Vidya Balan Roars Like A Tigress In Sherni, A Wonderful Film About Coexistence

Starring Vidya Balan, Vijay Raaz, Bijendra Kala, Neeraj Kabi, Ila Arun among others, Sherni is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video…

A dialogue in Sherni goes, “tiger hai toh jungle hai, jungle hai, toh baarish hai, aur baarish hai toh dharti hai,” explaining how coexistence is the only way ahead for humans. Nature is at the forefront in Amit Masurkar’s wonderful environmental thriller, Sherni. With a story and screenplay by Aastha Tiku, and dialogues by Masurkar and Yashasvi Mishra, Sherni studies the human-animal conflict in the forests of Madhya Pradesh. From the very first scene, it’s clear that this is no ordinary film. We won’t be seeing any acts of heroism. Masurkar and his writers establish early on that this is a film about human greed, the beauty of nature and the co-dependence of the two, with a supposedly “man eating” tigress on the loose. In fact, it’s humans that are on the loose in her territory.

At the forefront of this story is Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan). She’s been appointed as the Divisional Forest Officer when a tigress, T12, attacks innocent people from nearby villages. These people, overruled by political campaigns, dishonest forest officers, patriarchal power games, among other socio-political evils, are forced to take their cattle to the forest for grazing because of unavailability of grazing land and forgotten political promises. Vidya and her team go to every extent to protect these people, but sadly, there’s too much at play here than a sincere urge to relocate the tigress to a nearby national park. Opposition parties make this tiger hunt a political agenda, a cis-het hunter has to assert his power over the forest department because hunting is in his blood, and above it all looms patriarchy and mistreatment of minorities – women, Christians, Muslims, Dalits. Vidya, alone, is two of these things.

Vidya Balan in stills from the film

Hindi Cinema has never really celebrated minorities, until very recently. And even that is purely a business module. A feminist wave brings about films on female empowerment, atrocities against Dalits will give way to stories about Dalits. There always are some filmmakers who’ve wanted to tell these stories, but there is no one to invest in these films. Our films largely celebrate the cis-het Hindu man while others remain in margins. In Sherni, we have a Christian-Malayali woman at the forefront. But Vidya Vincent is above patriarchal and religious prejudices. She knows that her mission is not about her identity, her treatment in society. In a man dominated world, Vincent finds solace in Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), another minority. Both Vidya and Hassan exist in this wild ecosystem without ever making it about themselves. Neither of these characters want to throw a pity party about them being minorities. They know that their end purpose is larger that their struggles. Relocating the tigress to a safe reserve is their aim, and they will not let societal norms bring them or the mission down. The film never becomes about them, and that is one of the geniuses of the writing.

While Hassan is a Muslim, he does have a slight advantage of being a man. Vidya is a woman, and hence is more at trouble at the hands of a male dominated group of people she works with. Even the most “feminist” men have questionable personality traits. The wonderful Neeraj Kabi’s Nangia Sir praises Vidya for the work she does, but just as he walks into a party, “ek garam chai ki pyali ho, koi usko pilane wali ho,” plays on the speakers. This is our India.

You almost never see Vidya Balan in Vidya Vincent. Balan is so secure an actor, so confident in her craft that not for a single second does she put Vidya Balan before Vidya Vincent and that is the biggest strength of an actor.

Sherni has many high moments, and the beauty of these moments is that most of them come with silences. There’s no iconic dialogue one will remember Sherni by, but you will think of the conversations Sherni urges people to have. In one of my favourite scenes, Vidya’s boss (played by an always dependable Bijendra Kala) is running around in his own office, as he escapes a politician who has come to meet him. Eventually he hides in a room full of box files wrapped in cobwebs. This is also our India. 

Bijendra Kala and Vijay Raaz in stills from the film

Amit Masurkar’s Sherni is a powerful roar. Our cinema usually celebrates emotions between people. Masurkar and his writers develop an idea alien to Hindi Cinema – a relationship between human and nature. This is usually the forte of documentary filmmakers, but Masurkar gives the conversation around conservation a centre stage and makes it a topic of discussion. How dependant are we on nature? Is nature dependant on us? How do we strike a balance between the two? These are questions that the film raises. But are we, as an audience, ready for a film on our ecosystem? Especially a film that perhaps puts humans in the wrong? Like many wonderful films, Sherni will bear the burden of being ahead of its times. But years down the line, we will look back at it and marvel at the conversation it tries to give way to.

The cast of and performances in Sherni are an excellent example of secure actors eating off each other, while giving each single character their moment to shine. Bijendra Kala as the misogynistic boss, Neeraj Kabi as a confused soul between feminism and patriarchy, a powerful Ila Arun as a victim of patriarchy – everyone adds so much to the characters they play. But the best among the supporting cast has to be Vijay Raaz who brings a striking earnestness to Hassan.

Leading the cast is Vidya Balan. This is one of her best performances. In the past, Balan has played both, women who want to bring about change, question systems and women who know that shared stories are more important than personal ones. Vidya Vincent falls in the latter category. Vincent never wants to be a feminist icon. In fact, she wants to get a raise ‘in December and quit’. This is a character that demanded too much stripping from Balan. Balan’s other characters – Shakuntala (Shakuntala Devi), Silk (The Dirty Picture), Vidya (Paa) have always have the traits we often associate with “strong women”. Vidya Vincent has none, and that makes her one of Balan’s strongest characters. You almost never see Vidya Balan in Vidya Vincent. Balan is so secure an actor, so confident in her craft that not for a single second does she put Vidya Balan before Vidya Vincent and that is the biggest strength of an actor. Balan realises the importance of Vincent’s mission and of Masurkar’s storytelling and gives a performance that, for me, comes at par with what she did in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (my favourite performance of her). 

[But] are we, as an audience, ready for a film on our ecosystem? Especially a film that perhaps puts humans in the wrong? Like many wonderful films, Sherni will bear the burden of being ahead of its times. But years down the line, we will look back at it and marvel at the conversation it tries to give way to.

The title of the film is, obviously, a reference to Vidya Vincent, while also referring to the tigress she is out to save. Both Vidya and T12 exist in a world that men have ruined for them. And in this world, they’re both often in hiding. But when a tigress roars, the world shall listen. 

Sherni is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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