Sherni begins with the blurry shot of a forest guard pretending to be a tiger. He mimics the stride and growls of the beast until the riveting performance is broken by his colleagues. His act was for setting up a camera in the jungle, but with that opening, Amit Masurkar also blurs the line between man and animal. Are we separate from nature because we are civilised, and does being civilised mean we're better (a drunken song in the latter half of the film implies that we're not)?
Sherni, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is based on the controversial killing of Avni, a tigress in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra in 2018. Killing a beast of prey has always been associated with masculinity and bravery, despite the efforts of conservationists to create awareness about co-existence and sustainable living. In fact, the first Malayalam film to enter the Rs 100 crore club was the 2016 film Pulimurugan in which Mohanlal played a hunter who kills man-eating tigers. In sharp contrast, Sherni is free of much of the drama and flamboyance associated with such films. It's a quiet film that doesn't exaggerate or play up emotions even when there are opportunities to do so.
The camera (Rakesh Haridas) captures the jungle without self-indulgence. There is no need to underline beauty when it is all around you. Though the elusive tiger is rarely seen on screen, we often get the sense of the characters being watched. As one of them says in the film, "You may see a tiger once if you've been to the jungle 100 times, but be assured that the tiger would have seen you 99 times."
Vidya Balan plays Vidya Vincent, a Divisional Forest Officer who has newly taken charge. There aren't many 'lady' officers in the department, and she is subjected to mansplaining several times through the narrative. The men around her interrupt her, tell her that she doesn't know as much as they do, and at best, they're condescending in their concern. But this is just another aspect of the job; Vidya Vincent does not lash out at her colleagues or even protest. You see a flicker on her face but that's it – she gets on with the job, without feeling the need to 'prove' herself. She's a compassionate officer who tries to resolve the problem rather than win an argument. The actor, who was wildly exuberant in her last release Shakuntala Devi, delivers a controlled performance here. Later in the film, we see the pressure that she's under from her family, too, but again, that isn't the focus of the film. It simply sets up what sort of person Vidya is.
Watch: Trailer of Sherni
Masurkar draws out the human-animal conflict in all its complexity by bringing in several threads into the story. On one hand is the genuine concern of the villagers (including the fiery Jyoti) who need to go to the jungle for their livelihood, on the other are the political games played by those in power. And then there is the need to balance environmental concerns with development. In this chaos, the Forest Department has to do its job of protecting the jungle.
Brijendra Kala as Bansal, Vidya Vincent's boss, is hilarious as a bureaucrat who just wants to get away from the fix that he finds himself in. With his self-important expressions and ability to slide away just as the situation is heating up, he's despicable but still hugely entertaining. Masurkar's comic, satirical touch that we saw in Newton is very much alive in these scenes. Vijay Raaz as professor Noorani, a moth expert, is another addition to the cast who leaves an impact. Neeraj Kabi has a small role but he does well with what he's given.
I was, however, troubled by the fact that the woman officer who found Avni's cubs in real life, Sidam Pramila Istari, has not been acknowledged anywhere in the credits despite the close resemblance in events. Sidam tracked the tiger cubs for many days, trekking several kilometres with bits of meat in her hand to find them. In Sherni, this extraordinary feat is explained away in minutes, deflating the intriguing story. I also wished we knew more about why Vidya Vincent chose to become a Forest Officer. Was it circumstances (she doesn't really seem to be an animal lover) or something else that drove her?
Despite these quibbles and questions though, I enjoyed the meditative quality of Sherni. It does not ignite a false sense of hope in the viewer as it comes to an end; rather, it leaves one with a sense of loss and shame at what we have become. A lump in the throat that we cannot quite swallow.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.