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Film poster for 'Sherni'

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

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.


 

Unpaused: An Anthology of Pandemic Stories on Film

One of the things that seemed to have flourished in the pandemic is creativity. From Tik Tok videos to books to podcasts, the time freed up by isolation was poured into expressing how people were surviving in their newly defined cages—their homes.

Unpaused was filmed during the pandemic which, in itself, must have been quite a feat. It is a collection of snippets- of -life short stories, directed by five talented filmmakers, that cover the angst, loneliness, desperation and, at times, ludicrousness of the emotions stirred up during the lockdowns. It’s funny in parts, melancholy in others, and an engaging cinematic confection overall.

Gulshan Devaiah & Saiyami Kher in Glitch
Gulshan Devaiah & Saiyami Kher in Glitch

The first story, Glitch, was an attention grabber, for its humor as well as its creativity. It conjures up a dystopian, future in the year 2030, after the battle between man and microbe is increasingly looking like a win for for the microbe – now christened Covid-30. It stars Gulshan Devaiah, and Saiyami Kher who are mis-matched on a virtual date by a glitch in an online dating system. He is a Covid-30 hypochondriac who can barely leave his apartment, and she is a Covid Warrior– a scientist who exposes herself to the virus every day. Apart from good acting, it has some hilarious comic touches involving Mala, a bossy, smug, Indian version of Alexa.  It’s futuristic creativity, and its funny take on dating in the age of online encounters and virtual rendezvous saves what would otherwise be a fairly cliched storyline.

Richa Chadha in The Apartment

Story two, The Apartment, involves a potential suicide which is interrupted by the doorbell, an occurrence. which appeared to have been lifted directly from the Swedish film A Man Called Ove. However, there the resemblance ends, because the potential suicide, Devika (played by Richa Chadha), is the cofounder of a media company whose partner and husband has just been revealed to be a sexual predator. The doorbell is rung by a young, good looking neighbor (played by Ishwak Singh), complaining of water leakage and offering to come in and help fix the problem. The Apartment tries to deal with the sensitive topics of suicide and personal responsibility; however, the storyline is shallow, and the characters appear artificial and manufactured. It’s hard to feel Devika’s desperation as she ties a scarf around her neck to hang from the fan when we can clearly see her perfect French manicure. The film’s saving grace is good direction by Nikhil Advani, who stitches suspense and backstory skillfully together and holds our attention.

Lilette Dubey in Rat-a-Tat

Rat-a-Tat, directed by Tanishtha Chatterjee, is a delightful, poignant piece where some fine acting and an earthy, relatable script pull the viewer into the world of a nitpicking 65-year-old woman, Archana (played by Lilette Dubey), living alone in churlish isolation during the lockdown.

The story begins with Archana complaining bitterly on the phone to the police about a neighbor in her apartment complex who’s banging pans to honor frontline health workers, an activity which seems to be Archana’s regular routine. She’s soon jolted out of her irritable self-absorption by Priyanka (played by Rinku RajGuru), a neighbor who seeks refuge in the stairwell of the building because her apartment has been invaded by a rat. Dubey and RajGuru fit into their roles like second skins, and carry the story through to its somewhat cliched, but nevertheless enjoyable, ending.

Abhishek Bannerjee in Vishaanu

Story four, Vishaanu, was insightful and empathetic and left you are wanting more. This short had the potential to be made into a feature film. A construction worker, Manish (played by Abhishek Bannerjee), his wife, Uma (played by Geetika Ohlyan) and their small son, are marooned during the lockdown with dwindling rations and no way to get back to their home village in Rajasthan. They camp out in the luxuriously furnished sample flat of the unfinished apartment complex where Manish is employed. Vishaanu was the only nod in this collection of stories to the terrific suffering a majority of poor Indians faced during Covid, and it was funny at times and heart-rending in the end. The difference between how the wealthy and the middle class in India endured Covid, compared to how the poor experienced it, couldn’t be starker.

The squatter family is tentative at first, intimidated by the sleekly furnished and well-equipped model home, surrounded by unthinkable luxury they could never afford. They don’t sleep on the satin sheeted beds, preferring to lay mats on the floor, instead. Slowly, we see them getting used to their new, temporary home, until their adventurousness lands them in big trouble.

It was good to see a film reflecting the plight of poor, working-class Indians who were caught blindsided by the catastrophe of Covid. Director Avinash Arun did a great job of presenting the destitute couple with compassion and humor, without making the tone too plaintive or desperate.  I wanted more from the ending, though––after we’ve empathized deeply with the destitute family, its abruptness leaves one feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

Story five, Chand Mubarak, involves another lonely, old, upper middle-class woman, Uma (played by Ratna Pathak Shah), who is forced into an autorickshaw during curfew by an unsympathetic policeman.  She’s the embodiment of crochety, privileged hypochondria and sprays the rickshaw liberally and with unconcealed disgust, despite the rickshaw driver (played by Shardul Bhardwaj) reassuring her that he sanitizes it every day. The film is another short that is carried on the shoulders of great acting by Shah and Bhardwaj and skilled direction by Nitya Mehra. I thought the story line was predictable but sweet, one of those feel-good Bollywood clichés about unlikely emotional connections that save people from drowning in their own puddles of loneliness.

Unpaused is a quirky, funny, ride into the world of the pandemic–- a cinematic record of all the irony, anguish, hope, and emotion that spun out of the ordeal.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents