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Interview Hindi

To track a tiger is sheer hard work: Amit Masurkar on the making of Sherni

With Sherni, the filmmaker explored the sensitive and complex struggle for conservation in the face of the Indian bureaucracy and the people caught in the middle.

Shriram Iyengar

With Sherni (2021), Amit Masurkar has created an engrossing film about a subject that is as complex as it is often ignored. Led by Vidya Balan, the film captures the complexity of the issue of conservation that is caught between the needs of an often ignored people and a rigid, self-serving bureaucracy. The humanity, complexity and earnestness of the story drive Masurkar's film.

Speaking to Cinestaan.com in a virtual interview, the filmmaker said he understood that comparisons with Newton (2017), his National award-winning tour de force, would be inevitable, but he did not think about them. "I thought of it as a completely different story," he explained. "One was dealing with democracy while the other deals with conservation, coexistence. It is like saying if a film is set in London with a Punjabi NRI, it is similar to DDLJ [Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)]. This is a setting which is common, but otherwise the themes are different."

The difference also lies in the cast. In Vidya Balan, Masurkar had someone who embodied his titular 'Sherni'. The actress was approached by the filmmaker even before he had a bound script in hand. "Coincidentally, I was doing a couple of ad films with Vidya Balan and got to know her," he said. "I liked her work ethic and we used to keep saying, 'Let's do something together.' I spoke to Aastha [Tikoo, screenwriter] about pitching it to her, and she liked the idea. That's how this happened."

Released on 18 June 2021, the film continues to be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. Following are excerpts from the interview:

The comparison between Newton and Sherni, while inevitable, has its base in the themes of bureaucracy, idealistic heroes in a rigid, unfair system. Did that comparison bother you? Did you think of it while making the story?

Not really. I thought of it as a completely different story. One was dealing with democracy, while the other deals with conservation, coexistence. It is quite like saying that if a film is set in London with a Punjabi NRI, it is similar to all other films [with the same setting]. The setting is common, but the themes are totally different.

You have spoken of approaching Vidya Balan before you even had the complete script in hand. Was she always your first choice? Did you think of approaching anyone else?

I don't think of an actor when writing, because then you get stuck. If you don't get that actor for some reason, you will keep wondering [what to do]. While the writing process was on, we didn't have anything in mind.

Coincidentally, I was doing a couple of ad films with Vidya Balan and I got to know her. I liked her work ethic, and we used to keep saying, 'Let's do something together.' I spoke to Aastha [Tikoo, screenwriter on Sherni] about pitching it to her, and she liked the idea. That's how this happened.

Vidya Balan as Vidya Vincent in Sherni

The film has an impressive cast, from the understated Vijay Raaz to Neeraj Kabi and Brijendra Kala. Another fantastic addition, I thought, was Sampa Mandal as Jyoti. How did the casting come about?

Sampa Mandal was auditioned and cast by the casting directors Romil and Tejas. So, she passed out of the NSD [National School of Drama] very recently. We didn't know her before. This is her second film. She did a small role in Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya (2020) as Phoolan Devi. That was her only role before this, and she did it when she had just passed out of NSD. We were quite lucky to find her and very happy. She put in a lot of effort. Not being from the region, she stayed with the families, interacted with them to pick up the language patterns and accents.

The film also depicts a different approach to the same problem by men and women. The women, generally, are more confident, empathetic and calm about issues, while the men seem to be grappling with insecurity, fears and posturing. Was that a conscious development or just part of the theme as it evolved?

I think it is a part of the theme, because the film was always about conservation, and Sherni was the tigress. The title came much later. The men, if you notice, are not black or white. They are good people and complex characters. It is in this situation that you see certain shades of their personalities which you wouldn't have seen in other situations.

There are some brilliant moments of absurd, satirical humour that run as an undercurrent to the story. The chase sequence of political workers after Brijendra Kala's officer in the office is one surreal example. The other is the frame of him with deer antlers in the background, or the discussion over leopard and tiger poop. How important is this humour to your filmmaking style or a personal statement?

