Call Of The Wild:
There have been a few films before, pitting dedicated forest officers against poachers and smugglers– from the totally mainstream Kartavya (Mohan Sehgal,1979), to middle-of-the-road Papeeha (Sai Paranjpye, 1993). Sherni falls into a different, and difficult, terrain.
Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2017) had gone where most films do not tread—an almost inaccessible tribal hamlet deep in the forest, to tell the story of an upright civil servant trying to hold an election. The film got its mix of realism and satire just right, and showed an audience that ‘Incredible India’ tourism ads do not care to portray.
His new film, Sherni (Amazon Prime) is also set in a jungle and has a conscientious protagonist in Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan) sent out into the field after years at a desk job to take over as a forest officer in Madhya Pradesh. However, this time, Masurkar, working with Aastha Tiku’s screenplay, gets so lost in the laudable attempt to get the nitty-gritty correctly, that the film often tips into dullness. A relatively informed OTT audience would not expect an Indiana Jones kind of adventure, but not a documentary-like film either.
Vidya has arrived at her new posting leaving her husband Pawan (Mukul Chadda) behind, and in a few days of dealing with departmental apathy, corruption and an inept boss, Bansal (Brijendra Kala), she wants to quit, but is told by Pawan over video chat, that in times of recession, his job is precarious, while hers is secure.
A crisis looms—a man-eating tigress T-12, has started killing animals and humans, and must be caught. Vidya wants to ensure that the tigress and her two cubs reach a national reserve unharmed, but warring politicians (now a giant cliché) and a swaggering hunter Pintu Bhaiya (Sharat Saxena) want to make sure the threat is removed at any cost. Pintu is the kind of macho idiot who boasts that he can tell by looking at a tiger’s eyes if the beast is a man-eater, but can’t tell the difference between a tiger’s droppings and a leopard’s, or for that matter, a male and female tiger.
The forest-dwellers, who are actually affected by the dangers of a shrinking habitat are just pawns in a game between political opportunism, big businesses (the environment-destroying copper mine gets away with just a light rap), adventure-seeking hunters and opportunists like Nangia (Neeraj Kabi). The latter was a much-admired conservationist, who crossed over for prestige and profit, and cynically advises Vidya to “pick your battles.”
On Vidya’s side are a few efficient members of her team, and a zoology professor Noorani (Vijay Raaz), whose expertise in DNA mapping would have been useful in the pursuit of T-12, had the situation not become so fraught with the villagers’ anger, and political grandstanding.
A predator attacks humans because forests are callously destroyed, T12 is as much a victim of greed as the villagers she kills. There is a solution, as Vidya elaborates—providing the villagers with a spot to graze their animals and charting a safe passage for the tigers into the reserve.
There is much tramping in jungles and meadows—the landscape captured in all its beauty by cinematographer Rakesh Haridas–and interestingly, the use of technology like motion-sensor cameras, drones and computers to tag and track the tigers. So when Masurkar shifts to banal human interactions– like parties with tuneless singing, a seminar (in which Nangia makes a very obvious point about environment concerns and development not working together) and campfires with drunk men making animal sounds– the film loses steam. Also, the cast of locals and non-professionals look like they belong there, so the actors actually seem to be intruding. Then again, on the plus side, there are no mahua-fuelled tribal dances.
Since Vidya is given no back story—how did she end up marrying a clearly mismatched corporate drudge?—the sequence of Pawan landing up with their two mothers serves no purpose, except perhaps to underline the fact that she does not want to conform to expectations society has from women. Vidya Balan does give a fine performance, but why does a character who is sincere about her (or his) work have to come across as unremittingly glum?
If the film keeps up the viewer’s interest it is because one wants to know what happens to T12 and Vidya Vincent, but the concept is more exciting than the didactism of the narrative. It’s as if the filmmaker wanted to educate his audiences rather than engage them. Not by itself a questionable aim, but then, entertaining the viewer is not a crime either.