You would have gone to the forest 100 times, but could spot a tiger only once. But, be rest assured, the tiger would have spotted you 99 times.
In the midst of a recent conversation, Malayalam writer and film maker Unni R. asked if I had seen Amit Masurkar’s OTT-released Hindi film Sherni. Unni asked this question in the context of an ongoing debate/polemic pertaining to another OTT-released Malayalam film. Incidentally, both films have episodes of killing/shooting. But Newton maker Amit Masurkar’s Sherni, as Unni told, appeared to be distinctly different and, of course, with a clear message. I lost no time in searching for Sherni in Amazon Prime and spent two hours and ten minutes without a break. As I was watching it, the ‘sad story’ of Tigress Avni came to haunt me. I recalled the excruciating narratives of the killing of Avni in the Borati village (Yavatmal district) of Maharashtra which had flashed in national and international media two years back. The fate of the two cubs of Avni also captured the sentiments of people then (and, sadly, one ‘cub of Avni’ had a miserable death after two years of ‘nursing’ and ‘training’ in survival skills).
Even as the ‘International Tiger Day’ was observed on 29 July, we were again reminded of the fact that Tigers belong to an endangered species stock whose population has dwindled by 95 per cent over the past century, primarily because of habitat displacement and wildlife trading. However, India is one of the few countries which witnessed a rise in tiger population over years. Paradoxically, the Prime Minister of India released the results of the fourth cycle of All India Tiger Estimation-2018 on the occasion of International Tiger Day-2019, with a declaration that “India is now one of the safest habitats in the world for tigers.” The release of the report came a year after Tigress Avni was brutally killed and its cubs began to face an aberrant ‘world of care.’ With three-fourths of the world’s tiger population living in India (2,967), a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General said that it “is a ‘good sign’ as it meets the UN’s sustainable development goal which encourages the preservation of all species, particularly those that are endangered.”
While the tragedy of ‘cub of Avni’ keeps reminding the limits and helplessness of our conservation, the nine-month-old tiger cub Mangala started receiving training in ‘wildlife-skills’ on 29 July in an expansive Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) in the Western Ghats. Mangala was found abandoned by her mother last year, when forest officials spotted her near Kerala-Tamil Nadu border area with bad health conditions. The officials are apparently aware of the fate of the ‘cub of Avni’ and therefore Mangala’s training should go with great care and caution.
Why Sherni matters today?
Even while cubs Avni, Mangala life-world experiences are kept in the backdrop, watching Sherni is a throbbing reminder of ‘man-nature’ relationship which is critical at a time of climate change, when our biosphere is on the brink of a breakdown and species extinctions are on a fast-track mode. Sherni can easily be seen as a metaphor of women-life world experiences also, in the midst of a ‘man-centred’ ‘male-dictated’ hunting tales. Vidya Balan—playing the role of Vidya Vincent, a Divisional Forest Officer absorbed in the thickness of her job—opens up:
You don’t need to roar to be a tigress. There are various shades, reflections of ‘sherni’ (tigress) that each of us represents. My character is a woman of few words, reserved but strong-willed. So you can be that…You don’t have to scream out loud from the rooftops to be heard all the time or even be visible all the time. In each of the households in India, there’s a ‘sherni’ and a lot of times she’s invisible. This is my salute to all of them out there.
Vidya acting as DFO is a complex character. She is to negotiate between the hard realities of tiger conservation and the interests of forest communities who literally struggle to lead a bear existence. She is also expected to negotiate amongst self-seeking politicians, hard-headed bureaucracy and greedy business interests. Sherni addresses these angsts of ‘forest/rest’ world amid the ruthless human meddling in wildlife habitats.
Masurkar may not give any forthright elucidation of the questions raised in Sherni pertaining to ecosystem sustainability. But Sherni has a wider canvas to catalogue the intensity of human greed and the manner in which it is realised—by appropriating the resources of both forest habitat and the livelihood options of the people depending on it.
