NEW DELHI: The coronavirus pandemic didn't just delay the work on "Sherni", a satirical thriller on conservation, but also helped the team realise that they wanted to go for a different ending, one that would act as a wake-up call to the audiences, says director Amit Masurkar.
Lauded for its nuanced exploration of man-animal conflict and patriarchy in society, "Sherni" follows Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), a forest officer who is tasked with capturing a man-eating tigress alive and relocating her.
Masurkar, known for the National Award-winning "Newton" and "Sulemani Keeda", said it was writer Aastha Tiku's idea to end the film with a haunting picture of a potential future if humans don't mend their ways.
"There are no easy solutions to these problems. In a film about conservation, we have to leave the audience with a question - what are we doing to others and to ourselves? "We had a happy ending in an earlier draft, but when the pandemic happened, Aastha thought that the film had to end with a wake-up call. She had visited the taxidermy section of the museum in Mumbai once and felt that it was the right location to film the scene," the filmmaker told PTI in an email interview.
The idea to make a film about conservation also came from Tiku, Masurkar added.
"We were discussing several ideas on the topic for the last three-four years. We wanted to say that, to destroy nature is easy, but to conserve it requires a lot of effort from an entire community."
The film also explores the duality of human nature and the director said no character can be simply labelled as "black or white".
"Everyone has shades of grey. And we humans are part of nature - we are connected and have to coexist," he said.
The workings of the bureaucracy and its systemic rot seem to be one of the underlying themes in Masurkar's films and in the case of "Sherni", he tackles patriarchy and sexism too.
According to the director, it was a "coincidence" that both Newton (starring Rajkummar Rao) and Vidya's Vidya Vincent are government officers.
"It gives me an opportunity to explore the intricacies of power and various dynamics that arise out of it. Patriarchy and sexism - these are themes that are seen in every film as they are part of the society we live in. How the filmmaker chooses to explore it, is their choice."
Quite like his previous film, the acclaimed dark comedy "Newton", filmed in the forests of Chhattisgarh, "Sherni" is also shot on location in jungles, this time in the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.
Asked if the two movies are connected in any manner, Masurkar said both films are set in the jungle but are on different topics.
"While 'Newton' dealt with democracy, 'Sherni' deals with conservation and cooperation. 'Sherni' is set in an area near the jungle where a tigress (Sherni is the Persian and Hindi word for tigress) who has been displaced from her original habitat is trying to settle. She comes in contact with human inhabitants of that area and this sets a chain of unfortunate events," he explained.
Shooting on the film had come to a halt in March 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus-induced nationwide lockdown.
The cast and crew shot two thirds of the film after the lockdown was lifted, under strict COVID-19 protocol.
"We wore PPE (personal protective equipment) suits and face-shields during indoor scenes since the actors were unmasked during takes. We were in a bio bubble, and anyone who joined us had to be tested and quarantined. Post-production too was done remotely and we only met at the very end when we were finalizing the color grade and sound mix," Masurkar said.
Due to these measures, there were zero COVID-19 cases on the set, he added.
"Sherni" also features a stellar cast in Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Sharat Saxena, Neeraj Kabi, Ila Arun, and Mukul Chadda, and the director said they were lucky to have this incredible ensemble of actors.
"Vidya came on board immediately, when Aastha and I shared the story with her. We had Sharat Saxena in mind for the hunter and Brijendra Kala for Vidya's boss at the writing stage. The other actors were suggested by the casting directors. Vijay Raaz and Neeraj Kabi are both passionate about nature. They are geniuses and can play any part!" Masurkar said.
He also credited casting directors Romil and Tejas for getting the right mix of actors for the film.
"Their associates conducted acting workshops for interested locals and created a pool of talent to cast from."
About releasing "Sherni" on Amazon Prime Video amid the pandemic, Masurkar said with theatres being shut, the streamer was the "best option".
"The film reaches more than 200 countries simultaneously. The response is great," he added.
Next up for the director is a web series, which reunites him with Tiku.
"Aastha Tiku and I are creating an OTT Series. It's being written as we speak."