“Bandar baat ka khela.. khele main hai jhamele bade..

Neend main hoe hazamat, jaage toh phir tote ude…”

“Bandar-baat”, aka the story of two cats fighting for a cake and a monkey offering his services to make equal shares of the cake to both of them is known to all and sundry. That the monkey eventually gobbles up the whole cake, while pretending to come up with the share, is the conclusion that everyone’s aware of. What happens next is the story that makes things interesting. After getting duped by the monkey, the cats plead to the members of the animal welfare committee who have their takes on the incident. The sheep takes the side of the cats, stating that it’s always weak who has to bear the brunt. The bear comes up with a counter plan and asks cats to get up on the tree and have honey instead. The jackal doesn’t care for the cats’ pleas while howling in glee and the snake acquits the monkey and instead chides the cats for involving him in their internal feud. Eventually, the weary cats realise that while nobody else is going to pay them for their lost cake, they only have themselves to blame for their loss. Lyricist Hussain Haidry takes this story and elevates it to a different level altogether weaving with his words, as he fits it into the real world in the song ‘Bandar Baat’ describing the hullabaloo in the film. In a nutshell, ‘Sherni’ is about this “Bandar-baat”, the divisive policies of the society that we live in. Its director Amit Masurkar’s last film ‘Newton’ (2017) was a scathing attack on the electoral system of the country. This time he turns his gun on the forever volatile relationship between the people and the governance using the centuries-old feud between man and the wild as a motif.

Based on a script by Aastha Tikoo, ‘Sherni’ is the story of Vidya Vincent. She joins as the divisional forest officer with the advent of the news of a tigress terrorising the local villagers and their cattle. Her efforts to catch the tigress falls short, as she realises her fight just isn’t with the feline, rather it’s against the rampant corruption, patriarchy, bureaucracy and to a larger extent, the whole system. With every attack on the villagers, the heat turns up for the tigress’s head, making things difficult for Vidya. Panning out almost like a wild-life documentary that shows up on satellite channels like National Geographic or Animal Planet, ‘Sherni’ is the story of a tigress trying to get back into the jungle. It’s also the story of a woman, trying to fight for her place, in a man’s world. Both the tigress and Vidya’s situation are identical. If Vidya has to face casual sexism at work with her superior botching up her speech by his political agenda or for that matter, the local politician dismissing her authority as a key person, then the tigress also subjected to nasty comments about her breeding process, not that the tigress cares for it, but it shows the mentality of the people. Vidya faces hurdles at every step of hers, in the form of local politicians, poachers and her co-workers. In her personal life also, she is subjected to criticism for her choices – of not having a baby, of not getting decked up for a party, of having whiskey instead of non-alcoholic drinks at an office get-together, of having an opinion of her own. The constant pushback from all quarters torments her, limiting her abilities. Yet she fights it out, with equal determination. Just like the tigress battling it out in the big, bad jungle. 

Vidya Balan gives her all as the protagonist Vidya Vincent. As a ‘difficult’ woman to handle in the common parlance in bureaucracy, she gets it right on. Brijendra Kala as the opportunistic boss of hers gets a meatier role. As the comedic, hapless head of the forest department, he puts in a great performance. Vijay Raaz plays Vidya’s ally Noorani, a Zoology professor and moth hobbyist who believes the only way forward is to save the forest and its inhabitants are to maintain the eco-balance between man and animal. Vidya’s nemesis is Pintu bhaiya, a local hunter with years of expertise, played by the veteran Sharat Saxena. Neeraj Kabi plays Vidya’s mentor Nangia Sir, who becomes a crucial factor for Vidya’s decision, both at the beginning and at the climax of the film. The ensemble cast led by Mukul Chaddha, Ila Arun and the larger set-up of the locales playing as actors, make the film look authentic. The cinematographer Rakesh Haridas captures the sombre mood of the film very well through his lenses. A special mention to the song ‘Bandar Baat’ for accurately summing up the film, at a pivotal moment for which credit must go to lyricist Hussain Haidry, music director Mayur Navrekar and singers Aishwarya Joshi and Roshan Khan.

Ultimately, ‘Sherni’ becomes a social commentary, a fightback, a reason for two females’ survival against all odds. It’s just that, the tigress has to fight against the man, whereas the woman fights against the whole system, perhaps set in the image of men. Cornered, both Vidya and the tigress make their final attempts to beat their common adversary – People with hidden agendas. 

‘Sherni’ (2021) streaming on Amazon Prime. Running time of 131 minutes. Rated Universal. Parental caution advised as it contains gory images of dead people and animal carcasses. 

The Cinemawala Rating: 3/5

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