Humour, I think, should be organic. Like Brijendra Kala as a character was someone who is a misfit in the department. He is not an alpha male or someone who is ruthless. He is a singer and a shayar [poet] who is stuck in the job. He is human, timid and a survivor of the system. That character itself, and the casting of Brijendra Kala and his own skill at playing the part, contributed to the humour.

Brijendra Kala in a still from the film

Understandable, but were these moments part of the script or did they develop through improvisation or after some thought?

They were part of the story. None of it was forced. These were situations that one noticed. [On the leopard and tiger poop argument,] when I, Aastha, and our research associates had gone to meet people, these kinds of situations were common. People would be arguing about the identity of a tiger with respect to its relatives, almost like they knew its family tree. It is almost as if they are speaking about a person they know. When you are in this field, it is something that sounds natural to you. But as an outsider, when you are part of the conversation, it feels odd and interesting. That is why I think that is something that has been noticed by others. For people within the system, this is normal.

A still from Sherni

You shot the film under the duress of a pandemic. What were the challenges involved?

It was difficult, because it was a difficult time in general. All of us were working after a duration of seven or eight months. We were lucky and relieved to have work at that time.

Did it throw off the prep you had done in advance?

We definitely had to reduce some locations where there could be crowds. Some actors couldn't make it. For instance, Sampa had a scene, but she couldn't make it in the schedule. She came for some days but had to go back. At that time, they were big hits for us. But we were all on the same page. We were in a bio-bubble and were extremely careful. No one went out after the shoot. Everyone on the shoot was tested, quarantined and only then allowed to meet others. Despite having so many people working on the shoot, we had zero COVID cases. The credit goes to the producers and the crew who were careful.

Apart from this, people were very focused. Everyone was working after a long time. People wanted to get back to work. A lot of us had been isolated before coming on shoot. So coming back to work with so many people felt good. There was a good energy on the set. People were quite positive.

You shot the entire film in synch sound. Yet, the sounds of the jungle are understated, subtle, and manage to leave a mark.

Synch sound is always better because the authenticity of the performances that you get through synch sound can never be achieved through dubbing. [But] a lot of the jungle sounds was sound design. We had to add those sounds later. Anish John was the sound designer and added the sounds of the bee or the locust, according to the time of day or night. If the location was near a lake, the sound of frogs had to be added. We had a research consultant on board, Dr Ramzan Virani, who informed us throughout of the scientific details in the film. He was constantly available to us.

A still from Sherni

Although the title and the film revolve around Sherni, we see very little of the tigress. Was that always planned?

If you look at it poetically as well, you first see a glimpse of the tiger in a wide shot. Then, it is a little closer. Then, when you come closer still, the tigress is shot dead. You could have seen more of the tigress if Pintu Bhaiyya [Sharat Saxena] had not shot it.

The other reason why we didn't show the tigress as much is explained in a line in the film, where the officer says, "Agar aap sau baar jungle mei jaaoge, toh 99 baar tiger aapko dekhega, magar aapko ek hi baar dikhega." That is why you see the guards constantly looking and looking. It is sheer hard work to track a tiger. It is easy for someone to say, I give you one week to find and catch a tiger. It is really hard, not easy to do what they were doing in the film, which is why we didn't have to show the tiger that many times.

A still from Sherni

Also, you have a very strong point of view of the jungle which you are exploring. You are looking at these people from the perspective of the jungle which we are exploring. That includes all the animals who are observing these people walking through it.

Sherni, like Newton, continues to espouse the cause of a people who are on the periphery of a democracy/system. It shows their stand, and why they need to be treated more humanely. It seems to be a consistent theme in your films so far. What draws you to it?

You cannot make a film set in the jungle without including the voices of the people who live there. Otherwise, it becomes a very fake and superficial story. If you have to understand any story set in any region, you have to understand the voices of the people who live there.

What are you looking forward to in the post-Sherni world?

I am always working on multiple projects at a time. So there is this series, which we will probably release later this year. I am looking forward to that.

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