Much was expected of director’s feature after all conquering satire but this isn’t in the same league, though it is an underserved subject in Indian narrative cinema…
SLIGHTLY flabby, loose and too gently-paced (for this critic), Amit Masukar’s latest film, ‘Sherni’, starring Vidya Balan, still has a lot to say.
Centred around a man-eating tigress and Balan (as Vidya Vincent), a bright, conscientious forest ranger, determined to get the creature before a macho hunter does, the film takes time to get going.
The first 60 minutes or so build a world we already sort of know – the slightly incompetent officials – a well meaning boss who is actually desperate to get out and enjoy a quiet life, the crumbling bureaucracy of India’s Forestry Department, a legacy of the British Raj; the feuding politicians who look to exploit the genuine nervousness and fear felt by villagers with a predator in their midst and many caught in between – from eking out a living off the sparse land on the edges of the jungle, to those who accept that animals and humans must learn to share living space and appreciate that wild animals will do anything to survive, just as we would.
Those looking for the rich comedy and biting satire of Masurkar’s much garlanded ‘Newton’ (2017) – a wonderful exploration of Indian democracy, warts and all, will find smaller elements of that here.
Masurkar goes for a more documentary style approach in ‘Sherni’ and while it feels authentic and true, it lacks drama or narrative tension in the early part.
Balan’s character is too sketchy and too much of a trope we see in popular cinema everywhere. Her character is well-meaning, independent, admirable – but not enough of an individual to exist outside a film script, though there are some later flourishes – drinking whisky at a social function, show a woman of strength, unperturbed by social convention.
Balan is very solid and watchable but there is little mischief or sense of strategy that might come with someone keen to play the system but win for both the animals and herself. Maybe that is Masurkar’s point by the end of the film – such individuals…well, to say would be to spoil it.
Vijay Raaz as the professor who speaks a lot of sense and is equally committed to conservation is a lesser voice, as too is the likeable poetry quoting and singing bespectacled boss (Brijendra Kala) who is scared of offending the politicians and clearly isn’t up to it.
They are not bad characters in themselves, but their lives are given insufficient attention outside their profession and while the cinematography and the lush forest just about hold you, more impatient viewers may find it all too much like hard work.
The drama takes off in the latter section as Vidya’s husband, a Mumbai-based potato crisp quality manager, visits with his mother and Vidya’s.
There is some cackle and tension – both mothers are keen Vidya procreates – while she is clearly happy as she is and intends to live well without children.
The fight between conservationists who want to tranquilise the tigress and those wanting to kill her outright reaches a crescendo with Vidya and the professor (Raaz) on one side and a politician and a hunter (a very good Sharat Saxena) on the other.
It is probably no surprise who wins but Masurkar lobs a grenade in with the Neeraj Kabi character (Nangia Sir) as a district official and senior to Vidya.
Much admired by her, he proves more wily and unpredictable than appearances might suggest.
As with the film ‘Newton’, there is a lot of politics lurking beneath the surface of what looks like a straight(ish) battle between Conservation vs Development – and Masurkar is far too good a filmmaker to give you easy answers.
The final scene with stuffed animals has baffled a few – it is a strange change of pace and without giving everything away – does it not suggest that India’s Forestry Departments are just badly in need of modernisation or perhaps – more radically, abolition – but then just who will that serve?
Acv rating: *** (out of five)