A still from the trailer for ‘Sherni’. Image: Amazon Prime Video
(Disclaimer: I’m a conservation scientist, not a movie critic.)
In the memorable BBC series The Land of the Tiger, there is a scene that shows the tranquilisation of a tiger in the Panna tiger reserve, as part of a radio-telemetry project. I was present at that event; the collared tigers were to be the subject of my master’s research from the Wildlife Institute of India.
Among the two dozen or so other people present in that operation was a resort owner from Bandhavgarh. It was my job to keep the crowd at bay until the tiger was fully sedated. The hotelier of course jumped the gun, brushing my protestations aside with a “mera thirty years ka experience hai“1 dialogue. The tiger wasn’t fully sedated, and the ‘experienced tiger expert’ exited hastily and ungraciously at the first grunt.
Watching Sharat Saxena’s character Pintu bhaiya in Amit Masurkar’s film Sherni brought back memories of that moment, and of the pioneering wildlife scientist George Schaller’s famous quote that “there are more tiger experts in India than there are tigers”. Virtually every tiger reserve in India has at least a dozen of these resident experts, who claim to know the tigers in “their” reserve and will draw an elaborate lineage of who begat whom in almost Old Testament detail.
Of course, these bonfire stories rarely withstand the test of science (or logic).
Sherni is loosely based on the story of the tigress ‘Avni’, and the tragic consequences of human-wildlife conflict that saw a toll of 13 humans and one tiger in Maharashtra between 2016 and 2018. As a conservation scientist, I heartily congratulate Masurkar and his team for really doing their homework. Conservation in India suffers from several problems. Macho men with patriarchal mindsets, as exemplified by Pintu bhaiya, are important contributing factors to almost all of them.
Thankfully, in this movie, there are no long-lensed camera-touting, camo-geared male protagonists pretending to be forest officers, and even more thankfully, no skimpily attired damsels in distress blundering about through lantana-infested forests. Instead, there are simple but powerful characters, portrayed with depth and feeling.
The cast of characters is rich and diverse, easily identifiable to anyone who has dealt with forestry bureaucracy in complex situations. The distant disinterest and officiousness of the comical senior bureaucrat Bansilal Bansal, played by Brijendra Kala (whose official rank is strangely not defined in the movie); Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), the zoology professor who finally finds someone willing to listen to scientific expertise; the suave and experienced, yet ultimately spineless ‘senior’ officer, Akhil Nangia (Neeraj Kabi); and a host of frontline forest staff, local villagers, politicians and others. Vidya Balan, of course, delivers a powerful, no-nonsense performance playing the lead character of Vidya Vincent, a divisional forest officer, in the forests of Madhya Pradesh. Balan’s character is inspired by Maharashtra cadre IFS officer K.M. Abharna, who handled the Avni conflict.
However, strangely, the local police seem to be missing from the cast of characters, and the role of the media and urban animal welfare groups in fanning the flames and muddying the waters has been played down considerably.
The movie tactfully, and sometimes in subtle ways, shows the challenge that women officers and staff face in a male-dominated profession and society. Take the manner in which Pintu bhaiya dismisses Vidya’s concerns about the cubs (“Aapka experience abhi zyaada kam hai”2), or the young female wildlife professional from Kanha who challenges his identification of the “tiger” scat, or the judgemental look the bartender gives Balan when she asks for a whiskey instead of the soft drink that she is first offered.
The cinematography is breathtaking, transporting me instantly back to the central Indian highlands. Carrying on from where Masurkar left off in Newton (2017), the forest is portrayed with sensitivity. It is a place that is both magical as well as one that is lived in. There are no tired tropes of “dangerous jungles”. The evening scene by the river is filled with the noises of the forest, and a sense of the gloaming is beautifully captured, even while Balan peers anxiously into the forest looking for hidden danger. The human-wildlife conflict is shown without unnecessary dramatisation, and with the everyday raw brutality experienced by people who are resigned to live with it.
Wildlife scientists are anxious when watching any film based on forests, due to the risk of having the local fauna and flora misrepresented. This is again something to which Masurkar has paid great attention. Sherni is no glorified wildlife documentary with gratuitous scenes of herds of misplaced African wildlife prancing around. Instead, when wildlife is shown, it is but a fleeting glimpse, as one normally experiences it. A part of the forest. A lone cheetal in a glade, a grey langur slinking away quietly, a Calotes lizard basking on a branch.
There are also delightful little touches – the melody of the doorbell when Balan comes to visit Noorani, the room full of dusty old files in the forest department office, the vibrant (bordering on garish) shirts that the revelers wear – all showcase the meticulous attention to detail.
The highlight of the film to me is how admirably it touches on a range of issues that foresters and frontline staff face when dealing with conservation and human-wildlife conflicts in complex socio-political scenarios. The decrepit offices filled with crumpling furniture and dusty old files, the enormous political and local pressure on forest staff and the inevitable power games that arise from the conflicting sides. The film also highlights a number of issues that plague conservation in India, including the mindless tree-plantation drives in village commons traditionally used for grazing livestock, the large open-cast mine in the middle of an ecologically fragile tiger corridor, and the politically driven mob that vents its ire on the forest staff. These scenarios are repeated over and over across the country.
One is also thankful that the script stayed true to the eventual story, and the fate of the tiger.
The sensitive and realistic portrayal of ‘real-world’ conservation will allow audiences in India to better appreciate our conservation successes and the cost at which they have come. Hopefully, they will also appreciate who pays those costs.
If I had to really be critical about anything, it would be in not acknowledging the vagaries of the ‘transfer raj’ that plays out in the bureaucracy. This is of course a problem in all government services, but when dealing with particularly wicked problems in wildlife conservation, you need the right woman for the job. Unfortunately, just as soon as an officer gets to understand the lay of the land, the ecology of the system and the socio-politics, they are often shunted out, often to a completely unrelated wing. Where we see Balan end is not where she began.
As in Newton, Masurkar takes great pains to ensure that the forest gets its due in Sherni. It plays a starring role, and enhances the giant performances of the other actors. The bar is set very high. I await with great anticipation his next project.
Abi T. Vanak is an associate professor at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, ATREE Bengaluru.