Amit Masurkar’s debut feature, Sulemani Keeda (2014), narrates the plight of two striving screenwriters, Mainak (Mayank Tewari) and Dulal (Naveen Kasturia), who attempt to break into the Hindi film industry. Sprinkled with loveable characters, the film is structured in a manner that is both courageously satirical yet gently ironical. Free from the shackles of stardom and the pressures of turning in a mass appeal film, Masurkar perfectly explores the creative space for the expression of alternative perspectives that many viewers have come to expect from independent films.
The director’s exquisite and gentle sophomore movie, Newton (2016), centers on the facade of democracy. Masurkar sensitively depicts the ordeal of a government clerk who gets trapped between extreme hostility and official apathy in the conflict-ridden jungles of rural India. The film was screened at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the International Federation of Art Cinemas (CICAE) award. Newton was also India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.
Masurkar’s third feature film, Sherni, tells the tale of Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), the newly appointed Divisional Forrest Officer (DFO) in the Bijaspur, where a tigress creates havoc by killing innocent villagers. A local politician and opposition leader reap benefits from the situation and maneuver their avaricious path to electoral politics. Vidya, along with her team, try to catch the man-eater alive and move her safely to a National Park. As the protagonist’s arduous search progresses, she learns more and more about the diktats of the system. Sherni explores the plight of an upright individual caught within the labyrinth of a sociopolitical situation, and serves as an unflinching indictment of a society that permits injustice.
Sherni was released on Amazon Prime on June 18, 2021. I recently spoke with Masurkar about his creative choices. This interview contain spoilers.
Dipankar Sarkar: The screenplay of the film is well researched and detailed. So, how did the screenplay shape up and what was your role in the entire process?
Amit Masurkar: I was the bouncing board when the script was being written. Aastha Tiku is the writer, and she was very keen to do a film on the topic of conservation — we were discussing various ideas over the last three-four years. The script stemmed from the thought that conservation cannot be hero-driven. It needs to engage an entire community, and that community has to put in a lot of effort over a long period of time. So, that was the basic concept. And a lot of research and case studies went into it, and lots of different patterns were seen. Aastha had a research associate, and she also consulted several people who are subject experts. And this was an ongoing process that continued even after we were casting for the film. She was also on set and that also helped.
DS: Sherni has thematic similarities with Newton, such as the integrity of the protagonist against corruption, high-ranking government officials as antagonists, local tribal issues and a critique of electoral politics. Are you drawn towards such socially relevant themes? Or is it a coincidence?
AM: No, it is a coincidence. With Newton, I was trying to explore what democracy means — the gap between principles of democracy and the way it is practiced anywhere in the world. And with respect to Sherni, the focus was always on conservation, cooperation, and co-existence. So, the focus of both the films was different.
AM: We wanted the forest to be a character. So, the perspective or point-of-view of the forest was something we wanted to show. And for that, the cinematographer Rakesh Haridas used long shots. He operated the camera handheld because we wanted to film to feel immersive and authentic.
DS: As the film begins, Vidya Vincent is angry because the watering hole is dry for a long time. And then the bear appears, which plays an important role later in the film. So, was it a kind of setup that you intended the viewers to be prepared for?
AM: Many such details came throughout the course of research, and we wanted to include them in a way that is organic to the story. So, the watering holes are very important because it is the lack of food and water or the shrinking habitats that makes the animals come closer to food and water. Basically, it’s the fight over these resources, which lead to human and animal conflict. So, it was important for us to show that scene. Secondly, it is an area fragmented with jungle and farmland. So, we also needed to show that the interaction between humans and animals is very common in that area and keeps happening. That’s why we had the scene with the bear.
More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘Bela’ Filmmaker Prantik Narayan Basu
DS: Bansilal Bansal (Brijendra Kala) has no idea about moths, yet he holds an important position in the forestry office. He is framed with large images of animals in the background, but — in actuality — he is a cowardly person. At the same time, he is always trying to keep the local MLA and his cohorts happy. Is it due to his insecurity? I did not see him exercising his powers.
AM: Bansal is someone who likes to have a good time, but he is trapped in this job. He likes poetry and singing and does not want to be involved in something that stresses him out. That is how we had thought about his character. But he does have power, and he exercises it. You see how, at the beginning of the film, he comes and takes the contractor away from Vidya’s room. In another scene, [he] takes over the stage when Noorani is performing. So, it is not like he is powerless. He does exercise it when he has to. And he is also the key decision-maker when you see him in the conference room, where everybody is sitting and identifying the tiger; he is the one at the head of the table.
DS: There is this scene in the film where we observe Ranjan Rajhans alias Mr. Pintu sleeping. It was completed in three shots. What was the purpose of the scene?
AM: Pintu is sleeping but not having a sound sleep. And when he is brushing his teeth, you can see the shift in his gaze. And then immediately after that, you see that he has decided to play the game. He has decided to go out and meet people and build a strong case and support base for himself. Before that, he was just trying to look for the tiger. But now he starts involving himself in the local politics and tries to make this into a stronger issue.
DS: The officials of the lower ranks, such as Pyare Lal, keep praising the uprightness of their predecessor DFO to the newly appointed officer. Was there any motive behind such behaviour?
AM: It’s a light-hearted moment in the film. There was no motive for his behaviour.
DS: Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), who works as a professor of Zoology, doubles up as a DNA collector for a resource-starved forest department. He firmly believes the pleasure is in the work but wants to go to Mumbai. So, is he frustrated with his job in the rural area?
AM: These are not uni-dimensional characters. Noorani has his heart in the right place but also has to be a practical person. He has a family and they have their aspirations. So, he is also trying to strike a balance between his ideals and aspirations.
More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘Cinema Bandi’ Filmmaker Praveen Kandregula
DS: Can you talk about the scene where Vidya hides the bottle of oil? Is this a kind of retaliation by her against the system?
AM: This was her little way of getting back at Bansal for not listening to her genuine concerns. It is just her little revenge.
AM: Yes, it is exactly what you said.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.