"If you pass through the jungle 100 times, you may spot a tiger once but the tiger will have seen you 99 times," a forest official is told early in this film.
Nature is eternally poised to defend itself against human invasion with ample reasons, some of which are explored in engrossing detail in producer-writer-director Amit Masurkar's Sherni (The Tigress). With a story and screenplay by Aastha Tiku, and dialogues by Masurkar and Yashasvi Mishra, Sherni is set in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh in the midst of simultaneous human-animal conflict and internal conflict in the Homo sapien species between conservationists and predators.
Vidya Vincent (played by Vidya Balan) has recently been appointed as a Divisional Forest Officer when a tigress attacks a villager in her area of operation. Vidya's team works hard to allay the community's fears and formulate a strategy to keep them safe while also ensuring the beast's transportation to a reserve nearby. All might have gone according to plan if it were not for an upcoming election that results in local politicians going into overdrive to stoke tensions among the people, colluding with corrupt forest officials and fostering distrust of their honest colleagues.
Vidya finds allies in the college professor Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), several members of her department and poor villagers who keep vigil along with them. Their goal is to get the big cat to the national park before a hunter gets her or before she crosses paths with another innocent human.
In its initial scenes, Sherni gives the impression that it intends to carry forward Masurkar's penchant for injecting humour into explosive situations, as he did with the rip-roaring Sulemani Keeda on debut in 2014 or with 2017's Newton in which the eponymous hero is sent to oversee an election in a conflict zone in Chhattisgarh. The opening interaction here between Hassan and Vidya's boss, played by the redoubtable Brijendra Kala, is hilarious, but it gradually turns out that Sherni is the most sombre of the director's films so far.
The environmental thriller is not a frequently visited genre in Bollywood, but Sherni forays into that territory and delivers unrelenting yet noiseless excitement in addition to food for thought all the way up to its concluding minutes.
By the end of its 2 hours-plus running time, this compact film addresses most questions urbanites ask about why animals attack humans and why tribal communities enter jungles inhabited by carnivorous creatures despite knowing the dangers of doing so. It also runs a magnifying glass over the intricacies and complexities of forest politics, the dangers of being a forest officer in India, and the manner in which violence might well erupt organically yet becomes much more than it started out being when manipulative, mischief-making politicians come on the scene.
The forest is not the only space where Sherni finds harmony in nature. The Christian is a species on the verge of extinction in Bollywood. Up to the end of the 1980s, Christian women were a regular presence in Hindi films, rarely as the leading lady and usually as an ultra-Westernised cabaret dancer or gangster's moll in a supporting role. In those days, a sexually active Hindu heroine in skimpy clothing was largely deemed unacceptable and Christian women " who were stereotyped as dregs of a permissive foreign culture " were used for both purposes to provide a frisson of electricity to the heterosexual male audience. By the 1990s though, as it became acceptable to portray Hindu female protagonists as not virginal and not traditionalist, Christians were more or less discarded. Sherni's heroine is not just Christian, she is a Malayali with a north Indian Hindu husband and comes bearing not a single stereotypical marker this film industry once insisted on associating with Christians.
Her religious and regional identity do not serve any specific purpose either, but are merely an acknowledgement by Aastha Tiku's screenplay that Indian Christians and Malayalis exist. Just as Indian Muslims exist, and do not have to be vehicles for messaging on secularism; nor do they have to be a means to pander to Islamophobes dominating the public discourse today, as they have been in a small but steady stream of Hindi films in the last half decade. Like Vidya Vincent, Hassan Noorani too just happens to be.
This aspect of the writing is particularly endearing and heartwarming because of the distressing socio-political context in which Sherni is being released.
Considering the well-rounded characterisation of Vidya and Hassan here, and the prominence given to an Adivasi woman character in Newton (which was extremely unusual for upper-caste-obsessed Hindi filmdom), I was looking forward to Sherni's Panchayat Samiti member Jyoti (played by the striking Sampa Mandal from Sonchiriya) having a substantial presence in the plot. She turns out to be crucial, but remains on the sidelines throughout. Her character's potential is underlined by a powerful moment in which the camera focuses on her and Vidya holding hands in a wonderful image of female solidarity. Jyoti, sadly, is an opportunity lost in Sherni.
This is a film that makes each moment matter, with even passages of silence contributing to its unequivocal statement on the fine balance in nature sans human intrusion. Given its economical use of time, the song Bandar Baant comes as an unexpectedly superfluous insertion, serving to cover the news media, social media and hashtag activists in one hurried, trite, broad brush stroke.
The cast of Sherni is uniformly excellent. Vidya Balan buries her star persona in Vidya Vincent to create a convincing portrait of persistence in the midst of despair. What is especially heartening about this film is that although she is the marquee name of the project, her character is not allowed to overshadow the urgency of her mission, which is as much a compliment to the star's respect for the script as to Masurkar & Co's faith in their writing.
The stand-out supporting performance in the ensemble comes from Vijay Raaz who gives Hassan a loveable earnestness that mirrors Vidya's sincerity.
Sherni possesses a stillness and quiet that is not common in contemporary Hindi cinema, but is characteristic of the ongoing Malayalam New New Wave. In fact, it makes a good companion piece to the Malayalam indie Richter Scale 7.6, which, though far less sophisticated, echoes Sherni's concerns about the disastrous consequences of human interference with the natural order.
The title of this film is obviously as much an allusion to Vidya Vincent as it is to the tigress T12 that she sets out to save. In keeping with its aversion to formulae, though, Sherni does not give Ms Vincent any of the characteristics that Indian society or contemporary Hindi cinema tend to attribute to strong women. She is tough as heck, but not brash, brusque or " ugh, that word! " 'mardaani' (like a man).
Her strength, the diversity of characters within the script, Rakesh Haridas' exquisite cinematography and Anish John's minutely observant sound design are not accompanied by drum rolls and bugle calls. Despite the serene, calm narrative style he has adopted for this film, Masurkar miraculously fashions it into a gripping suspense drama. In this and so many other ways, Sherni is a triumph.
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
Sherni is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video