Amit Masurkar’s ‘Sherni’, a reality check on human-wildlife conflict

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By Anjali V Raj

Human-wildlife conflict is a largely debated topic – yes, it’s complicated. The ecologists, conservationists, environmentalists, politicians and for that matter even the lay public have much to say about it. The observers often take a politically correct stand that seems ambiguously moral to them. Amit Masurkar’s Sherni streaming on Amazon Prime Video takes us on a beautiful ride through the woods of Madhya Pradesh where tension arises between the village dwellers and the wildlife. The movie contemplates wide aspects of human-wildlife conflict through a scenario where the life and livelihood of villagers dwelling near the forest are threatened by a bloodthirsty tigress (T12). The movie exhibits the efforts of the forest department to control the situation amid political and media intervention and the response of the villagers. The story opens with an aerial view of the lush dense forest with an apparent roar zooming into the silhouette of a tiger which later turns out to be a man (a forest department official) mimicking the movements of a tiger to demonstrate the operation of the camera traps. This takes a brief funny turn when another official starts mimicking a bear who then is chided away by his superior.

Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), the newly appointed Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), a fierce and upright yet amiable lady, struggles to maintain a balance between the villagers and the threatened fauna in the forest. Her mission is aided by a wildlife enthusiastic Zoology professor Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz). They try to approach such sensitive matters with a careful inspection to find a more permanent solution that benefits in both social and ecological contexts. Two political parties interfere in this matter and turn it into a political agenda to gather votes in the coming election. They instigate fear and rage in the villagers inoculating contempt and disrespect for the forest department officials. The forest department fails to capture the animal using bait and further plans to incapacitate the animal by shooting tranquillizers. Meanwhile, the politicians of the ruling party hire a private hunter Pintu aka Ranjan Rajhans (Sharat Saxena), a self-proclaimed conservationist, who captures tigers and leopards only by killing them to beat his record, to hunt the tigress. The villagers, under the influence of these political peers, embrace the idea of hiring the hunter to shoot down the ravenous animal.

In the movie, the village community in the vicinity of the forest depend on the resources from the forest for their livelihood. This has been so in reality for many years and their activities cause no disturbance to the wildlife. Some consider villager’s encroachment into the forest for grazing cattle and forest produce as a reason for these animal attacks. While this is not untrue, it’s also the recent wave of urbanization and unplanned land use that complicates the situation. As said in the movie, human inhabitation and cultivation sandwiched between the jungles resulted in the conflict between wild animals and people for the territorial claim. The movie also provides a rationale for the entry of villagers into the jungle; clearance of their grazing lands for teak cultivation urged the villagers to go seek alternative grazing areas. Unfortunately, only the jungle remains that serves this purpose. Are the villagers to be blamed?

‘Sustainability’, ‘Eco sensitive’, ‘wildlife protection’, etc. are the buzz words of this era, the authenticity of which are fairly debatable. The majority of our society speaks high on environment and wildlife protection under the liberty of their warm seats of privilege with no actual cost to pay. But when something hits close to home, they ignore and shun the layers of these ideologies. The villagers have good sense and respect for nature, but they are devoid of the title or any ideological ‘isms’. The astuteness of Jyothi (played by Sampa Mandal), the panchayat committee member who speaks for the community, clearly vouches for the thoughtfulness and considerate nature of the villagers. They don’t despise wildlife nor are they cruel as deemed by the public. They are just taking measures to protect their family and livelihood just like any others. As depicted in the movie, it is the external influence that muddles the matter.

In the movie, as rightly explained by the professor unsustainable development activities that cleared acres of forest for the construction of highways, copper mines and factories act as barriers for the tigress and her cubs to safely reach the national park in the area. The grasslands and forests are reconstructed with monocultures of cash crops and profitable trees clearing the diversity of fruit yielding trees. In the absence of a food source in the forest, animals like monkeys, elephants, hogs, etc. migrate into the plantations in search of food. Similarly, carnivores divert from the forest habitat into human settlements in search of their natural prey. Here begins the tension between humans and wildlife. Herbivores destroy the hard-worked plantations, the backbone of villager’s livelihood while carnivores impose threats to the lives of the villagers and their livestock. In these situations, it is natural for villagers to seek some positive response from the concerned authorities. When that turns unsatisfactory immediate alternate measures are taken.

The movie also looks at the human-wildlife issue from the perspective of an upright assiduous DFO whose powers are limited by the political and hierarchical condescending forces. After doing everything in their power to take control of the situation, sometimes the result is unfavourable due to the unwanted interferences that undermine all their efforts. The levity of Mr Banasal (Brijendra Kala) represents the irresponsibility of higher officials in trivial matters and the sanguinity they maintain through ignorance. The opening scene portrays a very relevant picture of humanity; man becomes the animal in the wild. Conservationism does not just translate to planting trees or eco rallies but involves the grassroot efforts by the forest officer and the professor. It is a common misconception that one should clasp onto some ‘isms’ to show love and respect for nature.

Similar to Masurkar’s Newton, Sherni is also quite distinct from general Bollywood movies. The movie is evenly placid and maintains hilarity without losing the serious vigour of the story. It has a good plot and the movie cast excel in their respective roles without shadowing the relevance of the story. The movie is certainly not drab but might fail to engage the attention of the audience looking for just entertainment.

Bio:
Anjali V Raj
is a natural science researcher from Kerala, India. She currently works as a research assistant at ATREE, an Environmental think tank in Bangalore. She writes poems and short essays based on her thoughts cultivated from observations of nature, lifestyle, and society. She has recently published a few of her works on online platforms like Down to Earth, Café Dissensus Everyday, Borderless Journal and Times of India Reader’s Blog. Most of her poems are published on her WordPress blog (Outburst of Thoughts).

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