Amit Masurkar walks into the woods and comes back with a good-to-great movie. That's just how it works. On the way, he encounters radical-minded ruffians and bumbling 'babus'. But a single scene in his films has more passion than the entire recent output of certain chiselled Bollywood heroes combined.
Like Masurkar's breakout hit, Newton, his new film Sherni (out on Amazon Prime Video) is part satire of Indian bureaucracy and part understated call to action. In Sherni, the filmmaker makes a case for conservation -- of animals, of nature, and most importantly, of our shared humanity.
Watch the trailer of "Sherni" here
Vidya Balan is uncharacteristically understated as the rookie Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Vidya Vincent. She's the no-nonsense type, going about her job with quiet efficiency, despite the reams of red-tape that she often finds herself tangled in. Not once does Balan break out her trademark guffaw; not once does the 'sherni' roar. This is a good thing.
Vidya Vincent is, however, somewhat of a Mary Sue -- a little too unblemished, especially considering the muck that's thrown at her. There is no problem that she cannot overcome by dishing out a calm talking-to. While her male colleagues are routinely harassed, and sometimes even physically manhandled, Vincent often gets her way by simply exuding confidence and trust — although even she, in her position of power, must deal with casual sexism on a daily basis.
Despite her qualifications, she's an outsider, much like Ayushmann Khurrana's Savarna saviour character in Article 15— a film with which Sherni shares several themes.
Vincent's authoritative aura comes in handy in some of the more hairy situations that she finds herself in. The villagers are angry. A tigress is on the rampage, killing their brothers and sisters every few days. Under pressure from his bosses, Vincent's own boss, a woefully inept man played by Brijendra Kala, hires a hunter. Played by the human tree trunk Sharat Saxena, Pintu the hunter is hardly as harmless as his name suggests. He claims that he can spot a man-eating tiger by simply staring in its eyes.
Vincent, meanwhile, puts together an ad-hoc team of her own, comprising of a couple of low-ranking officials, and a local zoology professor, played by a remarkably restrained Vijay Raaz. The professor tries to explain to the villagers that it is in the nature of the beast to fend for itself; the tigress isn't inherently evil, it's merely hungry. But the walls are closing in; public pressure is mounting, and two local 'vidhayaks' named PK and GK have politicised the matter. Vincent and Pintu's squads put their opposing strategies into practice and prevent further death.
Although the satirical elements in Sherni aren't as pronounced as they were in Newton, Masurkar's eye for absurdity is as sharp as ever. In one scene, Kala's character discusses killing the tigress over some chai and pakoras. Like so many mid-level managers, he thinks having even the sketchiest grasp of English somehow makes him superior. In another, rather on-the-nose moment, Masurkar frames the man in a manner that the hunting trophy mounted on the wall behind him appears to give him horns.
Sherni is a cleverly veiled allegory for modern India. Never is this more clear than in an early scene, when a street play about peace, love and understanding is interrupted by a local politician spouting violent rhetoric. Granted, he's talking about tigers. But is he? Misinformation spreads like wildfire among the villagers, and majoritarian blind faith overpowers facts.
What stands out in both Newton and Sherni is that there are processes in place — elaborate, carefully crafted processes put together by intelligent people — but they've been systematically uprooted by privilege, patriarchy and prejudice.