After a hiatus of 4 years, Amit Masurkar, the writer-director of Newton, has finally returned with his next film, Sherni, released as an Amazon Original. The film stars Vidya Balan in the lead role of an honest and tenacious forest officer caught at the centre of human-animal conflict. If Newton was a satire on the power dynamics that governs the lives of the tribal people inhabiting the Naxal-prone areas across India then Sherni can best be described as a satire on the power dynamics that governs the lives of the village people living in the periphery of densely forested regions of the country and the forest officers guarding them. Sherni, based on a screenplay co-written by Aastha Tiku, Yashasvi Mishra, and Masurkar himself, also stars Sharat Saxena, Vijay Raaz, Mukul Chaddha, Satyakam Anand, Neeraj Kabi, and Brijendra Kaala in pivotal roles.
Just like Newton Kumar, Vidya Vincent is a person of principles. When Newton’s father tries to marry him to an underage girl he protests. While serving as a presiding officer during a seemingly impossible mission to conduct free and fair voting in a Naxalite territory, Newton doesn’t leave any stone unturned to ensure that every eligible individual is able to exercise their right to vote. For, he is someone who follows the rules to a tee. And the fulfillment of his duty means everything to him. Vidya, on the other hand, is quick to hand over the notice to a contractor when she finds out that he is not filling up the waterholes which are a lifeline for lifeline for wild animals in the scorching heat. But she also knows when to avoid a confrontation.
In Balan’s own words, her character in Sherni is “passive-aggressive”. As an actor she has played countless strong female characters over the years. But, unlike those characters, Vidya Vincent’s true strength lies in her passive aggression. She is a doer but she doesn’t believe in boasting about it. When a villager gets mauled by a tigress she is quick to defuse the situation by engaging with an ex-legislature on the spot which allows her team to collect the all important DNA samples from the dead body. That’s what makes Vidya Vincent a more complex character than Newton Kumar. And fortunately for Masurkar his casting was spot on. For, a lesser actor would have struggled to make Vidya Vincent so believable.
While working with Masurkar on Sherni, Balan had to let go of her old methods in order to embrace the director’s unconventional shooting style. As part of her preparation, she spent time with real-life forest officers and did forest trails with them to acclimatize herself. She also watched documentaries and read books in order to get a deeper insight into her character. Also, for the first time in her life, she lived in a tent as part of the shooting schedule. All the hard work and preparation has resulted in a compelling film with both Balan and Masurkar going the extra mile to make things look as realistic as possible.
Also, the other actors have played their parts really well. The veteran Sharat Saxena shines in the role of an egotistical hunter, Pinto Bhaiya, who is only concerned about his hunting records. “Just by looking into the eyes of a tiger I can tell if it’s a man eater or not,” he brags. Vijay Raaz is equally brilliant in the role of Prof. Noorani who assists Vidya and her team in capturing a tigress on a killing spree. While Bijendra Kala, essaying the part of Vidya’s superior, succeeds in occasionally delivering some much needed laughs, Satyakam Anand portrays the part of an opportunistic politician with menacing glee. Mukul Chaddha looks believable in the part of Vidya’s husband during the limited screen time he gets. However, Neeraj Kabi is a tad bit disappointing in a rather clichéd role. He certainly ought to choose his roles more carefully.
Sherni is deliberately paced and takes some time to set up its world and the characters that inhabit it. But the narrative picks up pace after a rather slowish first half paving the way for a suspense filled final half an hour. Masukar isn’t merely interested in making a film about a tiger hunt. He aims for something much bigger and succeeds to a great extent in examining the power dynamics and socio-politics that governs the lives of those inhabiting the forest areas. And he does so with a touch of his trademark satire that made Newton so memorable. Had Sherni released in theatres then perhaps it wouldn’t have succeeded in drawing the crowds at it isn’t really that kind of a film. While it is no Tarzan or Jungle Book, it is certainly a kind of film that the OTT audiences wouldn’t mind watching as it would come across as a breath of fresh air amidst the run of the mill content that gets churned out day in and day out.