Following the success of 'Newton', Amit Masurkar is back with ‘Sherni', a film that deals with the man-animal conflict. The film revolves on the politics, history and geography of catching a man-eating tigress. The name ‘Sherni’ is also used as a metaphor for Vidya Vincent, the Deputy Forest Officer essayed by Vidya Balan. However, even before we discuss the performances of the characters in the movie, it is important to discuss the movie on the canvas of man-animal conflict that it aims to cover. It is against this backdrop where the movie and its larger message lies.
Vidya Vincent is a determined Deputy Forest Officer who lands a posting in a forest area where a female tigress is on a prowl and has become a menace for many villagers whom she has killed. The jungle and the human areas are not demarcated well. There are agricultural lands as well that criss-cross between the jungles and are vulnerable to tiger attacks. However, the story is not single-layered about a village getting together to find a solution for a man eater on the prowl.
It is also about the clashing of several interests. The role of Vidya’s boss and corrupt forest officer Bansal is essayed nicely by Brijendra Kala. He is a perfect status quoist who wants to lead a lazy life in the jungle. He has completely surrendered himself to the political interests in the jungle. He is good at managing his seniors well and becomes an Achilles heel for Vidya who wants to find a solution to the ‘tiger’ problem as well as do her bit for the villagers.
The forest department is shown in a condition of perpetual decay and replete with corruption, sycophancy and inefficiency has been reduced to just a vestige of the past.
Elections are round the corner and the man-eater tigress on the prowl becomes the moot point for the local elections. Rival leaders fight it out and expose the failure of the forest department in keeping the tigress in check.
One of the rival groups has an unscientific solution to the problem. They call in a hunter called Ranjan Rajhans aka Pintu bhaiyya whose megalomaniac claim to fame is the number of tigers that he has killed and his self-proclaimed skill of looking in the cat’s eyes and telling whether it is a man eater or not.
For someone who have followed the man animal conflict in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra closely, this is a direct take off from the Avni tigress incident. In November 2018, Avni was shot by Asgar Ali, son of controversial Hyderabad hunter Shafat Ali Khan. The opinion was divided on whether hunting down the tigress was justified or not. The movie draws heavily from this incident. It also depicts the abandonment of the two tiger cubs that happened in real life after Avni was shot down.
Although its heart is in the right place, the film limits itself or rather gets drawn in the simplistic debate whether man eater tigers should be rescued or shot at. It is here where the film misses the larger picture. The larger man-animal conflict has three major contours; one is the jungle, second the government, and third the people for whom the jungle is their home.
The Forest Rights Act is often criticised for its focus on preserving the greens and its ignorance of the people who dwell on the forest land. The movie touches these issues on the surface but falls for the compulsion of linear story-telling and leaves the important issues of the future of the forest and its people unanswered. Hence, the story telling, although interesting and gripping, seems narrow and inadequate.
Both Vidya and Vijay Raaz, who plays the role of conservationist Hassan Noorani, have given extremely underplayed yet nuanced performances. However, a stronger screenplay and a better research team could have taken the film many notches higher.
However, the name of the title is an apt description of Vidya’s character in the movie who takes on patriarchy, corruption and feudal mindset that is so commonly present around her when she takes up the job of a Deputy Forest Officer.