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 metaness is usually a joke or a nod of admission. But it’s different with Vidya. Her name doesn’t distract so much as pull us closer to her current predicament. Vidya Vincent is Divisional Forest Officer in Bijashpur, Madhya Pradesh.
She’s been with the forest department for nine years; her new posting is gradually wearing her down. 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 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 peekssometimes 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. 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. 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. There is a constant parallel between Vidya and the lone female survivor she’s tracking. The film, though titled Sherni, does not overstress this. 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.