The upright government official who wages battles without honour or reward is back in Newton director Amit Masurkar’s new movie. Sherni actually has two tigresses – one a maneater who is the object of a hysterical hunt, and the other the woman who is leading the hunt.

Vidya Balan is Vidya Vincent, a divisional forest department officer who runs into a challenge just weeks into her new posting. The tigress T12 has developed a taste for human flesh. This terrorises the villagers who live near her habitat and provides political rivals fighting a local election a drum to beat.

Vidya proposes sensibly to transport T12 and her two cubs to a national park. But in swaggers the hunter Pintu (Sharat Saxena), who measures his manhood by the number of tiger kills.

Aastha Tiku’s screenplay neatly and cogently lays out the issues at stake: the debate between conservation and livelihood, the threat to animal habitat, the lasting damage caused by corrupt government officials keen on buttering up their political bosses. Cinematographer Rakesh Haridas does a fine job of producing documentary-style realism on the ground and drone shots from above that reveal the inexorable shrinking of T12’s world.

Gender provides an extra layer of drama. Frequently talked down to or simply ignored by her clownish but odious boss Bansal (Brijendra Kala), Vidya finds herself navigating a jungle no different from T12’s lair.

Sherni (2021). Courtesy Abundantia Entertainment/Critical Mass Films/T-Series/Amazon Prime Video.

The challenges of wildlife conservation have previously been examined on screen in Sujay Dahake’s Ajoba (2014), starring Urmila Matondkar as a forest department official tracking a leopard. Sherni, which is out on Amazon Prime Video, appears to revisit the killing of the tigress Avni in Maharashtra in 2018. Shot dead by a hunter on government orders despite protests from conservationists, Avni’s slaying is widely regarded as a failure in the responsible handling of the human-animal conflict.

The grimly funny and quietly angry Sherni reveals the possible sources of the bungling. The thankless job performed by unsung forest officials is balanced with the dangers faced by tribals and farmers who have no option but to graze their animals in the jungle. The villains in the story are as evident as the barefoot heroes who do the real work of animal protection. The competing politicians GK and PK are separated by an alphabet but are indistinguishable from one another.

Vidya is no guns-blazing heroine. Exceptional precisely because of her ordinariness, Vidya is, like the protagonist of Newton, merely trying to do her job. In Newton, if security concerns dictated that elections be conducted in a troubled village, Sherni reveals our skewed understanding of economic progress and its implications for those who make the mistake of caring.

Vidya seeks the help of a decorated forest officer (Neeraj Kabi) and gets vital support from sympathetic professor Noorani (Vijay Raaz). A kitten who wanders into Vidya’s home is a source of minor entertainment and a reminder of the perils faced by its bigger cousin.

The performances are uniformly engaging across the ensemble cast. Vidya Balan is excellent in buttoned-down mode. Often surrounded by people and unable to assert herself, Balan stands out in the crowd without pushing her way through.

Brijendra Kala is hilarious as a sycophant who’s also a crashing bore. Vijay Raaz skilfully plays the animal lover who is among the few people to understand Vidya’s plight and cares for T12.

Bookended by a sharp opening and a superb closing sequence, the movie has its rough patches. The scenes of Vidya’s domestic tensions with her husband Pawan (Mukul Chadda) are laboured, while the hunt itself wears on for longer than it should. Some of Sherni’s 131 minutes appear superfluous, but the rest of them are add up to a thoughtful and insightful movie about fighting the good fight.

Sherni (2021).

Also read:

What ‘Sherni’ taught Vidya Balan about the human-animal conflict – and her approach to acting

Don’t stop believing: ‘Satyakam’, ‘Newton’, and the importance of the upright public servant