Director: Amit V Masurkar
Writers: Amit V Masurkar, Aastha Tiku, Yashasvi Mishra
Cinematography: Rakesh Haridas
Edited from: Dipika Kalra
Starring: Vidya Balan, Vijay Raaz, Sharat Saxena, Mukul Chadda, Neeraj Kabi, Brijendra Kala and Ila Arun
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
The elusive tigress is a fertile metaphor. In Sahirr Sethhi’s Emmy-winning student fortune, Zoe, which aired on MUBI in May 2020, this metaphor was personal. Zoya is also the name of the missing tigress, which the searching conservationist (Rajesh Tailang) is looking for in the Kanha Tiger Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. and the estranged daughter whose forgiveness he seeks. With the help of a young biologist (Manjot Singh), he spent weeks setting traps for cameras, scanning memory cards and tracking coins. His mission is a private cry for salvation. In Amit Masurkar’s third feature film, Sherney (meaning “tigress”), the lens narrows to suggest that salvation in the Indian bureaucracy is rarely an isolated journey. The metaphor is personal, but also political, social and cultural. The title of the film refers to a woman – both human and tiger – who was displaced from her habitat due to an apathetic system before being declared a destructive “man-eater” because she was simply trying to survive. One pursues the other because he understands another.
Vidya Balan is Vidya Vincent, the new divisional forestry officer (DFO) in the jungle in Madhya Pradesh: her first field trip in six years to a desk in Mumbai. Her stay was marked by a crisis. Some cattle are slaughtered first. Then two villagers were tortured to death. With the help of a zoology professor named Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), Vidya and her team set out to find the feline culprit. But the mission is anything but private. Her shepherd boss, Bansal (Brijendra Kala), is in collusion with a local lawmaker who turns the “tiger problem” into a campaign cow, calling for the anger of the angry former lawmaker. The pressure from above throws into the mixture a commercial hunter named Pinto (Sharat Saxena), a hellish macho man willing to feed his bloodlust. Somewhere between them, Vidya, the spiritual cousin of Dalit’s titular election official from the director’s previous film Newton, is reduced to an upright pawn on an inclined chessboard. Her honesty irritates her superiors. Her procedural search for the predator reflects the search for her own identity in a society that interprets the female agency as negotiations for space and place. An example of this is a scene in which Vidya, during a modest office party, secretly breastfeeds a glass of whiskey in the corner, outside the official view: Her place in society dictates her choice of space. Moments later, encouraged by the arrival of an old mentor, she returned to the open garden with her glass in her hand. Somehow his soothing presence entices her to hide – instinct echoed at a crucial climax with the tigress and the trap.
The writing of Sherney is exemplary in the way it demystifies the pattern of “creature film” and, as an extension, the fulfilled connection between man and nature. The clarity of the construction of the world is such that in practice I could map the causal chain behind the premise. As in any multi-storey democracy, Vidya faces the clutter of her predecessors – the previous DFO turned precious cattle grazing into a teak plantation, forcing villagers to feed their animals in the jungle, which in turn led to the attacks. In one of the first scenes of the film, we see Vidya tackle a self-serving artist who has neglected the dry watering cans in the forest – this is not written, but this “tiny” surveillance interferes with the natural order, creating unrest Sherney is centered on. As a result, the tigress is rarely used as a means of narrative tension. We learn early on that, unlike its counterpart, the animal essentially moves in a maze of red-striped doors. (Initial shot shows a “please close the door” sign on the office wall). To make a graphic analogy, Pac-Man’s zero-sum game comes to mind: Hunger is the common trigger, ghosts close.
At one point, Vidya’s eyes light up when she realizes that the tigress is approaching the National Park. But her face pales as the map shows a copper mine blocking the road. The symbolism is silent: Vidya’s fieldwork, which once promised the freedom of the national park in her career, is in fact the “development” that hinders her progress. The exposition in Sherney is subtle and organic, shaping the dialogue as an inseparable expression of the script. The tiger’s curious facts (“likes shade, open paths, returns to the place of prey”) are conveyed through conversations between officers and instructions from rural residents. The information is not forcibly adapted, it merges into a scene. We learn about politics through angry peasants. Vidya’s driver tells her about the geography of the area: a connection between forests and fields that endangers both humans and animals. Her exchange with subordinates further reveals that the balance is uncertain and all it can take is one wrong screw to collapse the structure. The verbal framework leaves no doubt as to why – and how – the central conflict is a consequence of systemic decay.
