If Radhe was the typical Indian film, then director Amit V. Masurkar’s third film, Sherni (Tigress), is the atypical Indian film. Sherni is a good representation of Bollywood’s evolution and the depth India can now go to with its cinema. The film is a female-led project, with the ever-consistent Vidya Balan in the lead role. It has only one song, which plays in the background instead of being sung by the lead actress. Also, what has now become Masurkar’s trademark, Sherni removes the melodramatic tropes we often see while aspiring to be as grounded and realistic as possible. The result is an interesting exploration into social and political problems plaguing India, which lacks the necessary momentum for its two-hours and ten-minute runtime.
Sherni tells the story of forest officer Vidya Vincent (Balan) who, along with her team, seeks to find a troubled tigress that ends up killing the local livestock and eventually the locals. However, in the process of trying to safely capture the tiger, the newly transferred Vidya has to deal with the disrespect of being a woman in a male-dominated world, political leaders using the attacks for their agenda, and a ruthless hunter searching for the tiger. The opening beautifully sets up the film in many ways, as we first see and hear Vidya through a long shot. It immediately highlights the realistic feel and that this is as an everyday hero doing her job thoroughly by locating an empty waterhole that has not been picked up on. Although she’s good at her job, we quickly see the uphill battle she’s facing when her superiors turn a blind eye to her comments, with their focus on everything except what will benefit the villagers and nature.
What this satirical thriller does very well is highlight issues, such as sexism and corrupt motives of politicians when it comes to problems like damaging nature. However, it does so in a subtle and observational manner. Although it’s clear Balan’s character is in the right, and we’re on her side, it doesn’t force this message by having Vidya valiantly yell for justice and what’s right. It instead allows the issues to come out while providing the other characters an opportunity to justify their position, akin to a documentary. The approach is perfectly summed up when political leader P.K. (Satyakam Anand) explains he respects women before stating it’s a sign of weakness that a woman is here to do this job. The exchange is funny yet worrying, and it allows the film to effortlessly glide from scene to scene while adding to the struggle of our protagonist.
Sherni is full of excellent performances from many seasoned actors whose facial expressions and dialogue delivery stay consistent with Masurkar’s realistic approach. Of course, the film is effortlessly led by Balan. In an incredibly challenging role that doesn’t allow her to be loud and forces the actress to speak more with her subtle reactions, Balan still shines the brightest. Even with her reserved character, Balan manages to insert a grit and resilience you want to support while also offering some light-hearted moments, like when Vidya and Pawan (Mukul Chadda) laugh at their failed attempt to have sex without their parents hearing.
Unfortunately, the desire to achieve a certain level of authenticity by toning down almost every aspect of the film does also work against Sherni. The pace is slow, and there are too many moments where it lacks urgency, therefore making it difficult to invest in the story. One of the big reasons for these shortcomings is the cinematography, which is especially dull when teasing the animal attacks. The lack of movement from the camera fails to heighten the anticipation or concern for the events that are about to come, leaving these key scenes as lifeless as the corpse we see moments later.
Although the performances are excellent, there are times when the characters could do with showcasing more emotion. It’s incredibly relatable to see Vidya quietly express anguish and frustration, but at the same time, it’s almost perplexing that she essentially never reaches a breaking point. There comes a time in a story when characters should express themselves in a bigger way, especially in a climax as brutally honest as this one.
Sherni, fortunately, comes alive and finds a great rhythm in its last 40 minutes and even effectively incorporates a song to build up the intriguing climactic chase for the tiger in the jungle. Sadly, for all its positives, the film often struggles to get out of second gear to make this a memorable viewing experience. Ultimately, the performances and ability to intelligently tackle various issues make Sherni worth your time, but it’s unlikely you’ll revisit this film again and again.
Sherni is now available to watch on Amazon Prime.