Sherni: Firmly rooted in the real

Amit Masurkar displays admirable consistency in crafting a compelling aesthetic out of seemingly banal subjects, in film after film

Vidya Balan in Sherni
Vidya Balan in Sherni

Namrata Joshi

In more ways than one Amit Masurkar’s new film Sherni plays out like a sequel to Newton, be it the real issues that he engages with or the documentary approach he takes to bring them alive on screen. Both the films are about going back to the grassroots, to places which are rife with politics and unrest that often don’t make it to the headlines in our dailies. If Dalli Rajhara in Chhatisgarh became the location to examine the nuances of the electoral process in Newton, in Sherni Masurkar travels to Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh to shoot the ecological conflicts and their repercussions.

Quite evidently inspired from real life incidents, at the heart of Sherni is the chase for a supposedly man-eating tigress. While the local politicians exploit it as an issue on which to fight the impending elections, a civilian hunter sees it as an opportunity to add to his trophy killings. Aiding them is an apathetic and corrupt forest department within which an upright officer Vidya (Vidya Balan), with the help of a small, driven team, wants to bring a modicum of sanity, direction and purposefulness. There is also a rare but solid ally in a zoology teacher, Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), the “professor of butterflies, nay moths”.

There is more to Vidya’s life. She is trying to balance out a long-distance marriage with a colourless, corporate husband Pawan (Mukul Chaddha), dealing with a middle-class family that wants her to have a kid, even as she is trying to figure her own growth, ambitions and prospects for the future. All this while ordering a whiskey as against the kala khatta or mango drink offered to her at an office do. Will her recession-proof, safe and secure sarkari naukri, as Pawan describes it, give her the satisfaction she craves?

There is gentle and ironic gaze cast at the gender imbalance in both the professional and public sphere and in the privacy of family. Masurkar also uses the motherhood motif in his own subtle way—be it the motherhood being foisted on Vidya, the cubs of the tiger in the jungle that she is protective towards or the adorable kitten that she initially resents but warms up to eventually. You don’t have to be a progenitor to be a nurturer. Vidya Balan yet again becomes the Everywoman, standing in for the many real women. She talks about, for and to all the women like us negotiating male entitlement and patriarchy quietly but firmly, at times successfully, at others not.

Just like Newton there is a clash between idealism and convictions as against cooption and corruption. Vidya is proactive and hopeful, headstrong even when seemingly silent and pliable. In contrast to her are the seniors—the typical ineffectual babu Bansal (Brijendra Kala) personifying a systemic dissipation and the seemingly admirable Nangia (Neeraj Kabi) who is as an example of unfortunate collusion with the powers that be. They are counterpoints to her in a way that Pankaj Tripathi was to Rajkummar Rao in Newton.

Masurkar displays remarkable rigour, perseverance and flair in capturing the dynamics of the government machinery, this time the forest department. There is a documentary like specificity in getting the details of the bureaucratic universe and its processes and protocols, right down to the sarkari offices, homes and parties, the pugmarks, watering holes, DNA sampling and camera traps. There’s also the dry humour typical of the microcosm—the scene where the officers try to identify a tiger; is it T12, T13, Star Male or Neelam ki Beti or none? Or the native wisdom of the locals, their assertion that while humans might be able to spot a tiger in its habitat once in 100 times, the tiger is sure to spot the straying human 99 out of 100 times.

Within the ambit of the larger human-animal, civilisation-nature, forest and fields, development and environment conflict Masurkar engages with serious and significant subjects—mining, depleting forest reserves, ecological disasters, extinction of species, climate change and more. On the surface, the film might feel simple, but lays bare some complex issues—that animals are not enemies of human beings, that we dare not lose the ecological balance, that co-existence is the key to survival. And, that all of it affects us universally across countries and continents and it is something on which our future depends.

At points one feels Masurkar could have been more emphatic in his quietude. His earnestness needed a stronger shot of the dramatic tension to propel it more forcefully. But he displays remarkable consistency in crafting a compelling a cinematic aesthetic, all his own, out of seemingly banal subjects, in film after film. And he is never pedantic, be it ecology or the man-woman ecosystem. Or even religious and regional co-existence. In Masurkar’s cinematic world a South Indian, Christian Vidya Vincent and her seemingly North Indian, Hindu husband and mother-in-law can feast on biriyani at Hassan Noorani’s home without quite making a statement of it.

Vidya Balan is effortless in leading from the front. As is the band of men surrounding her. But the authentic texture in Sherni eventually comes from the earthiness of the unknown locals—the actors as well as villagers and the officers—that Masurkar has deployed in the film.

In both Newton and Sherni, and in reality, the one at the receiving end of the disasters are ultimately the locals—the tribals and the villagers. But they are also the beacon of hope, positivity and belief. They balance out the sense of loss and despair with their innate, unacknowledged activism for the right causes. Officers, good or bad, may come and go, it’s the people at the grassroots who will keep the good struggles going. It’s this circle of life—administrative and civilian—that Masurkar makes us square up to yet again in Sherni after Newton.

Sherni is playing on Amazon Prime Video.

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Published: 18 Jun 2021, 1:06 PM