You and I may have watched a fair few detective procedurals. What about a forest procedural ? I had not heard this intriguing term till this week, introduced to it as I was by a New York Times article highlighting the Top Five streaming movies to watch right now ( Nov. 2021). Accompanying it was a photograph of Vidya Balan snugly attired in a muted-green safari shirt, her leonine face slightly tense, mired as she is in the clearing of a dry deciduous Indian forest, a guard scouting in the opposite direction. “Sherni” ( ‘Lioness’ , and by a liberal panthera leap – ‘Tigress’ ) certainly described her even as the royalty of the Indian jungle was out of frame.

What is she searching for ?  Could it be a man-eating tiger that has unleashed terror in rural hinterlands seguing into the jungle ?  As Divisional Forest Officer, Vidya Vincent ( Balan ) will now have to track down this transgressive beast. She may succeed, as she is gifted with composure and determination but who really has taught her to office the much more dangerous forests of political cross-fire and gamesmanship ?  Her chances of success may be shot dead in the grasses as have been so many tigresses before her in the subcontinent.

Masurkar’s second film ‘Newton’ (2017), about a young presiding election officer determined to hold ballots for 76 people in the heart of a Naxal-haunted forest, may well be a masterpiece of world cinema. Alas, Masurkar stumbles in the reeds of ‘Sherni’s taxing terrain, never quite being able to make up his mind whether this will have the rabid bite of a ferocious political tale, the visceral thrill-‘n’-hot-cold fear of rip-roaring jungle scorcher, or a lethal skein of both. In the end, none of those qualities make into this layered yarn. A lukewarm tone suited ‘Newton’ like a Saville Row stitch, following in the grand languid tradition of breeze-shooting movies like ‘Ostre Sledovane Vlaki’, but tougher Khaki cuts called for in this pic are barely in evidence. Anemic execution venesected my great hopes for this film.

Opening shot, though, is an inspired one, a khaki-clad young man with a face that can channel a beast, down on all fours, scowling and roaring as he paces centre-frame straight towards us. Which champion tiger in the world can hold a candle to this creature which single-handedly reduced the tiger population in India from a hundred thousand to the brink of extinction, led by the noble Britishers ? Never mind, change frame to the current forest officer lot who now maintain the world biggest tiger population at 3000 odd. They’re setting up camera-traps to catalog the megafauna. But trouble looms in sylvan paradise as ominous news reaches Vidya Vincent’s forest officer group. A villager has been killed by an animal…  and a Tiger is suspected to be behind the mauling.

To Masurkar’s credit or otherwise, he never shows a tiger attack in the entire picture. There is not a single shot where a tiger leaps towards a human, or a human goes after in dare-devil pursuit. The best we get are long-range shots where a hunter aims a rifle at a far-away tiger. He also teases us with shots of vulnerable humans sitting in fields or near the forest – we think a tiger attack is about to happen but the only paw swipe here is that of the editor cutting to a different scene. The director may aver that the kind of animal thrill I’m talking about was never in his cinematic plan. If so, I respect his restraint, while lamenting that the tremendous primal excitement of a well-executed predator attack, is simply absent in this plodder. Since we don’t want our brethren or sistren mauled in real-life filming, the alternative to achieve those daunting shots is multi-million dollar CGI effects, a la ‘Life of Pi’ or ‘Apocalypto’, the kind of budget this movie just does not have access to. Even when moolah is scarce, talent and imagination can claw in – see Sasha Snow’s outstanding ‘Conflict Tiger’ a documentary that is half the runtime and quadruple the thrill of a film like “Sherni”.

The forest department is chaired by an innocuous gent Bansilal Bansal, scribble-essayed by Brijendra Kala as a bespectacled frowsy little man who mumbles and stumbles through difficulties. That lasts until the tiger attacks and more vicious human wrangling prove too hot for his leather-upholstered chair which is close enough to almost scratch and obscure an enormous portrait of a tiger behind him. As D.F.O, Vidya Vincent competently de-escalates the enraged people when multiple villagers started falling prey, and one of her baits to capture the tiger alive almost succeeds. But she hasn’t factored in the moronic brigade of a politico who charges in shouting, with enough din to scare away pumas in Canada. A hunter muscles in with an aim to kill the big cat, much to conservationist Vidya’s chagrin. Two separate political animals sense the opportunity here to feed anger into votes.

The political chicanery however, clubbed with parodying portrayals of febrile and two-timing TV channels, is a been-there-done-that shtick at which other Indian movies have done snappier sniping.  ‘Sherni’ just does not have the agility or bite to chomp on this angle lustily.

The movie’s greatest strength is its obvious love of the jungle – no other Indian movie has this much lush coverage of the Indian wilds. The camera lingers over twilight canopies through which the waning sun glints gem-like. Countless shots abound of rangers walking beside the stream and staring at pug marks. Audio records their banter as part of the background music. Masurkar is not hesitant to record non-essential dialogue that colours his refreshing cinema verité integrity. Vidya’s mother and mother-in-law join the fray at the forest bungalow, and at the dinner table a scientist explains how he cooked the dish in mustard oil while Vidya’s mother-in-law chimes in about how indeed potato is so versatile !

Vidya’s character is a diligent and intelligent one but lacks the street-smarts to slyly build up personal power in what is a male-dominated sector. She works with integrity throughout, but at key moments when she is better off withdrawing or re-negotiating so as to fight another day, she is her straight-arrow bull-headed self not realizing that her superiors will use that arrow to boomerang on her. For all her goodness, nobody will confuse her to be Chanakya, surrounded as she is by enemies. Aside from placating villagers, there is no other instance where her humourless persona surprises us with any lateral intelligence or wit.

Vidya Balan unfortunately does little to perk up this drab role. Akin to her dull act in ‘Kahaani 2‘, this is a shockingly plain performance from an A-list star, a straight-arrow forest officer who chews on the scenery with as much thespian verve as a Sambar deer. Tiger digs the latter so I’m surprised Vidya didn’t get nearer to the target. Neeraj Kabi with his ‘sly veteran’ persona is mostly wasted in his role as a powerful senior in the forestry department – it could have been a juicier character with better directorial guidance to sink the fangs deeper. And Kabi should watch out lest he be stuck with Parulkar forever. Despite a good cast, ‘Sherni’ suffers from tame acts.   

The film thus meanders between toothless tiger tale and wan interpersonal drama, frittering away vital narrative sinew with loose direction and low intensity. The attractive visuals are also shortchanged by an utter lack of riveting background score. Pic ends on a whimper, whereas the whole film had fantastic potential to be a taut multi-structure beast with a gut-punch of an ending, had the screenplay and direction sported more brain and heart. Amit Masurkar dropped the apple in “Newton” with cart-rocking panache, but here he almost lays an egg. One can hardly blame him, as any kid cognizant of Newton knows that what goes up must come down. For his third film after ‘N’, one hopes that the third law of motion will indeed hold true – as lacklustre as ‘Sherni’ is, may his next film will be equally opposite in merit.




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