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Sherni movie review: Vidya Balan film is a strange beast

Sherni movie review: As Vidya Balan fronts a film about the primacy of nature and human greed, headlined by the majestic tiger, you want to hand out props to Amit Masurkar.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Written by Shubhra Gupta
Updated: June 19, 2021 9:29:55 am
sherni movie reviewSherni movie review: Vidya Balan-starrer glows as a tiger burns bright

Sherni movie cast: Vidya Balan, Brijendra Kala, Vijay Raaz, Sharat Saxena, Mukul Chadha, Ila Arun
Sherni movie director: Amit Masurkar
Sherni movie rating: 3 stars

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For a film which comes from a very mainstream production house, ‘Sherni is a strange beast. An A list actress fronts a film about the primacy of nature and human greed, headlined by the majestic tiger. No, it is not the National Geographic, it is Bollywood.

Straight away, you want to hand out props to Amit Masurkar for daring to go down an untrodden path. And then you remember that he has already been there, done that: his ‘Newton’ was a terrific, trenchant look at the India which dwells in the cities, and the other, which lives in its deep interiors, especially those overrun by ‘Maoists’, and how the world’s largest democracy manages to knit the two.

In the way it takes us into the forests and those who dwell there, four-legged and two-legged animals, and shines a light on the murky goings on therein, ‘Sherni’ seems almost like a follow-up to ‘Newton’. But that’s where the comparison between the two ends: much more attention in the new film is paid to the king of the jungle whose pole position on the food chain maintains a balance in the ecosystem. As a character says, ‘tiger hai toh jungle hai, jungle hai, toh baarish hai, aur baarish hai toh dharti hai’, or wise words to that effect.

Balan plays a straight-laced forest officer newly transferred into tiger country, where she soon realises that she’s stepped into a minefield. There has been a ghastly kill, and a man-eating tigress is the chief suspect. Two rival political camps turn the tiger into a burning election issue, and a hunter shows up, hungry to add another notch on his belt. And the new lady forest officer, trying to do good, is the cynosure of all eyes.

This little village is a cauldron in which conservation, environment, politics, is simmering away, and the flash points are the deaths of those villagers who are forced to take their cattle to tiger country because their grazing land has been gobbled by the powerful mining lobbies. You get a great bird’s eye view of the dense, green forest, and in the far distance, a glimpse of a tiger, a heart-stoppingly beautiful animal being hunted by those who have encroached on to his land.

‘Sherni’ has its high points. Vidya Balan gets in some smart swipes about being a professional first, not a ‘mahila’, not just with a blustery local who tries to shout her down, but also her spouse (Mukul Chadha) who shows up unexpectedly, armed with mum, and mum-in-law (Ila Arun, delightful). As a local teacher who is her ally, Vijay Raaz livens up the scene. Brijendra Kala, as the area in charge, a typical babu who wants to be everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy without doing a thing, a hoot. And Neeraj Kabi, in his brief role of an experienced forest officer who says one thing but means another, leaves an impact. The all-male gatherings of the netas and the officials and their hangers-on, especially one where liquor is flowing freely and the men are in their cups, are spot on.

But the fear of an issue-based film being dismissed as a documentary is evident through the film. ‘Sherni’ needs menacing background music to create drama, and that’s distracting, because it tells you that filmmakers are unconvinced about the power of a sudden rustle of the leaves, a great animal on the move, and silence. Clearly, for Bollywood, the audience is still not ready for a film about ecology and the environment without turning into a thriller laced with explanatory passages. Also, there’s too much stuffed into the film: local activism, raising awareness about the importance of preserving the land, patriarchal power games, women negotiating age-old customs of duty and new ones of wanting to be good at their jobs.

Balan is a good choice for these kinds of solid roles: here she is caught between getting enough star wattage (she strides just a little ahead of her colleagues; the camera rests just a little longer on her reactions), and giving us an accurate representation of doing one of the toughest jobs in modern India, to keep our green lungs safe from predators of all kinds. Also, it’s nice to have other women in the forest team who have a say in the proceedings.

And yay for anyone focussing on a major, vexing issue of our times: when a tiger burns bright, we glow too.

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