate hain uski tatti.' This dialogue is uttered in the second hour of Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga. Two men – Gangaram, the sarpanch of a tiny village in UP, and Jim, a poacher – are taking a dump together. Both have eaten dodgy food which has given them the runs. There are lines like 'idhar bhi haalat paani paani hai.' We even hear farting sounds. But in the midst of this scatological emergency, we get musings on life, religion and the hubris of human beings who ultimately, will be reduced to shit by time.
This scene encapsulates all that is admirable and annoying about Srijit Mukherji's Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga. The film is inspired by true events, which happened at the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in 2017. A government scheme assured 10 lakh rupees to the family of anyone who was killed by a tiger. This caused the desperately poor villagers who lived around the reserve to actively try and commit tiger-assisted suicide so that their families could benefit.
It's a fascinating story reminiscent of Anusha Rizvi's superb Peepli Live in which a poor farmer, crushed under debt, decides to commit suicide so the loans can be waived off and his family can get compensation from the government. The film also has echoes of the 1999 Camera d'Or winning Malayalam film Marana Simhasanam, in which an impoverished farmer who steals coconuts is falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death by electrocution so that an electric chair, funded by the World Bank, which has just arrived in the village can be put to use. The hapless man becomes a local celebrity.
Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga had the potential for the same sort of biting, dark satire. It is a Kafkaesque tragi-comedy that no writer could make up. Srijit, who has also written the film, attempts to weave the material into a larger meditation on the deteriorating relationship between man and nature, the cruelty, indifference and opportunism of the political system and the inherent absurdity of the human condition, especially religion. But these threads aren't woven into the storytelling with any delicacy. As the aforementioned potty scene demonstrates, the film has the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The burden of philosophizing is placed on Jim, played by Neeraj Kabi in dreadlocks. Jim, who tells Gangaram that he has been named after Jim Corbett, is a criminal, jungle lover and poet rolled into one. He considers the jungle his office. In case we don't fully understand his multitasking abilities, Srijit has Gangaram tell him – 'kabhi kabhi shikari se zyada kavi lagte ho.' Jim says lines like, 'Ghas ki phusphus samajhni hogi aur sabse zyada iske sannate ki izzat karni hogi.' It is a testament to Neeraj's skill as an actor that he can deliver these dialogues without looking excessively foolish.
The most formidable weapon in Srijit's arsenal is lead actor Pankaj Tripathi, who plays Gangaram. Gangaram is written as an earnest, righteous simpleton. At least twice in the film, other characters comment on how innocent or bhola Gangaram is. This depiction of a villager as naïve but morally superior is a Bollywood cliché that has been flogged for decades – remember Manoj Kumar's 1967 film Upkar? But Gangaram doesn't have that obvious heroism. He's a bumbling, amiable man whose circumstances force him into becoming the sherdil of the title.
Pankaj's unforced performance lifts the mediocre writing. Much of the first half has Gangaram wandering alone in the forest. The film begins with a voiceover from another character but here, suddenly, we start to hear Gangaram's thoughts – presumably because he has no one to talk to and Srijit doesn't trust the audience enough to let us infer what Gangaram is feeling.
Soon enough, a monotony sets in, in both content and visuals – DOP Tiyash Sen works hard to make the jungle a sort of primal, mysterious space where life teems. There are several close-ups of insects. The insistent foregrounding of tiny creatures which lurk everywhere reminded me of other films in which the technique has been more skillfully deployed such as the Malayalam film Kala and more recently, Shaunak Sen's brilliant documentary All That Breathes. Here the atmospherics or tension don't build.
But Pankaj persists. There are small, throwaway moments and lines that feel improvised. In the climax, set in a courtroom, Gangaram delivers an impassioned monologue about the place that people like him and the villagers occupy in the world. His eyes have just a hint of tears and his voice shakes with hurt and anger. By then, the ideas in the film have sputtered out and yet Pankaj forces you to pay attention.
Sayani Gupta, who plays Gangaram's harried wife, doesn't find her footing. Her character, a firebrand who puts her husband and the other elders in the village in their place, is too poorly written. Which is the overarching problem with Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga. It suffers from being over-stretched and under-cooked. Srijit, who also has a cameo in the film, selects a superb story but slowly drains the delicious ironies out of it.