My first response to the recently released Sherni was that of admiration. I was enthralled by the ways in which the film covered so much ground, to the extent that it seemed to hover between a documentary and a fictional piece. This is an aspect that doesn’t always go down well with viewers, given that many desire cinematic storytelling to offer something “extra” than merely a commentary on real-life issues. But despite its truthful depiction of the complexities that beleaguer forest communities and forest administration in India, Sherni manages to become more than the sum of its parts.
The film’s fullness of spirit is not only achieved through its superb cast, screenplay and politics, but also via its understated, organic narration. It is a telling that effortlessly segues the struggles of the protagonist officer Vidya Vincent with that of the local villagers and the egotistical machinations of fellow bureaucrats, private players and politicians. The strategically placed shots of wilderness taken both from the air and along the earth carve an interior domain for the film, so that the emerging perspective doesn’t only remain humanly-oriented but also becomes more-than-human.
Sensing a forest
By a happy quirk of fate, my last year got bookended by two visits to Uttarakhand’s Jim Corbett National Park, a geography teeming with sal trees, hilly contours, deer, tigers, and much else – not unlike the one portrayed in Sherni. Driving through its lush environs amidst the scintillating company of newly-made conservationist friends, I actively began to immerse myself in the myriad details that composed the natural landscape. Away from the helter-skelter of the metropolis, the jungle constantly crafted its own vocabulary of variety and wonder that needed to be understood at its own pace.
The roofless cavity of our safari gypsy and the large precincts of forest rest-houses offered us our most regular vantage points to attune ourselves to the wild. Catchwords such as ‘calls’, ‘alarms’, ‘tracking’, and ‘kill-sites’, and markers like the elegantly inscribed dates of colonial era rest-houses and the soft pugmarks of a prowling animal frequently fired our imaginations. Part of the thrill of watching Sherni was the identification of many of these ideas and entities in a seamlessly synchronised narrative. It won’t be wrong to assume that for those unacquainted with the language of the forest, this film might just serve as a wonderful primer for a long time to come.
But more than getting such details “right”, it is the deft melding of the human with the animal that elevates this film as a finely wrought creative endeavour. While on the face of it, Sherni unfurls as a man versus animal story, it is equally a subtle exploration of the non-human within the human. At several points, the film offers glimpses of the grey areas that exist between “us” and “them”, forcing us to acknowledge the animality that is never too far from our so called civilised selves.
The most blatant expression of such a fusion takes place towards the end, where a group of forest bureaucrats is shown to engage in unrestrained ribaldry around a bonfire, imitating a plethora of jungle sounds after a short round of music and dance. Their mock behaviour, accentuated by hand-held camera movements, is not so much an appreciation of jungle life as it is a contemptuous disregard for its intricacies. Contrastingly, the very first shot of the film highlights a superbly measured imitation of the wild, as a forest staff member earnestly prowls on all fours emitting steady, guttural growls in order to assist in the laying of camera traps. It is noteworthy that before his full picture comes into the light, the director offers a blurry image so that the viewer is taken by surprise at the revelation that the character is a human, not an animal.
The fiercest embodiment of restraint is of course the main protagonist Vidya Vincent, powerfully helmed by Vidya Balan, whose quiet, surety and trepidations are all in keeping with the respect that the surrounding environment demands. Such control doesn’t harden her; instead, it makes her porous to the influences of the non-human. Sherni noiselessly yet masterfully exemplifies this by cultivating a maternal instinct in Vincent through her slowly developing bond with a stray kitten, that imperceptibly influences her sympathies for the wandering tigress’ cubs.
But in the end, this sympathy and earnestness towards the wild has a heavy price to pay, and Vincent gets transferred to the realm of mute, dead animals (a museum-like wildlife interpretation centre) for raising her voice against corruption. This is an ambiguous and even unsettling conclusion, for the journey from the field to the freeze strongly reinforces the sense of entrapment of both the mistreated animals and honest officers. And yet, here too, the film manages to orchestrate a delicate sense of care, as Vincent instructs her colleagues to repair the scars and the lesions disfiguring the taxidermies.
Perhaps it is in her own caged state that the officer would come to empathise with the predicament of these non-human species even more than before, a state conveyed most powerfully by the lingering shots of their melancholic eyes – like a continuation of Vincent’s saddening gaze – the eyes being the eternal interpreters of both the human and the animal soul.
Siddharth Pandey is a writer and photographer from Shimla.
Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab