Caution: spoilers ahead for ‘Sherni.
In Amit Masurkar’s third feature Sherni, the debate around wildlife conservation in India gets a human face. It belongs to Vidya Balan, playing principled forest department officer Vidya Vincent who gets involved in a hunt for a man-eating tiger. Surrounded by dedicated colleagues, apathetic bosses and meddling politicians, Vidya finds that her greatest adversary isn’t the big cat named T12 but a blood-thirsty hunter.
The Amazon Prime Video release has been drawing positive responses from conservationists who see echoes of their own battles in Vidya’s struggle to be taken seriously, Masurkar told Scroll.in. The director of Sulemani Keeda and Newton explained Sherni’s powerful opening and closing sequences and the bits in between.
Why the tiger? Why not?
Sherni is based on a story and screenplay by Aastha Tiku. The dialogue is by Masurkar and Yashaswi Mishra. “We chose the tiger because it’s a flagship species of conservation and is India’s national animal,” Masurkar explained. “The tiger is culturally a symbol of many things.”
In the movie, T12 is a spectral presence, managing to evade her hunters until she is tricked out of her lair. A forest guard observes that if you enter the jungle a hundred times, you might spot a tiger once, but the tiger would have seen you 99 times.
All the tigers in the film were created through visual effects. “The first shot you see of the tiger is an aerial shot,” Masurkar said. “You always see Pasha [a male tiger that shares the forest] in long shot, while you see T12 in camera trap videos. When you finally see her, she is dead. What we were trying to say is that if the hunter hadn’t killed her, you might have seen more of her.”
Playing ‘Tiger, Tiger’
Sherni opens on a strong image: a forest guard is playacting as a tiger to test camera traps that have placed on trees. “The forest guard is doing a routine job, which is shot in slow motion,” Masurkar said. “It’s a visual that’s exactly what you feel it is – you don’t have to explain it. We wanted to set up the tone about whether humans are part of nature or separate. Who are the beasts here? The image was written in the script. Aastha wanted to start with a powerful image.”
A story of heroism with many heroes
The forest guard is one of many individuals working towards creating a just balance between the conflicting needs of humans and animals. “A sustained community effort is needed to preserve the eco-system, and conservation is not a hero-driven process that involves a lot of people,” Masurkar said. The pre-production research included conversations with forest department employees and villagers who live on the edges of forests. Many of the actors in Sherni are playing themselves, the director added.
The mini T-12
Also written into the screenplay was the stray kitten that wanders into Vidya Vincent’s home. The tiny mewling creature, whom Vidya initially doesn’t care for, is a reminder that animals will go where the food is, Masurkar said. “You don’t have to be an animal lover to co-exist with an animal,” he added.
Vidya’s Vincent’s mission to save T12 doesn’t succeed, but with the help of some of the villagers, she manages to locate T12’s cubs. The movie ends on a note on sad compromise. Vidya resigns from her position and joins a conservation centre.
In the sobering final sequence, Vidya looks at stuffed animals that are displayed in glass cages. The exhibits include a magnificent tiger. “If this is how we continue, this is the only place where we will see these animals,” Masurkar said.
Casting Vidya Balan
Masurkar had previously shot a few commercials with Vidya Balan, who delivers a beautifully restrained performance in Sherni. “She has an amazing spectrum, and can play a wide variety of roles,” Masurkar said. “She is very generous as an actor, not just with her role, but the way she approaches the entire scene.”
Fighting the good fight
It’s a coincidence that Sherni and Masurkar’s previous film Newton are about upright government officials fighting the good fight, Masurkar said. His interest lay in characters like Newton and Vidya who, by virtue of being privileged and fairly influential, could provide a better understanding of how power structures work, he said. “I think that these questions are knowingly or unknowingly tackled in all films – how can you escape them,” Masurkar said.
Among the film’s memorable characters is Vidya Vincent’s superior Bansal. Fond of grandstanding and bad poetry, Bansal is an entertaining distraction but also a harmful hindrance to the mission to relocate T12. “Bansal is just making a living and saving his skin half the time,” Masurkar said.