- Director: Amit V. Masurkar
- Cast: Vidya Balan, Vijay Raaz, Neeraj Kabi, Brijendra Kala, Sharat Saxena
- Genre: Dramedy, Thriller
- Length: 130 minutes
There were high expectations from director Amit V. Masurkar who had previously helmed the excellent ‘Newton’, India’s entry for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film was a breath of fresh air with its timely topic of voter suppression and its quick wit and subtle humour. This author, in fact, preferred ‘Newton’ to the film that did go on to win the coveted Oscar – Chile’s ‘A Fantastic Woman’. It was a challenge for Masurkar to outdo the success of ‘Newton’ with ‘Sherni’ and outdo he does not. Not really.
The script of ‘Sherni’ is not as sharp as ‘Newton’s. There is too much exposition through dialogue, almost as if the screenwriter forgot the famous saying ‘show, don’t tell’. Furthermore, there isn’t much to see of the tiger for a film that hinges on the hunt and scrambling for it. Perhaps less of explaining through dialogue and more of showing the tiger could have been the better path to take, although it was probably due to budget constraints that they did not.
Moreover, Vidya Balan, who plays the protagonist and chief Forest Officer Vidya, doesn’t get much to do either. She is stern and straight jacket, always looking serious and meaning business. She is like most female characters that are written by men in that the woman is strong and ‘perfect’ to a fault while the funniest lines go to the men. Even Rajkumar Rao’s hero in ‘Newton’ showed quirks and a certain style of humor that made him more than just a ‘good guy’. Sadly, Vidya Balan in ‘Sherni’ does not get to be interesting like that. The funny characters in ‘Sherni’ are Brijendra Kala, Vijay Raaz and Neeraj Kabi who make the film entertaining and enjoyable.
There are some truly humorous scenes, especially in the first half of the movie. The supporting actors deliver funny lines with subtle, naturalistic acting. Brijendra Kala, as mentioned before, is hilarious, stealing every scene he is in. This is a compliment not only to the actor but also the writer that wrote this character.
Writing… There is a scene where the crowd is gathered around the corpse of a villager who was tragically attacked by a wild animal. A major character stands up and announces to everyone that true to their suspicions, it was done by the infamous tiger. Then we see his side worker pull him to the side and makes it known to the audience, “but it was not done by the tiger. It was done by the bear. Why did you lie to them?” He then replies with a simple “sshh”.
What follows is the villagers rioting violently against the forest department’s incompetence in capturing the dangerous mammal. This scene does not carry as much drama as it could have. What could have been a more ideal order of events is the following: if it was told to everyone (including the audience) that the dead villager had been mauled by a tiger. This could have been followed by the mourning villagers causing a violent riot. Once the destruction is caused and the dust settles a bit, THEN the secret is revealed to the audience that it was not a tiger but a bear. This twist would have had a better payoff, shocking the audience even more.
Moving onto the technical aspects… There are some spectacularly beautiful long shots that are as stunning as the best oil paintings. However, some shots go for far too long. The best sequences are easily the tiger-hunting and forest tracking scenes. The forest scenes shift the movie’s genre from what is usually social commentary to a nerve-wracking thriller. The shift is quick, like the flipping of a coin. There are even undertones of supernatural horror in the moments where the characters hunt for the super-elusive beast in the maze-like forest at night. And these are some of the strongest moments of the film.
One issue with the second half of the film was the lack of closeups when they were needed. The director very often opted for long shots instead and while these nature shots were stunning to look at, they sometimes pulled us out of the drama and reduced the intensity of the scenes. For example, when Vidya and her team find a clue to the missing tiger’s whereabouts, they attempt to hide this new information from the bloodthirsty hunter Ranjan Rajhans. “We didn’t find anything!” they shout to him. For a second, it seems like Rajhans thinks they are hiding something from him, but then he believes them and drives away. Cut to the next scene. We do not get to see a closeup of Vidya’s face. Is she relieved? Scared? Mischievous? Or is she anxious that the secret might be found out? We do not know as we don’t get to see her and her team’s expressions at that given time. Extra closeups of faces would have added more tension in many such scenes.
In hindsight, ‘Sherni’ is a necessary film in independent Hindi cinema as it starts a very underlooked discussion on humanity’s interference with wildlife. The chaos one can trigger by displacing wild animals, which then go on to harm humans and domestic animals, is a very serious issue that happens in India and other countries. With so much potential, it can be a bit disappointing to see gaping flaws in an otherwise promising film.