For more than one reason, Vidya’s new assignment is a challenging one, which eventually led to an alienated world of her own—from both the bureaucracy and the wildlife habitat. Yet, she remains unmoved with every effort—from her own colleagues and their ‘partners’ in business—to belittle her role and responsibility. Nobody could undermine her passionate commitment.
The story revolved around a tigress (T12) who started ‘hunting’ near the settlements close to the forests when humans and farm animals fell prey to her attacks. However, the villagers were aware that tigers used to pass through their fields without causing any harm, but a situation of panic emerged with ‘official warnings’ in circulation, accompanied and exacerbated by wrangling local politicians who sought to capitalise the ‘insecure’ conditions in the background of the impending polls.
It was a challenging task for Vidya to capture T12 alive under pressures of the local population, an unenthusiastic bureaucracy and greedy politicians. Vidya was, however, happy that a person like Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), a zoology professor, gave a leg up and understood her commitment and passion. While a local villager like Jyoti (Sampa Mandal) evoked Vidya’s enthusiasm and courage, her own colleague and boss Bansal (Brijendra Kalra) proved himself incapable of any productive role in conservation. But what upset Vidya’s task amid the panic situation was the emergence of Ranjan Rajhans (Sharat Saxena) who posed himself as a ‘conservationist’ but kept talking about the number of tigers he killed! And the ‘conservationist’ shooter eventually won the game, but with a series of uncomfortable questions. Yet, Vidya was happy to see the cubs of T12 still alive with the local villagers led by Jyoti accompanying her to a cave. However, Vidya ended up her career in a museum which is full of ‘stuffed wild animals’!
Director Amit Masurkar interlaces ‘man-animal’ encounters with an elegant visual narrative. Aastha Tiku’s screenplay is imaginatively crafted, with unfolding shots of the forest office environs, the village sketches and the sparkling wildlife habitat. This has been made possible with Rakesh Haridas’s cinematography which is splendid throughout. The performance of Vidya Balan as DFO is superb. Her encounters with department colleagues, local villagers, politicians and her own husband and family—all portrayed in a nuanced style.
Sherni touches the crux of the tigress Avni episode, but does not indulge in the unfolding events following what environmental activists and animal lovers called the ‘coldblooded murder’ of Avni. There were protests and marches in the cities of Mumbai and Delhi with a campaign banner, ‘Justice for Avni.’ They were reminding that Avni was not just a wild animal but a mother of two cubs.
The Avni episode raised too many questions which were later considered by a committee formed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The report apparently turned down the claims by the Maharashtra Forest Department and Asghar Ali Khan, a private shooter, that Avni was killed in ‘self-defence.’ The Report also registered several breaches of the NTCA’s protocol for managing tigers. According to Anup Nayak (NTCA), “Our report highlighted clear violations. Despite several reminders over the past year to the Maharashtra government to convey action taken and submit a compliance report, we have not received any response so far.”
Avni was labelled a ‘man-eater,’ a licenced term that permits the capture of the animal. People’s Review reported that “no such news of a tigress turning into a really dangerous man-eater was ever made public until the Maharashtra government started helping its big corporate donors to acquire forest lands, especially in Yavatmal district.” There were also reports of “transferring large tracts of forest land to the big corporate houses, including tiger reserves.” Approximately 88 acres of forest land has been transferred to big corporate houses breaking all norms. There were also reports of corporates getting access to the Yavatmal forests and thereby the government rushed to clear the forests of the wild species that could jeopardise the plans of the business group.
Sherni depicts the hard realties of ‘limits to conservation’ in an age of violence, aggressive land grabbing and deforestation. The film is a metaphor of our own deep encounters with a male chauvinist life-world. It also brings together the contours of the impending securitisation drive that makes us ‘comfortable’ with a ‘good shooter.’ The ‘wild’ in every human being is given a fresh lease of ‘life.’ That’s why we could kill ‘first’ before a tranquiliser dart has been shot!
K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala who also served as Dean and Professor of International Relations, MGU. He can be contacted at [email protected]