Vidya Balan says she is scared of creepy-crawlies, but that didn’t prevent her from playing a forest officer in Sherni. Newton director Amit Masurkar’s new film places Balan’s character at the centre of human-animal conflict. Also starring Vijay Raaz, Mukul Chadha and Neeraj Kabi, Sherni will be streamed on Amazon Prime Video on June 18.
How would you describe Vidya Vincent’s journey in ‘Sherni’?
The story explores the man-animal conflict seen through the eyes of forest officer Vidya Vincent, played by me. This is a largely male-dominated profession, but there are lots of female forest officers and many take postings in the jungle where they are away from their families, alone in the jungle.
It is tough. There are no set working hours of work, though there are responsibilities. They act as the bridge between the villagers and tribals and the forest department. On some days they may have to report to duty in the middle of the night. In addition to these challenges, Vidya Vincent is very withdrawn. She’s a woman of few words but she’s clear, headstrong and passionate about her job. She wants to do the right thing the right way and in any system, that’s a problem because you always come across people who want to take the shortcut. Through the journey of the tiger you see Vidya’s journey, and vice versa.
How different is Vidya Vincent from some of your previous characters?
She’s very different. I have played strong women of various kinds, but they have been more obviously strong women. Vidya Vincent is different because she is a quiet doer. She would rather go unnoticed and be left alone to do her job.
I thought she could be passive-aggressive, which is a new aspect for me to explore in a character. I didn’t think there is a passive aggressive side to me and I wondered how I would tap into that characteristic. But then I thought of various incidents when I have been passive-aggressive and realised okay then, I know where to find that.
What kind of preparation was involved before you shot in Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh?
I met with two forest officers and did forest trails with them. I watched documentaries galore and read up. I was particularly affected by a book called Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. I started looking at trees and the plants in my balcony differently.
During the first schedule, I stayed in a tent for the first time in my life. It was quite an experience. It was summer and the jungle was more brown than green. I would go for morning walks alone and go a little further everyday. I really enjoyed those. Fortunately I didn’t encounter any animals because I was alone and ill-equipped.
We also had an expert on the set to guide us on nature and the habitat. I began to see the wild differently. We have a family farm and I would hardly ever get out because of the creatures but now I just take a stick and walk everywhere. It’s so liberating.
Have other films been cathartic too?
Every film is cathartic in some way or the other. Even my choices are reflective of my current state of mind, although that story may not be playing out in my life. It’s very therapeutic and healing when I do a film. It allows me to discover some part of me.
For instance, The Dirty Picture helped me accept my body and come to terms with the way I am made. Shakuntala Devi helped me come to terms with being unapologetic for being a successful woman.
What was it like working with Amit Masurkar?
He is a very unusual director in the way he thinks. His take on the world and performances is so unusual. Satire is not used too much in Hindi cinema, so that itself is refreshing. Working with him was almost an unlearning of set ways of working.
I did find it tough at times because that unlearning does not necessarily happen, but it happened with Amit. That was the other change that Sherni brought about – it showed me that I am capable of working in a different way as well.