Sherni is the fourth time Vidya Balan is playing a character named Vidya. This may not be a complete accident. The actor commands a rare authority that tends to rub off on her roles. Hindi film heroes have long imposed themselves on their work.
To them, a degree of meta-ness is usually a joke or a nod of admission. But it’s different with Vidya. Her name doesn’t distract us so much as pull us closer to her predicament.
Vidya Vincent is a Divisional Forest Officer in Bijashpur, Madhya Pradesh. She’s been with the forest department for nine years; her new posting, which is gradually wearing her down, is a month-and-a-half old. In other words, we are no more in the domain of Newton (2017).
In director Amit Masurkar’s previous film, a fledgling election official took on the trouble on his very first day. Vidya, by contrast, is doggedly well-adjusted. “Can we talk in private?” she requests a local agitator—something Newton won’t be caught dead doing.
Sherni, written by Aastha Tiku with dialogues by Amit and Yashasvi Mishra, throws us deep into its complex ecology. First, a large, stray buffalo is killed on the margins of the forest. Then a human body turns up, then another.
Vidya, working with a small team and an independent DNA specialist (Vijay Raaz), scopes out the offender – a rogue tigress named ‘T12’. “Isn’t she sweet?” a senior official comments, eerily preparing us for the technical, bureaucratic and ethical nightmare about to unfold.
Those raised on a diet of Jim Corbett stories might be turned off by the film. This isn’t a story about a hunt or an elaborate trap. Instead, Sherni peeks—sometimes all too directly—into the intricacies of a jungle community. On the way to the kill site, Vidya is told the forest is spread out unevenly.
To cross from one region to another, “an animal must cross the fields.” This is confirmed by the grazers who add that the government plantations have further shut them out. It’s a lot to grasp, but the film keeps adding new players and dimensions: local politicians, covetous hunters, greedy landlords, faceless miners…
Does it all gel? Amit, in significantly scaling up his film, might have missed a few targets. There are two montage-y sequences that did not work for me. His visual prowess remains intact: the way natural light filters through green treetops is a signature of the director (the cinematographer here is Rakesh Haridas).
Yet, where Newton’s imagery stung, and was rooted in its economy, Sherni fails to leave the same impact. I sensed a troubling blankness in certain parts: images piled on for documentary precision and nothing else.
The first time someone regards Vidya as a ‘lady officer’, it gives a hint of a larger battle to come. The battle does arrive – but not in a way we are used to watching. Aastha’s screenplay highlights the small, imperceptible insults someone in Vidya’s position would face. This is done with sharpness and a lot of humour and heart.
“You look just like an officer!” Vidya’s mother-in-law exclaims seeing her in uniform. Mukul Chadda is pleasingly soft as her corporate-working husband (and a contrast to the near-abuser he plays in the recent series Sunflower). There is a constant parallel between Vidya and the lone female survivor she’s tracking. The film, though titled Sherni, does not overstress this.
Initially, Sharat Saxena’s burly, rifle-brandishing hunter came across to me as the Pankaj Tripathi figure from Newton. Only later did I recognize something more playful at work. Sharat, a permanent villain in 80s and 90s Hindi cinema, is a stand-in for the brash machismo Vidya is up against.
Her boss, played by Brijendra Kala, is both comic relief and a totem of everyday corruption. Most thrilling is the arrival of Manoj Bakshi, an admirably slimy character actor, as the politician in the later half. In a film so artfully placed, it’s nice to see old players shine.
Sherni extends a conversation Amit started with his second feature. Does idealism pay? Not just morally or spiritually, but also in practical terms? At one point, Vidya tells her boss, “Our job is to find a solution…not create more problems.” You can read her words both ways. She’s being idealistic, practically.
Cast: Vidya Balan, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Sharat Saxena, Neeraj Kabi, Mukul Chadda
Director: Amit Masurkar
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video