Much of the film’s design maintains the duality between man and wildlife. Some of them are visual. Sherney opens with a blurry shot of what looks and sounds like a walking tiger before the figure is sharpened to reveal a man making a “realistic” imitation to test the camera’s trap. The initial cut juxtaposes the open jungle against the forest department’s regulated fatigue – where stacked files, peeling walls, creaking fans and rusty desks mask each other. The killing of a tiger is never shown – firstly, because physical horror is not a priority in the film, and secondly, because one “victim” generally attacks another victim. But one scene shows the prey from the predator’s point of view. Bent to the ground and dressed in white, a man looks like an unfortunate goat from this angle – an optical illustration of the theory that such deaths are largely provoked and accidental.
Part of the design is immersed in the vagaries of language. The word “beast” evokes the image of the rifle hunter – and his clique of sexist government grandmothers who, once intoxicated, howl like wolves and dance to vulgar songs. The Zoo challenges the mentally closed but colorful characters that Vidya is surrounded by. “Circus” implies the coverage of news and the storm on social media after the breakthrough story – an ode to such a satirical montage by Newton. “Monkey Business” is the title of a powerful protest song marking this reversal montage. The belligerent lawmakers are called PK Singh and GK Singh, reminding that all politicians are equally deceitful to the voters they promise to serve. The protagonist’s alliterative name, Vidya Vincent, provokes a superhero undercover – but more importantly, a woman does what is traditionally considered a man’s job. A nod to this occurs not only in dialogue (a subordinate describes the previous DFO as a “superman”), but also in a sequence in which Vidya’s family is in the city. Upon receiving a work call, the dressed Vidya abandons the dinner party and hands over her earrings to her dirty husband: Wearing a clear nose means taking off her shiny jewelry.
It may not look like that, but Sherney is an important – and timely – film in Vidya Balan’s career. Her remarkable sense of spirit is often misinterpreted by major Hindi directors, which facilitates her immersion in large-scale feminist roles such as Shakuntala Devi, Mission Mangal and Begum Jean. But Sherney is a soothing cocktail of all that Balan is and can be – dash Kahaani, sprinkle with Tumhari Sulu and No one killed Jessica – as a quietly determined lady who resigns herself to the fears of patriarchal central India. It is somewhat appropriate that her Vidya is also a nervous but professional professional in a male-dominated field. One might argue that, like Newton, Vidya is too righteous. Too clean. But its disadvantage is accurate this, in the context of the ‘environment’, it fights to defend and oppose.
The supporting cast is solid, especially the unprepared Brijendra Kala and the ageless Sharat Saxena. Whether it’s an asthma attack after a chase or he understands the difference between a butterfly and a moth (who knows that the moth translates as “parvana”, the main lyric of the 90’s – Bollywood?), Kala’s idiosyncrasies ensure that frivolity the film is behavioral and not fictional. It’s nice to see Mukul Chada in a high-profile film – as Vidya’s long-distance wife, Pavan – although the creators err on the side of stupidity to emphasize the wife’s stoic virtue. The fake note is Neeraj Kabi, who appears to be spelled out as an arrogant veteran selling souls. Apparently involving non-professional performers and locals, some of the peripheral cast look awkward on screen. But I like that the camera draws attention to the young women in the setting: a vigilant lady officer, a fiery member of the panchayat committee, a crooked forest ranger.
But perhaps the most striking reef of the language is the name of the tigress: T12. For the biologically inclined, T12 is the name of the largest bone in the mid-spine. In short, it means “spine” – one that keeps the system upright and paralyzes the body when injured. Saw knows these bets; she knows what the two represent in the anatomy of democracy. Therefore, the most terrible final credit sequence in recent memory has just that: a spine moving in a museum of paralysis. The spine allows the way the plight of the villagers reflects the fate of the Indian working class during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the hidden danger, they have to choose between living and making a living: the choice is not a luxury they can afford. The spine also allows the way the puzzled Muslim zoologist watches when a Hindu MLA kidnaps an event to secure an ominously known election step: This is our territory, no their. If the tiger enters our space, we will teach then lesson. Eventually in a full-blooded movie like Sherney, the spine is the bridge to the gap between truth and tragedy.