Vidya Balan has time and again challenged Bollywood stereotypes.> With Paa, Ishqiya, No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture, Kahaani and Shakuntala Devi, Balan has definitely created a stamp of quality with her fascinating choices. And now with her upcoming Sherni, she yet again enters unfamiliar territory. The actress plays a forest officer who encounters many adversaries while she is on the trail of a man-eating tigress in Newton director Amit Masurkar's new film. Also starring Vijay Raaz, Mukul Chadha and Neeraj Kabi, Sherni streams on Amazon Prime Video on 18 June.
The story explores the man-animal conflict seen through the eyes of forest officer Vidya Vincent, played by Balan. "It was an unfamiliar world to me and that is the most exciting thing about Sherni to be able to tell a story not just set in the jungle but about the jungle. Ultimately, most importantly, the film is about conservation. It tells you there is no choice for us between development and conservation, they both have to go hand in hand. It cannot be one or the other. Then it is about a female forest officer who is really negotiating her space in a male bastion. This was such a unique world, unique setting, unique story and being told by a very unusual director. And, of course, the entire process has been an eye-opener and life-changing in more ways than one also because Covid hit us in the middle of it. But being in a jungle kept all of us sane," says Balan.
Delving further into Balan's character, she is shown struggling with sexism both in personal and professional life which the actress found pretty much relatable. There are dialogues like 'yahan musibat aa chuki hai aur lady officer ko bhej diya hai', and at the home front she is even asked by the family members to wear an expensive necklace that she was given as she hunts for the wild animal. "We all face that kind of sexism in all walks of life. We all have been told this at some point or the other..right from, 'Oh my god are you going to drive?' That is the most basic of all," says Balan, who came to understand the intricacies of wildlife and conservation through the film.
"Sherni presents a deeper insight into the man versus wild conflict. The film educated me on the impact our activities have on wildlife and made me realise that striking a balance is an absolute need of the hour. Humans must recognise, appreciate and work towards strengthening the ecological balance. If we impact the environment, the environment in turn impacts us. We can all do whatever little we can towards maintaining a balance between progress and conservation because if we are going to abuse the environment it is going to abuse us back. Climate change and global warming is a reality," she says.
Balan has played strong characters in many of her previous films but playing Vidya Vincent, a quiet and reticent person was a bit challenging for her considering that she's quite expressive in her real life. "My character doesn't react too much, she rarely smiles, she is a woman of few words. She doesn't engage too much and the forest is a safe place for her. She is a loner and to get deep into the skin of Vincent, I had to undertake an approach of acting and speaking through my expressions and silences. It was a bit tough because for an actor there is always this temptation to express, whereas, Amit's style is so realistic that he didn't want that overt expression on the outside and that was challenging and yet it was a unique experience. Now in hindsight, I would say that I enjoyed it," says Balan.
"It was also tough on the level that I am an expressive person..but yes, I have also done a film called No One Killed Jessica where I played a subtle character but this was even more so. There is subtlety in Amit's treatment also and in the way he approaches performances. The character is a very subdued one."
However, even as the story had excited her, Balan reveals that she probably wouldn't have said 'Yes' to the film had she been offered three to four years ago. "But with a certain maturity, you appreciate the value of a story like this.> Amit's> take on the world and performances is satirical which is not used too much in Hindi cinema, so that was very different and refreshing," says Balan, who when asked about Masurkar's blunt statement he made recently that many of the films today are not working because makers are not attempting anything daring, and she says, "Amit might be right because I feel there is certain boredom in audiences. They feel certain content is lethargic and people are making no attempt to make something new. But sometimes you can't say what will work and what won't and why this works and why something doesn't."
Before the shooting for Sherni began in Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, the actress prepped up for the role with the help of the female forest officers she met to understand how they function. "This is largely a male-dominated profession, but there are lots of female forest officers and many take postings in the jungle where they are away from their families. They act as the bridge between the villagers and tribals and the forest department. There are no set working hours of work. On some days they may have to report to duty in the middle of the night. I met with a few of them and also did forest trails with them. I had to understand their world, their challenges, what is the job of a forest officer like, because honestly, I had no idea about any of it. They shared some reading material, documentaries and videos which gave me an insight into the job. They were really helpful," she says.
The film went on floors in March last year. After the first lockdown, production was halted, resuming again in October. "We were nearly ending the first schedule and then we were to move on to another place when we got to know that shooting had to be halted. We came back to Mumbai and we thought we would be able to go back in three weeks because at that time nobody understood what a pandemic, or lockdown meant. I remember Amit calling me and telling me that we would be ready to start by mid-April because we had no clue. Then we resumed shooting in October last. We were extremely cautious with all the covid protocols and which is why we didn't have a single positive case on the set. We completed and returned to Mumbai. MP tourism was very helpful," says the actress.
Sherni is Vidya's second straight-to-digital release in the pandemic. Her last film, Shakuntala Devi, also premiered on Amazon Prime Video. Does she miss the big screen and theatrical release? "Ideally, of course, we want films to be released in theatres and we made Sherni for theatres. It has that scale, landscape but in this current atmosphere I don't think that would be prudent. Theatres have not yet opened up and most importantly the theme of this film is universal. Amit's language of filmmaking is also quite universal. Amazon Prime will take this film to over 200 countries, so I feel this is perfect to release on an OTT platform. Of course, Shakuntala released on Amazon Prime so I know that it doesn't feel any different, people watch the film if they want to whether in theatres or on OTT because Shakuntala was the second most watched and loved film on Amazon last year. That is very heartening. It is a new experience for me," says Balan.
While many of Balan's colleagues in the industry are anxious about getting back to work which has been halted due to the ongoing pandemic, Balan says she has been happiest at home. "I am a home bird. Except when I am working I barely step out of the house. This offered Siddharth (Roy Kapur, her husband) and me a unique opportunity - like the rest of the world - to spend a lot of time together. I don't think we would have got this much time together otherwise. Even on a holiday we are together for a maximum of two weeks. Last year during the lockdown I tried my hands at cooking and both of us were doing cleaning, it was a shared experience and that is memorable," says the actress who will be starting her next, a quirky comedy-drama with herTumhari Sulu director Suresh Triveni.
"More than starting work I feel bad about the theatres and its employees, that has got affected so badly. Of course, it has affected the economy of the film business but a lot of people have lost their jobs and a lot of theatres have shut down so that is worrisome. But I am sure once things go back to normal people will throng the theatres and it will be even better than it was before," she says, signing off.