Director: Amit Masurkar
Running time: 130 minutes
Cast: Vidya Balan, Neeraj Kabi, Vijay Raaz
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Thanks to the Project Tiger initiative, the The Royal Bengal Tiger is now a symbol of conservation efforts in India. Project Tiger constituted some 35 years ago, to conserve the big cat and its habitat, is gradually showing results. Going by census reports, there has been a significant rise in its numbers. Amit Masurkar’s Sherni is a tribute to T1 Avni, the tigress that was controversially hunted down in Yavatmal in 2018.
The tigress T12 is constantly threatened by humans and is frightened for her cubs. Vidya Vincent, a Divisional Forest Officer takes it upon herself to save the tigress and sustain the human-tiger balance in the area. However, her boss (Brijendra Kala) is more interested in showcasing his non-existent talents in music.
T12 runs the risk of being shot down by an arrogant, over-confident civilian hunter Ranjan Rajhans (Sharat Saxena). Ranjan’s singular aim is to add to his tiger trophies. He boasts about an ability to identify which tiger is a man-eater simply by looking into its eyes. At one point, Vidya asks him to use astrology to forecast T 12’s future and her colleagues smile while the hunter remains angry and silent.
The focus of the film is on Vidya Vincent’s determination to stop the conflict between the villagers and the tiger who is trying to save itself from poachers and hunters. The tigress is attacking poor tribal villagers because she is hungry and afraid, and not because she is a man-eater. The struggles of Vidya Vincent as an IFS officer stagnating at a desk job because she is a woman are intertwined into the plot. She is firm and confident about her duties and responsibilities but perhaps is not as aggressive as the job demands her to be.
With the help of Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz) who is a committed wildlife activist and a professor of Zoology at a local college, Vidya tries to befriend the locals. Many of them warm up to her. One of them, Jyoti (Shampa Mandal) promises that they will take steps for protection without harming the forests which is the chief source of their livelihood.
But Vidya’s path is strewn with obstacles including the goons backed by the local political leaders who are in cohorts with Rajhans who is focused on adding more tigers to his chain of tiger heads. On the other hand the politicians and their goons aim at displacing the adivasis from their inherited land and capture the land and forestry for ulterior motives.
“Sher hain to jungle hai, jungle hain to baarish hain, baarish hain to paani hain aur paani hai toh hum hain.”, these words by a ‘Forest Friend’, trained by Hassan Noorani assures Vidya that all is not lost in the middle of an intense search for the tigress, a race against time and adversaries.
The film is based on the killing of tigress Avni and her two cubs in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra that stirred a controversy. Avni killed 15 villagers. The hue and cry by the politicians and villagers turned this into a worldwide media headline and subsequently BBC had a story on the tigress. The film however was shot in Balaghat district in Madhya Pradesh. Masurkar and his scriptwriter have taken great care to be completely loyal to facts without romanticising the incidents in any way.
The film ruthlessly reflects the brutality and underlying gender bias that exists in the bureaucracy. The blatant lack of awareness about nature and sustainability of the environment among urban people is also depicted well through the character played superbly by Neeraj Kabi.
The music, especially the last song on the monkeys who trick another wild animal, are very touching and placed rightly on the soundtrack while the editing chooses to go smoothly instead of getting into razor sharp cuts and clips that may have spoilt the concept of the tigress simply trying to save herself and her cubs. The lush greenery juxtaposed against the humble and unkempt office of the forest officer, or, the quarters of Vidya who homes a cat and feeds it regularly gives the film a real, emotional feel. The skeletal tiger dancer at the variety show is an example of the poverty and the lack of nutrition among the local adivasis.
All said and done however, the film lacks the sharpness and the edginess one expects from a storyline so strong. The part where Vidya’s husband and her mother turn up are redundant. It does not add to the film in any way. Vidya Balan puts in a terrific performance in the lead role with minimal make-up. However, the somewhat watery and disheartening screenplay fails to do justice to her performance. Vijay Raaz as the disheartened but determined Hassan is very good. The same goes for Brijendra Kala. The sound design, filled with the chirping of birds, or, the sounds of the forest, or, the constant ringing of the cell phone enriches the sad ambience the film is set in. It is surprising how a film can prove to be disappointing despite such a competent cast and compelling storyline.
Images courtesy: Amazon Prime Video