Sherni review: Aastha Tiku exposes the monkey business around the man v/s wild conflict

Vidya Balan’s spirited effort in a shackled avatar opens our eyes to the deeper issues that have compounded the problem.

Rating: 4 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

Every tricky issue evokes different views.  That’s the nature of the beast.  Often the dissenting voices are quick to counter a discerning view.  When there are barriers to communication, that is where art plays it part.

Zoology professor Hassan Noorani [Vijay Raaz] organises a natak [open play] for the humble villagers – mainly children – trying to press his point that humans and animal can co-exist as long as both respect their boundaries.  It does seem to hold their attention briefly but suddenly local legislator GK Singh [Amar Singh Parihar] barges in and asserts that the land belongs to humans and not tigers.  The very villagers who were all ears to Noorani and new Divisional Forest Officer Vidya Vincent [Vidya Balan] a minute ago, are now cheering and clapping for GK Singh. 

There is more than one dissenting voice in this Madhya Pradesh forest region.  There’s P.K [Satyakam Anand] who wants to milk the situation to bring down his political rival GK. Singh.  He says Vincent is like his jiji (elder sister), but then mocks the forest department for sending a female officer. Vincent’s own boss Bansilal Bansal [Brijendra Kala] seems reluctant, or simply incompetent to handle the situation.  And there’s Ranjhan Rajhans aka Pintu [Sharat Saxena], the veteran royal private hunter, who calls himself a conservationist, but is out to increase his tally of kills.  He now has competition in the form of hunter DK [Ajay Mishra] and hunter Ali [Mirza Kausar Ali], P. K’s hired guns.

There in lies the rub.  Poor Vincent and Noorani find themselves in between a rock and stone. 

As an urbanite, one often views the man v/s wild conflict a result of human infiltration into forest land. This reviewer, too, confesses to having a myopic view of the problem.  Writer Aastha Tiku’s Sherni [2021] though digs into the genesis that’s compounded such conflict. She draws our attention to the monkey business that plays out over the conflict.  Tiku and director Amit Masurkar open our eyes to the conflicting views.  Sandwiched between the greed, bureaucracy, and politics is the plight of the poor who depend upon the forest for their livelihood.  After watching Sherni, hopefully never would anyone question why the poor treads into the forest?

The film’s makers have labelled it a work of fiction.  However, the catch-22 situation in Sherni partly rekindles memories of the 2018 case involving Avni, the man-eater tigress in the Pandharkawda forest in Maharashtra.  

As with Newton [2017], and now with Sherni [2021], Masurkar’s films are largely understated in their storytelling. The core message though is passed adroitly through an undramatic narrative one that’s alien to Bollywood creature dramas.  Don’t expect your usual adventure here.  Casting animals in our films has huge logistical and external challenges. Without unleashing the felines much, Masurkar succeeds in building a certain fear factor around his Sherni.  

The neat screenplay comes alive through the mature performances, led by the lady Sher Khan of Bollywood.  Balan’s made a career out of playing strong, lively, buoyant characters.  Vidya Vincent though is unlike any of the characters that she has played before.   Vidya Vincent, quite an unconventional name for a Bollywood film protagonist.  Was marine biologist Amanda Vincent an inspiration?  Down with such comparison for Vidya Balan makes Vidya Vincent her own.   

She’s a no-nonsense straight talking but a caring officer.  Though strongwilled, Vincent is shackled by the system, and the drama surrounding the issue.  “When these people [politicians, their goons] want it their way, why are we [forest officers] even dragged into this mess!” a frustrated Vincent tells her colleague. Vincent is strong but feels barricaded by the system.  She is tough as nails, like her pet cat Tuffy.  Though it appears to a losing cause but Vincent chips in with a spirited, lionhearted effort. 

The righteous forest officer is equally sorted in her personal life too.  Vincent had an inter-caste marriage to a struggling quality control manager Pawan [Mukul Chadda].  The couple had prioritised their career over personal life, that sees them live apart in different states. Like his character, Chadda seems content to be in the shadow of Balan.  Vincent’s personal life might be seen as deviating from the core plot, but the family drama provides for light hearted humour. Credit the two mothers – played by Suma Mukundan and Ila Arun, who join Pawan in their surprise visit to the forest.

Veteran actor Sharat Saxena is terrific in his supercilious character.  “I can look into a tiger’s eyes and tell whether it is a man-eater or not”, sighs Pintu. This underlines the man’s self-confidence but also his ignorance. Saxena has been making the most of his opportunities that eluded him for the best part of his career.  What good is a rustic film without tapping into local talent.  Sampa Mandal is endearing as Jyoti, the sane, brave voice among the poor village folks.

Tiku’s taut screenplay, Masurkar- Yashasvi Mishra’s captivating dialogues and the competent acts all combine to create an engaging, enlightening experience. And it gives a huge fillip to the Save the Tiger mission. This Sherni may not be roaring, but she leaves behind her pugmarks.

Sherni is streaming on Amazon Prime Video from 18 June.

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