By Arré Bench Jun. 18, 2021
Amazon Prime Video’s Sherni is an imperiously effective story of gender and politics on the cusp of the Indian forest that may well be a metaphor for the rest of the country.
The Sherni in Indian parlance connotes the fighting spirit of a woman. While the tiger is often referred to for its royalty, the Sherni is often seen as the rebellious spirit, one who steps out of her comfort zone and aims for the unsurmountable. The female tiger is often a figment of our imagination because most of us will in our lifetimes never see one, except maybe in captivity at a zoo.
Though it is backed by fact, this notional caricature of the female tiger is also a creation of the male mind. Because men assume women to be gullible and weak, they presume that the mere act of standing their ground must take an enormous amount of gut and courage. The sad reality however is that in most corners of India, that is actually the case. To which effect, Amazon Prime Video’s Sherni is a searing, sucker punch of a film that offers a poignant view of how our politics of gender, mirrors that of the forest. Here are five reasons why there should be more films like Sherni:
Vidya Balan sheds her stardom
It’s unlikely, but if Sherni were the first film you saw Vidya Balan in, you’d be forgiven for thinking she isn’t a Bollywood actress, or more precisely a well-known star. A decade ago, shedding your makeup and improvising in your roles was considered ground-breaking for actresses in the industry. Thanks to Balan, the bar now is so high, it will take a gargantuan effort to overcome. In Sherni, Balan plays the newly appointed DFO Vidya, a polite and understated officer trying to grapple with the complicated politics of her new posting and toxic masculinity that no rank can stay clear off.
Balan disappears into the role, often indistinguishable from her uniform wearing subordinates and unremarkable as you’d assume govt officers appointed to the fringes of the country are. This is no vacation for Vidya, as she learns the ropes of a politics driven in jest by masculinity, especially by men who believe they are better animals (hunters) than they are humans. Amidst all the chaos, Balan delivers a memorable performance.
Bureaucracy and its ills
Most middle class families in India, most families for that matter consider govt jobs to be a gold mine, not because of the money but because of the faff you can get away with. Most people want govt jobs not because they are lucrative, but because they are stable and imply little or no work. It’s a bit of a contradiction, but in Sherni you also get to see a side of bureaucracy that you can only see as an insider.
Politics and diplomacy aren’t just ideas here, they are everyday exercises, often for the sake of survival. The ladders here don’t always go up, they also go sideways, towards illicit favours, partnerships, profits and even fraud. In Sherni, Bijendra Kala’s role as the head of the forest department is a hilarious yet concerning portrayal of an officer trying to bide his time, stuck at a profession he probably neither loves nor wishes to give his all for. It’s symbolic of how India’s bureaucracy functions – run on the shoulders of people who are as busy conning their own institutions as they are the rest of us.
Politics as inseparable from life and death
In our country, everything is a matter of debate. Anything from the fall of a building wall to the collapse of a personal marriage can be politicised beyond the ambit of privacy and personal space. In Sherni, the movement of a tigress becomes the subject of an election campaign. It is ludicrous on one level, but pull yourself out of your urban surroundings and nature suddenly begins to take over.
And wherever in India there is life, and subsequently death, there is politics looking to stretch it this way or that for gain. In Sherni, there are so many sides to the coin, the issue becomes a nightmare to even untangle, let alone solve. It just shows how easy it is to demand solutions in this country, and how perpetually impossible to enact any.
A detailed look at a forgotten function of governance
The govt is often measured through its delivery of roads and bridges, buildings and cities – largely urban markers. Rarely do we interact with the side of the governance that is also dedicated to keeping our forests, our hinterlands in harmony. The forest department is perhaps the least studied, and subsequently least understood bureaucratic arm of the govt.
Because it operates in places we only visit as tourists we understand little about its functionary relevance to the rest of the country. Thankfully, Sherni is so well detailed and put together it provides a near realistic view of a department’s inner workings, its complicated relationship with the people it directly affects and also the many things that ail its day to day operations. It’s delightful how Sherni authentically recreates the ordinary workings of a little known govt department.
An immersive look at life in the forest
Amit V Masurkar, who previously forayed into the forest with Newton, goes full tilt this time but with a healthy restraint so as to not forget his key characters. It would be easy for a Director to be overwhelmed by the forest and lose focus of his story for the sake of the countless beautiful shots he could capture. But Masurkar sticks to his characters, looks at them up close and chooses to see the forest through their eyes.
In documentary-style shots the Director puts us up close with actual forest rangers, whose unremarkable oration of animalistic instincts makes for chillingly effective viewing. It’s surreal to think that creatures we wondrously view on our tv screens are so intimately familiar to a handful of people like us. “Agar apne sher ko ek baar dekha hai toh maan lijiye who apko 100 baar dekh chukka hai”, a ranger tells another in a coldly impressive scene.
Don’t forget to catch this Sherni for your weekend watch list, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.