“Eye of the tiger!” There can be one way to encapsulate that complex statement, that is to use it literally in a visual representation relating to humans. For example, the iconic National Geographic image of the Afghan girl with the ‘eyes of the tiger’. Unfortunately, her real life belies the connotation of a fierce spirit as imprisoned she had been then under patriarchal, conservative decrees in a traditional society and continues to be perhaps. The language of the eyes, hence, sometimes is not consonant with an idea of freedom. It’s all determined by our situations in life.
Vidya Balan starrer Sherni is one such favourable study of human behaviour in all its elemental authenticity just like the jungles that surround them. Here, the ruab (dignity and earnestness) on the face of Vidya Vincent is an extension of her line of work, her commitment towards tiger conservation, and by turn environmental protection of the ecosystem that exists in a vacuum for others.
That’s because in the annals of Indian cinema, she is a rare phenomenon: a forest officer who is inured within the typical red tapism and bureaucratic web affixed with a government job. Soul sapping convention doesn’t let go even outside perimeters of urban human population. Her zeal to ensure that an alleged man-eating tigress and her cubs are shielded from the prowl of old-time hunters and political propaganda is as much quietly revolutionary and feminist as it is an illustration of her position, as a strong voice of reason in male-dominated preserves.
Director Amit V. Masurkar employs a subtle, quiet tone in a screenplay full of verisimilitude regarding groundwork within the forest. This authentic eye for detail extends itself to concerns regarding nomadic locals’ struggles to survive within an already diminishing social set-up as cattle owners, especially when the fear of the tigress attacking them is supreme. Or in the way human settlements encroaching upon the jungle has invited an uneasy and difficult turf war between inhabitants of both, even though flesh and blood mortals think they can control the ‘beasts’; even the proximity of mines in the forested area informs us of the effects of unhealthy human initiatives at the cost of natural resources.
The law of nature entails a complex nucleus for survival and Vidya is at the centre of her genuine efforts at conservation and following a sense of duty beyond mere lip-service. She has a dedicated team here of forest officials that take her lead.
There’s no direct use of symbolism or even an effort to make it on the nose. She is an honest professional who is here to make a difference without drawing attention to it. The film stays grounded due to that approach. Though her progress is constantly stymied by the likes of her senior (Brijendra Kala), a typical government head, a reputed forest official (Neeraj Kabi) who is not as committed to his mission anymore as he claims while a so called ‘hunting expert’ (Sharat Saxena) and a political head (Satyakam Anand) have their own unruly agendas that have no place in this pristine world that Vidya envisions. Her frustrations hence are earned, a facet handled here in such a way that every government employee will identify with the depictions.
On the other hand, Vijay Raaz and Sampa Mandal play sensible individuals committed to bring her vision to fruition with their logical wisdom, showing an awakening on the part of common folk as against the wheeler-dealers in positions of power.
Sherni uses the reality of workplace sexism twice, once when Vidya is called a ‘lady officer’ by another man who ironically claims that he respects her, and when she is asked by her family members to dress up more for a dinner. Nothing overtly delivered but Vidya’s reality is conveyed to us in a striking manner. The circular functioning of this posting, where transfers are brought on by ideological differences with the ‘top brass’, is also conveyed towards the end where Vidya is hailed as a ‘superman’ by her former staff, just like they did for her preceding officer in the beginning.
This is a wonderful addition to the evolving canon of our New Wave minds. For someone who has grown up watching documentaries on wildlife on Discovery and National Geographic, serenaded by its tales by my father who has spent formative years in that fascinating environment owing to his father’s Geological Survey of India postings and the conservation efforts and photography of Valmik Thapar, this was a rare opportunity, and it earns its stripes.
It also makes a subtle pitch for making room for more female boots on the ground in terms of forest conservation. Of course, it goes without saying that the formidable embodiment by national treasure Vidya Balan makes this project a living, breathing reality bursting with empathy for the natural world.
Sherni is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video
by Prithvijeet Sinha
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile.