A Sherni Herself, Vidya Balan Tells IC of Muted Feminism in Her Newest Release

Film poster for 'Sherni'
Film poster for ‘Sherni’

After watching the movie, when I come across overt/surreptitious sexist remarks in my interactions, Vidya Vincent’s face flashes upon my mind’s eye. Vidya Balan eloquently describes her connections to the universality of her character in our exclusive interview. Find the video below!

The title means “tigress” in Hindi. The -ni appendage highlights the female-centric theme of the film.

Vidya Balan was delighted that the name Sherni was selected after she signed the script. She is amazingly authentic as Vidya Vincent, a forest officer trying to navigate the cantankerous machinery of government jobs in the wilderness of Madhya Pradesh.

Amit V Masurkar of the Newton fame (India’s submission to the Oscars in 2017 ) takes his camera to a tiger preserve and focuses on the struggle for existence between wildlife in their natural habitat and humans. It’s a satirical bare-bones exposure to the lethargy of the Indian government’s Forest Department. The film Sherni is not about the female tigress who has attacked two people. It’s not about forest conservation. It’s also not about the livelihood and safety of the people who rely on the forest. The filmmaker’s purpose is to expose the indifferent government officials, the power struggle between opposing political parties, and corrupt contractors who blatantly pocket taxpayer rupees.

Vidya Vincent and the tigress are caught as unexpected but tenacious bystanders in the flawed patriarchal system. Male characters in the movie indulge in overt and covert actions to save face by ignoring, talking over, and finally transferring the resilient officer, Vidya Vincent, out of their midst. The hungry tigress who cannot hunt deer and other small herbivores to feed her hungry cubs becomes prey to a macho gunslinging Pintoo Bhaiya (Sharat Saxena). He is eager to kill any “tiger” he can lay his eyes on without properly identifying the wild animal. The nauseating mediocrity and male bravado percolate the fabric of the film like pug-marks. 

It was funny to watch Brijendra Kala as the weaselly Bansal who is totally disconnected by the responsibilities of his seat, serendipitously placed in front of a humongous tiger portrait. He is just going through the motions. He would much rather be a snake oil salesman or a poet.

Vijay Raaz is refreshing as a zoologist and educator. His professorial duties run the gamut of collecting a rustic “punch and tiger” show for the villagers, collecting DNA samples, and making biryani. The camera exposes the gut-wrenchingly meager subsistence of local sharecroppers and their disillusion with the local elected officials. Frustrations climax with the burning of government vehicles. Vidya Vincent wants to resolve the problem by capturing the tigress alive. She rebels against her superiors and politicians.

As an actor, Vidya Balan is famous for playing strong female roles and is very expressive. In an interview for India Currents, the actor said It was challenging for me to portray the identity of Vidya Vincent in a quiet way.” She said, “I have a very expressive face even in real life.” I think that her deliberately obtuse performance is commendable on multiple levels.  

Film stills from the movie Sherni.
Film stills from the movie Sherni.

Dressed in muted earthy tones, she sets a precedent that she wants to blend with the environment. She knows what her job demands but after spending nine weary years, we get the impression that she knows that she cannot change the system. Then an inciting event of a tiger sighting, followed by the death of a villager, pulls her attention. Vidya is overwhelmed by a sense of doom and wants to resign. But her husband who is nicely tucked away in their apartment in Mumbai advises her to keep her recession-proof job: “Apne kam se kam rakho aur ghar chalo”. It’s easy for him to say.

She is not confrontational but is also not intimidated by men trying to outmaneuver her. Her impudence in pocketing the oil bottle to thwart the clownistic shenanigans of Bansal (Brijendra Kala) is funny. Vidya Balan laughed in merriment when I mentioned that sneaky move to her. She said, “I have received so many texts, phone calls, and accolades from all over the world. Siddarth Roy Kapoor loved it. How so many people found out my number and texted me, was amazing!”

Vincent’s anger at a failing system, deep concern for the villagers, grief while handing the compensation check to a bereaved widow are apparent in the strained look in her eyes and her tightened lips. When Vincent pulls the jewelry off when she is called to duty in the middle of dinner, it shows her attitude towards feminine trappings and the subtle oppression of domestication. Balan mentions, “Her character did not want to be confrontational. If it was easy for her to wear the jewels, she just wore them.”

It would have been more appealing to watch the movie in the jungle outdoors but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was released through Amazon Prime Video on June 18, 2021, and reached viewers in over 200 countries. As a woman in the professional arena, I was proud that Vidya Vincent tried to save the tiger cubs. I felt as though I was punched in my guts by the alarming visuals of the decrepit state of our government offices. I applaud Masurkar and his team on meaningful cinematography. Masurkar has cleverly exploited Vidya Balan’s acting potential by building her character with nuanced yet realistic complexity.

Vidya Balan has dazzled us with her kaleidoscopic performances as the innocent Parineeta, vivacious Jhanvi in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, a determined pregnant woman in Kahaani, and now as Vidya Vincent in Sherni. She left us with a parting message for young girls. She said: You are unique. There’s no one like you. Be the best version of yourself.” Commendable!


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

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