Jazeela Sherif

People living on the fringes of the forest most often have a hand to mouth existence. They depend heavily on the forest ecosystem for their livelihood – mostly for firewood, livestock grazing and other non-timber forest products. But they are also aware of the constant threat to their lives if the thin line of separation is breached by the inhabitants on either side. A slight disturbance to this balance, often created by extraneous opportunism, could be detrimental to the peaceful coexistence. But who is actually breaching the balance – the humans or the animals? There may not be a simple answer to this question since it is humans who define the concept of peace, the other side being completely voiceless. 

Amit Masurkar, the director of the popular dark comedy Newton, is now exploring the conflicts between animals and humans living on the peripheries of the forest, through a new film titled Sherni. The film is scripted by Aastha Tiku.

Sherni is a powerful, yet riveting exposé of the ‘conservationists Vs. other stakeholders’ conflict involved in the complex issue of environmental management. Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), a Malayalee forest officer, posted as the DFO, is challenged by the task of tracing a supposedly man-eater tigress on the prowl in the village. This was her first field posting. Refusing to compromise with the typical lackadaisical bureaucratic attitude, often under the influence of greedy politicians and profiteers, she treads her path undeterred. A few colleagues admiringly align with her professional plans, but still remain caught between Vidya and her immediate boss, Bansilal.

Bansilal’s (played by Brijendra Kala) caricature is spot on – a typical boss we all have confronted at some point in our career; someone who is more perturbed by the choice of fritters served than the very issue of a man-eater tigress being discussed. Over the years, he has gotten used to a lineup of politicians, poachers, businessmen, and his own ultimate bosses that become a more important ecosystem to be kept undisturbed. All of them form multiple hidden layers that would prevent Vidya from connecting with the real problem at the grassroot level and addressing it scientifically. The village folk, who are at the receiving end of it all, remain oblivious to a complex tamasha happening in front of them. 

Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), a zoology professor, supports Vidya with a scientific approach for the task. The street theatre he organized to promote a conservation approach again was hijacked by the local politician to campaign for the election.

While these different layers of the story are being revealed, the viewers also get a feel of how risky each day can be for these forest officers, more so when they work under conflicting objectives.

Vidya’s missionary zeal in doing what is right lands her in trouble at many crucial points. At no instance, she resorts to any clichéd heroic tit for tat acts in confronting her detractors, or plays the victim game as a lady officer. Even her much-adored professor and mentor becomes an obstacle in her path at a critical juncture.

The tiger becoming the cynosure of electioneering renders her task tougher. Her obstinate resolve and patient approach helps in getting closer to her target. She, and the tigress who is finding a way to her permanent abode with her cubs, are in the same boat, fighting a lonely and rightful battle. Interestingly, the tigress intelligently escapes the trap set by the forest department, like how Vidya makes silent moves to work out her plans, while still resisting the thought of quitting the job.

Ultimately, it becomes an individual officer’s relentless struggle against all odds within an incorrigibly corrupt system, in spite of having a paraphernalia of scientific equipment and systems for wild life protection.

Her condescending seniors fondly advise her to stay away from the conundrum, and to pick her battles smartly.

Sherni shows us quite a detailed picture of tracing a tiger’s trails, possible solutions in the given circumstances in a fragile ecosystem, and the rules and protocols in place for maintaining the fine balance of the environment. But can a well-meaning official make a judicious use of it all? It depends on the battle you pick. That is what Sherni tells us.

One can listen to the myriad sounds of the nature and sometimes the stagnant silence strewn with cackling, chirping and chattering of the birds and animals, and the burbling of pristine forest streams.

Rakesh Haridas’ camera shows us magnificent aerial views of the forest and close shots of its mysterious interiors including those from the viewfinder of the feline. 

The thriller nature of the movie is quite subtle, unassuming, but engaging. You may miss a beat chasing a monstrous carnivore along with the on-screen crew, for a different reason. There is heart -warming moments in the last few scenes, where, possibly, the movie marks its defining moments of hope and despair.  

There are no straight forward answers given by Sherni’s makers, nor do they get preachy, but certainly lay bare a bundle of thoughts on the departure of reality from the meticulously projected and desired outcomes.

You continue weighing down the right against the wrong, beliefs against testimonies and truth against falsity in the course of events and actions of the stakeholders, long after the movie is over. Devoid of any adrenaline raising instants, Sherni is a mirror held against reality, which can be a crushing revelation to those who merely submit to the system, and also to the brave and the genuine who are left with no battles to pick.

(SHERNI, Hindi, 2021. Available on Amazon Prime)

(NOTE: FILM SENSE aims only to give a brief idea about the film and its significance – socially and as a work of art. All images are sourced from the official trailer of the respective movies and are hereby acknowledged. Pictures help the readers to connect easily with the story hint, and are used with the good intention of promoting the work. Objections, if any, from the owners of the productions, shall be communicated through the contact form, upon which the pictures used will be removed)

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