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Vidya Balan's "Sherni" — Reviewed

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Sherni revels in a muted agitation that captures the tense undertones of Indian conservation.

Forest officer with green shirt walking through field of grass and surveying the forest
Tigress at heart by Sakshi Maeen

All you need are the first ten minutes to understand that Sherni is not your usual Bollywood film. Wide drone shots of the Dewaldi forests (in Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh), the ominous crawls of forest officers, and the apparent lack of any music — all unusual for a film of this scale. And then there’s Vidya Balan. Placed in a de-glammed role, Balan plays IFS officer Vidya Vincent as she attempts to navigate a recent posting transfer and the hurdles that come with it. With a refreshingly diverse cast and gritty, well-textured take on environmentalism, Sherni breaks out of Bollywood’s fictional theatrics and paints a painfully realistic image of the Indian in the wild.



It’s clear that, under Masurkar’s direction, Sherni wants to explain itself. When Balan’s character first gets word of an attack, her driver concurs that the cause must be a tiger. When asked why by Balan, the driver explains that it is the land — the awkward, unplanned mosaic of fields and forests at fault.



Masurkar is making an important point here by bringing up the genuine issue of human-wildlife conflict and how the fragmentation of a forest can lead to unforeseen social costs. Case studies in Nepal (Acharya, Paudel, Jnawali, Neupane, & Köhl, 2017) and the Amazon rainforest (Michalski, Boulhosa, Faria, & Peres, 2006) have repeatedly shown a direct, positive relationship between the degree to which a habitat is fragmented and the frequency of conflicts. Within India, the most significant cause for having to change a habitat (known as Land-Use Change) is agriculture, as is shown in the movie, with farmers and cattle herders being the primary victims.


As is to be expected, the tigress isn’t the only animal Vidya Vincent has to deal with. Even before we hear about the tigress, we experience the first of various interactions between Vidya and her superior, Mr Bansal, a man who makes it very clear who supersedes who. Transferred amid local Panchayat elections, many of her viewers will empathise with Vidya having to play second fiddle to larger, political interests at hand. We see nepotism when the incompetencies of a contractor are glossed over simply by being the local legislator’s brother-in-law. More egregiously, we get a first-hand look at how politics finds its way into spaces that do not call for it.

Group of people in a mob with a political and hunter with a gun preparing to hunt a tiger
A still showing the vigilante mob led by the local MLA and a hunter. Source: Cinestaan

A public event meant to educate citizens about the tiger is conveniently overtaken by a local MLA and his rowdy supporters. As a result, the overall message is diluted by propaganda, and the issue of the tigress transforms from an ecological conflict to a political one. It made the issue into an election discussion, framing it as the “us vs them” scenario that has reliably worked in politics for aeons. The end of the show sums it up best. Before the disruption, the actor playing the tiger stands peacefully next to Vidya. Upon completing the “anti-sherni” speech, the actor slowly removes his mask, revealing two humans next to each other, rather than a human and a tiger — a well-placed reflection of the refusal to coexist.


This incident comes to haunt Vidya later. An attempt to capture the tiger ends with a loud mob, and villagers accuse the forest department of being biased, creating mistrust between entities that should cooperate. The Aarey protests (Johari, 2019) and Indus water treaty conflict (Bhaskar, 2021) are recent examples of environmental issues that have either become political or have been created as a political tool.


Man performing a skit to demonstrate how to behave in case of a tiger
Shown above is the show held for villagers where a professor explains how to react if approached by a tiger. Source: Cinestaan

While I could go on about how Sherni hits close to home regarding political issues, I also wanted to appreciate the nuances it provides to the socio-ecological aspects of this situation. It’s refreshing to see Vidya carve her niche in a space that, in reality, is primarily male-dominated. Her team consists of equally competent men and women (of course, this doesn’t stop people from referring to Vidya as “lady officer” rather than simply “officer”). When negotiating with villagers, Jyoti steps up to the plate and bridges the two sides in a joint effort to keep the community together.


Building on this is that neither of these characters has had their “lady” -ness explicitly spoken about or virtue-signalled. Instead, he lets their actions, as seen with Vidya’s intimacy with her husband and with Jyoti’s moments as a mother, speak for themselves and subverts the notion that women have to be manly to succeed or to make a point.


This takes on greater significance when recalling that women (particularly those in lower and middle-income countries) are disproportionately impacted by various environmental issues yet often lack access to necessities, rights, and stakeholder representation when discussing them. Sherni is a unique deviant from this, and it looks to be seen whether reality can catch up.


Male and Female forest officers examining a drawing while searching for a tiger in India
Source: Cinestaan

Sherni’s steadfast commitment to sticking to the facts comes about halfway through. The cattle herders inform Vidya that Teak plantations had forced them to find new grazing grounds, which is why they have to graze in the forest. However, in investigating these plantations, she is informed that nothing can be done about the Teak plantations since the union government’s afforestation rules mandate them. I, for one, was genuinely surprised to see a Bollywood movie starring a high-profile actress take the time needed to flesh out something as under-spoken off in Indian cinema as conflicting environmental policies. It may never be spoken of in films at this scale ever again, but how wonderful it was to see it happen now!


However, the best way to sum up Sherni is at the very beginning, in the video call between Vidya and her husband. Upon vocalising her discontent, her husband quickly steps in to remind her of what has been told to most Indian workers — it’s a harsh world, be grateful for your job, do your work, and bring home the money. I imagine this must have stung Vidya, having to actively reduce her passion to a mundane, lifeless job — devoid of passion and with little support from the agencies and people that run it.


Vidya Balan, playing a forest officer, surveys the forest while looking at the camera from a distance
A still showing Vidya Vincent (played by Vidya Balan) surveying the forest

Upon saving the tiger cubs, we see Vidya working in a museum, well distanced from the tropical and political jungles of Madhya Pradesh. My mom perceived this as a loss when watching this — an all too familiar narrative of the few bright flames being put out before their time (Sen, 2021). For me, however, it felt more like a progression — a way to truly curate how people view the creatures that populate our surroundings without the interference of those with ulterior motives.


Maybe that’s what Sherni is all about. A gruelling realisation of how messed up it all is, followed by a subversive response against it. It may be wiser to lose a battle if it means inching closer to victory in the war.



References


Acharya, K. P., Paudel, P. K., Jnawali, S. R., Neupane, P. R., & Köhl, M. (2017). Can forest fragmentation and configuration work as indicators of human–wildlife conflict? Evidences from human death and injury by wildlife attacks in Nepal. Ecological Indicators, 80, 74-83.


Bhaskar, U. (2021, July 5). India to divert excess waters under Indus treaty to irrigate own land. Retrieved August 2021, from Mint:


Johari, A. (2019, September 15). Saving Aarey: Why a city with a weak protest culture is demonstrating to protect Mumbai’s green lung. Retrieved August 2021, from Scroll:


Michalski, F., Boulhosa, R., Faria, A., & Peres, C. (2006). Human–wildlife conflicts in a fragmented Amazonian forest landscape: determinants of large felid depredation on livestock. Animal Conservation, 9(2), 179-188.


Sen, M. (2021, February 19). Disha Ravi, 22-year-old climate activist, sent to jail for 3 days in 'toolkit' case by Delhi court Disha Ravi, a climate activist, arrives at a court in New Delhi. Retrieved August 2021, from Mint:


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