Director: Sahirr Sethhi
Cast: Rajesh Tailang, Manjot Singh, Geeta Agrawal Sharma
Streaming on: MUBI
It’s surreal to see humans caring for tigers in a post-Tiger King world. Then again, it’s surreal to see humans caring. Sahirr Sethhi’s short Zoya, a Student Emmy winner for Best Drama, is about a crabby wildlife conservationist desperately seeking a tigress named Zoya in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha Tiger Reserve. Despite increased poacher activity, Dr. Kapoor (Rajesh Tailang) is convinced that Zoya is alive years after he rescued and rehabilitated her. His new intern, a young biologist named Armaan (Manjot Singh), has the idealistic energy of a cub who insists on licking others’ wounds. Kapoor spends his days tracking pugmarks and setting camera traps in the jungle; he spends nights scanning through photographs on the memory cards hoping to spot the elusive cat.
You’d think Kapoor’s concern for the tiger is professional and pure, but it soon becomes clear that he, too, has an ulterior motive. It’s not as evil as, say, a (Joe) exotic zoo. But it’s there. Every night, Kapoor makes unsuccessful attempts to contact his estranged daughter. From the looks of it, she wants nothing to do with him. He must have really messed up. Her name is Zoya.
The metaphor is simplistic but oddly perceptive. I’m not sure what it is about conservationists (think Carole Baskin) and messy personal lives. Maybe they are so taken by the concept of preserving the nature of wildness that domestic stability seems to be inherently at odds with the wildness of their nature. Love is, at its core, a compensatory emotion – we love so that someone else can see us differently from the way we do. Conservationists represent the most heightened form of compensatory love: Kapoor looks for an animal so that he feels less guilty about being unable to look for himself. He loves Zoya so that he sees himself differently from the way Zoya does. The search is both his salvation and his escape. He needs to find her. She holds the key to his locked future.
The philosophy of the film may sound heavy, but it’s not. It’s accessible, even at the risk of being too obvious. This is largely due to a couple of aspects. Rajesh Tailang has a haunted, almost defiant face – the kind that suits characters (Selection Day, Delhi Crime) who walk the thin line between determined and deluded. It’s a face that adds subtext to Zoya without overselling the text. Even when he’s speaking to others, he seems to be speaking to himself. The soothing score (by Nathan Matthew David) evokes a sense of melancholy about his journey, transforming him from a man in search of a lost tiger to a father in search of his lost parenthood. The camerawork refrains from being gimmicky despite enjoying the space of the great outdoors, just as the unhurried cutting resists the pace of the mission to favour the soul of the mission. The tiger lurks, but it’s the humans of Zoya who hope to earn their stripes.