Early on in Sherni, officials and locals clash over one’s solution is another’s struggle of an ongoing village crisis. There’s a man-eating tiger on the loose and her appetite is wreaking havoc on a region whose layout of adjacently arranged fields and forests makes it difficult for man and beast to peacefully coexist.
Whether caused by creature or contagion, authority’s lack of empathy and callous schemes evoking angry responses from those at the receiving end of these decisions is a persistent sentiment in society.
Sherni shrewdly studies this imbalance and makes keen observations on the state of wildlife conservation at the hands of Indian bureaucracy. But at the heart of its man versus nature theme is a strong woman suffering fools.
A woman of few words, her silence and stares give us a good glimpse into her thoughts and person. Often interrupted through mid-sentences or entirely cut off, she makes sure to listen, especially to the voice of the suppressed. Balan has fared fabulously as a self-aware feminist before, but in Sherni, her actions speak louder than her words. It’s a refreshingly subdued portrayal that reiterates the power of spine in the absence of speech.
Vidya’s dignified composure is in stark contrast to her bungling boss (Brijendra Kala is a hoot as always) whose cowardice and sycophancy are a reflection of the babu‘s mentality. While poachers and politicians freely exploit a deeply corroded system, hapless villagers bear the brunt of ugly opportunism.
It’s a shabby way of doing things and Vidya refuses to turn a blind eye. There is no sanctimonious lecturing or dramatic outburst, the Sherni in the title doesn’t allude to romanticised roars but draws parallels against the art of survival. Vidya commits to becoming the change she wants to see by staying within the system and not abandoning it even when all her attempts to restore the ecosystem are snubbed by her male superiors and mansplainers. Only Sherni, written by Aastha Tiku, doesn’t colour her tenacity in heroism.
Masurkar’s worldview hinges on realistic not posturing. Precisely why even the most flawed characters in his stories seem like people not caricatures. The patriarchy Vidya encounters is embodied by dull, dissatisfied, entitled men (Kale, Neeraj Kabi, Sharat Saxena) whose ineptitude only magnifies in her stoic presence.
There are a few good men. As the zoology professor lending her a helping hand, Vijay Raaz conveys the enthusiasm of an environmentalist driven by passion not reward.
Though Sherni gently makes its point on gender bias during a family dinner when an emergency requires both to excuse themselves and the response of their respective folks is diametrically opposite. While we get a sense of Vidya’s lacklustre personal life, Masurkar leaves it unexplored.
When not running around circles, Sherni is an intriguing, sweeping (shot charismatically by Rakesh Haridas) journey alternating between a satire, thriller, drama and documentary, which hugely benefits from a pitch-perfect casting. Its superb mix of known, unknown, earthy and experienced actors, put together by Romil-Tejas, bring out the story’s layered texture and authentic soul.
Once again, Masurkar shows he is a master of understated irony. Despite the tiger menace looming large, the animal-loving ways of the locals remain unchanged, be it the caretaker’s affection for the wandering kitten or the shepherds risking themselves for their livestock. Sherni makes a compelling case for practical knowledge over desk rats by acknowledging the efforts of the unsung eco-specialists and their field experience around a committee full of bookish know-alls in a sly scene.
Sherni is a triumph — a sublime outcome of purpose and storytelling falling in place. But it’s also a forewarning towards the impending extinction of a glorious species if man’s thirst to control and cage all that’s wild and free isn’t quelled.
Sherni is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.