Sherni: A Review
The painfully sweet and not so sweet memories that Sherni, the movie, evokes. Kunal Sharma writes a heartfelt and evocative review.
Jaded – prominently declares the film’s tagline to describe Vidya Vincent, a forest officer who finds herself trapped in the big bad world of patriarchy intermeshed with bureaucratic helplessness afflicting scores of forest staff throughout an often-jaded career in the wild. Yet, for many who have been associated with Indian forests, whether from within the government or while interacting with it, Sherni reawakens a pandora’s box worth of memories – as if a soothsayer responded to the yearnings of those dealing with the deep caverns of forest bureaucracy.
Image Credits: Lokesh Kumar
But firstly, one could hear the collective sigh of many a colleague who, shackled by COVID induced lockdowns, exhaled at the opening visual of the forest. Innumerable prayers floated heavenwards expressing gratitude to Amit Masurkar for nothing more, if not for enabling a view of the ancient forest. The charismatic Sal of Central India, sentinel to many a vulnerable adivasi and endangered wildlife has never looked as beautiful in celluloid as Sherni brings to life so evocatively.
Image Credits: Sivaprasad
The film is a cleverly disguised attempt at a series of on-field training for forest officers with valuable lessons on the importance of a watering hole, to the need for community conservation practices, to the setting of a cage for capture, to operating camera traps and to the role of science in deciphering wildlife crime using DNA sequencing and studying tracks of wildlife, shown with consummate ease. And the discussions of the tech-savvy forest guards using tabs and camera traps speak highly of the push for technology that many state forest departments have embarked upon. Empowered forest staff now commonly use global positioning system devices, track speeding vehicles inside national parks, and often analyse data without external support.
If not now, but surely all staff colleges across the country should consider introducing the movie as a compulsory course for budding foresters. For rarely since the British set out creating their vast colonial infrastructure has the foundation of the forest bureaucracy been so clearly examined as Sherni does with poise.
Image Credits: Ashish Tirkey
Another masterclass is the attention to detail in creating the “sarkari” office and depicting the local staff, especially the ubiquitous personal driver of the forest madam who is the keeper of knowledge and knows everything about everything. Ancient teak cupboards whose antique value has quadrupled, files gathering dust, even the map of the forest division sneakily suggests that the writer of the movie belongs to a family of foresters for such attention to detail is not a trait often associated with Indian filmmaking.
While the poet officer brings out laughs and familiar memories of wasted hours waiting outside a forest officer’s office or entering an office only to be pulled into such poetry sessions or worse, self-congratulatory sessions, the depiction of the forest guards in dapper uniform and forest watchers from local villages with uncanny observation skills serves a reminder that the forests of India as we know it today has survived not least due to the contribution of such dedicated souls.
Another quintessential depiction was that of the caretaker, cook, helper, attendant and ‘meiti’ who not only takes care of the lonely officer but inexorably is often a simpleton who conjures up the best food that humanity can offer. Countless such cooks, sitting over huge fuelwood laced fires have fed generations of officials and played an essential part in reducing the drudgery of an isolated life that officers endure.
The not-so-pleasant memories are unfortunately many in this movie, yet one that takes the cake is the presence of a politician who after usurping a street play on human-wildlife coexistence waxes eloquence on his hubris. The driver, the scientist, the ACF, the lady forest guard, the scientist, the street play artist and the DFO exhibit an all too similar “all is lost” persona while dejectedly shrugging of another day of hard effort towards reducing conflict that just got swept away by the trap of egotistical maniacs.
Image Credits: Ashish Tirkey
The film expertly explores the difficulties of running a field-oriented administration that plods on despite the many whims of insensitive forest officers who unfortunately place self-preservation and self-aggrandizement at the centre of their list of priorities while conservation and respect of science get relegated far down in the order of importance.
The film also presents the recent phenomenon of phone yielding humans on an adrenaline rush, recording your slightest discomfort to share in one of the many Whatsapp groups that seem to exist just to document voyeurism, and in the process brings out the social media circus in an understated yet on-point observation.
An unfortunate yet pervading loop of conservation debates that the film brings out succinctly is the century-old malaise of imposition of commands from the top – let’s create a national park, let mining happen in a biodiversity-rich area, let’s plant monocultures in traditional grazing grounds, let us capture a tiger without verifying its antecedents, let’s not involve local communities in any decision making – the know-it-all attitude of men and women alien to the land is the bane that traditional communities have suffered since the British arrived with their first laws in the 1800s.
In its signature minimalist mode, the movie eloquently brings out the great conservation paradox of modern times that seeks to increase forest cover without addressing underlying conflicts – to meet afforestation targets in an increasingly scarce landmass, grazing lands were usurped, and to meet grazing demands, villagers move their cattle to dense forest and that ultimately leads to negative interactions with wild animals. Yet, when a villager is killed or a wild animal is lynched, the primary factor of land alienation is rarely addressed, except by a stray sensitive officer, as Vidya Vincent attempts to.
Image Credits: Pramod Sharma
In yet another scene, dedicated forest officers are rendered helpless in combating human-wildlife conflict as they are confronted by massive developmental projects outside their jurisdiction. Just as in Tadoba, Maharasthra where an enormous open-cast mine, barely a kilometre away from its boundaries causes untold misery to wildlife, the fictional mining site in the movie knocks a final blow to the forester’s perseverance in protecting the beleaguered tigress, a fate predicted to intensify amidst a slew of fresh mining leases in recent years.
A film of this caliber is best analyzed by a movie critic, yet for a researcher of Indian forests, every frame in the movie is a lesson on conservation. From its sensitive narrative underscoring the role played by field level forest staff, to the layered response of communities in addressing conservation, to the role of megalomaniacal busybodies who consider the forest as their fiefdom, and also to the rarely acknowledged role that Malayali researchers and foresters have played in advocating conservation in India, the movie offers a rare glimpse into India’s forests that only a sensitive dreamer could have conjured
And yet, the movie’s masterclass is a subtle thread running through its course, exemplified by Eckhart Tolle’s quote, “If you walk into a forest — you hear all kinds of subtle sounds — but underneath there is an all-pervasive silence”. Sherni’s portrayal of the nameless worker striving to protect the silent yet fragile forest, is cause enough for it to be taught to students of conservation and perhaps, as India’s nomination to the Oscars.