After the success of his 2017 political black comedy Newton, director Amit V Masurkar once again aims to shed light on India’s contemporary social issues. Ostensibly a thriller, Sherni tackles sexism and the absurdities of bureaucracy, all in relation to the age-old conflict between man and nature.
The title, which means “tigress” in Hindi, refers not only to the wandering animal at the centre of the film’s clashes but also the protagonist, forest officer Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan). A taciturn government worker, Vidya’s fierceness shows itself in her astonishing resilience: determined to capture the man-eating tiger alive, she rails against her uncaring, opportunistic superiors and the local politicians who use the animal to incite villagers to violence. In the end, Vidya’s compassion bucks against an incendiary, bloodthirsty hunter who only wants the poor beast dead.
Balan excels here with a subtle performance that avoids platitudinous girl-power poses. Underneath Vidya’s quiet exterior is a resolute refusal to cower to authority, and thus, when she hits a roadblock in her quest, the slightest crack in her composure feels shattering.
Masurkar’s signature dark humour is in evidence in visual details: Vidya’s boss, for instance, has a gigantic photo of a tiger in his office, but is completely oblivious to the specificities of conservation work. But unlike with Newton, Masurkar is credited for co-writing the dialogue but not the full screenplay, and perhaps this is why Sherni lacks the mathematical exactness of Newton’s satire.
In fact, the film operates much like the roaming tiger, meandering from political commentary to a study of women in a male-dominated field. These are important issues, but Sherni reiterates near-identical scenes of confrontation without delving into their causes, thus wasting the excellent cast of veteran character actors. Still, this is an engaging excursion into the trials and tribulations of environmental conservation, which rarely get fictionalised on screen.