The Netflix documentary The Ivory Game asks a prescient question to its audiences, “Are we really in our generation going to allow the biggest mammal on earth to disappear?” The extinction of wildlife is a thought haunting conservationists, activists, and forest officials alike, even as animal species face pressures on their fragile ecosystems. Sherni, the latest release on Amazon Prime, addresses these anxieties through the politics around relentless human intrusion into wildlife habitats.
The movie has Vidya Balan playing Vidya Vincent, a Divisional Forest Officer caught up in the complexities of her job—precariously balancing tiger conservation with the interests of forest communities who lead a hand-to-mouth existence. A multi-layered bureaucracy, manned by officials often serving their own agendas, spells doom for the striped cat threatened by constant habitat loss. Producer-writer-director Amit V Masurkar does not offer easy answers in a film about healthy ecosystems for both man and animal. But he does showcase how human greed knows no bounds, and how it is perfectly capable of profiteering both from the poor’s desperate forest dependence and the tiger’s annihilation.
Vidya is not always successful in keeping local politicians exploiting the man-animal conflict at bay, but soldiers on with understated resolve. Often, she is aided in her efforts by a college professor and an environmentalist at heart, Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz). She operates in a hostile work environment, with patriarchy blocking her at every step of the way. Her attempts to forge ties with villagers facing unimaginable deprivations are thwarted by both politicians and big-game hunters. Ultimately and in time, she learns to choose her battles.
For any film that especially talks of ecology and where the forest plays an integral role, the cinematography is very important. And Sherni gets it on point. With drone shots interspersed with intimate shots of assorted insects, macaques, and spotted deer, silhouetted against the backdrop of ancient forests, it is a photographic meditation on forest trails, streams, rocks, and a variegated shade card of darkness. Every frame comes alive with rich visual and sonic details.
The actors too shine. Some play ordinary individuals tasked with responsibilities beyond their means. Yet they persist in their doggedness—a symbol of the harmony between mankind and nature. Sampa Mandal, playing Jyoti, an impoverished woman living on the fringes of the forest and voicing the concerns of her community, throws up important questions. Others like Sharat Saxena as a trophy hunter and Neeraj Kabi, in the role of a senior bureaucrat, are delicate studies of the human character. While Balan’s character is almost on a parallel journey with the tigress. It is the film’s most enduring takeaway.