Amit V. Masurkar made his directorial debut in 2014 with Sulemani Keeda, a comedy about two struggling film writers. His next feature, Newton (2017), was a political satire set around an election in a conflict-affected district in central India. The Rajkummar Rao starrer premiered at the Berlin Film Festival 2017, won a National Film Award and was also India’s entry to the Oscar awards. Sherni, his latest, is a thriller headlining Vidya Balan as Vidya Vincent, a forest officer dealing with human-animal conflict in an area that has settlements bordering the jungle.
In a video interview, Masurkar speaks about the challenges of making his latest film, and what he enjoys most about the film-making process. Edited excerpts:
What was the starting point for ‘Sherni’?
Sherni is about a tigress that is losing her habitat due to human intervention. She has come to the fringes of the jungle, where she encounters human beings. This is the starting point of the film.
Vidya Balan plays a forest officer, an experienced but gentle and empathetic person who is trying to bring change, but is not being allowed to do so. She’s also absorbed in her personal life and feels like she is not being taken seriously. She’s thinking of quitting her profession when this incident happens. That’s when she starts taking a deeper interest and realises that conservation is anthropocentric. It cannot be removed from humans, and human beings need to be actively involved. The tiger is the symbol for preserving nature and the wild.
Why focus on a tigress?
Basically, this is a story about conservation and the need for it. It’s a topic that is the need of the hour. The tiger is a flagship species for conservation in the sense that if you protect the tiger, you end up protecting the ecosystem that the tiger lives in. You protect bugs, bees, butterflies, the animals the tiger feeds on. This is why we focused on the tiger.
Writer Aastha Tiku’s thought was that in order to bring about positive long-term change, a whole lot of people need to make a whole lot of effort. Man is not separate from nature. From a young age, we are taught that it’s man versus nature; that we are different from animals, plants and insects—but we are all part of nature and if one gets affected, we all get affected. It’s a chain.
Is ‘Sherni’ based on a real incident?
The film’s story is not inspired by any particular conflict or incident. Every year, you find a dozen cases of human- animal conflict across the country and they all have the same pattern. You see an animal and you see some officials, there is a hunt, which becomes sort of legendary, and people gather around it and feed from it.
How did you shoot the animal scenes?
The tigers and some other animals are all visual effects (VFX). It would have been much cheaper to go to Thailand and shoot with real tigers but that was not the message we wanted to send out. We didn’t want to shoot with animals that were captive and exploit them.
So we went for VFX, which is a big challenge because in India the visual effects quality is not up to the mark. Then we found The Cirqus. They were involved in the making of the Life Of Pi tiger. We got artists who had a lot of experience in creating animals. We also had a scientific consultant who worked on the animal details and supervised accuracy, including bird calls, the sound of bees, which can be different in the day and different in the night, etc.
What was the most rewarding aspect and the most challenging part?
It was rewarding to tell a story about conservation. It’s very important to have this story out in mainstream media. Shooting with covid-19 protocols was the biggest challenge. We also shot without artificial lights or a big crew. We shot in natural light, which means you are dependent on clouds and time of day. If we were shooting at 4pm, we had to wrap that scene quickly because otherwise you would go into the evening and see the change in light. That meant rehearsing for two hours after lunch so we could shoot quickly. For this we needed actors who were dedicated and open to rehearsals. The entire crew had to be very fluid.
There are lots of hand-held shots and you move the camera a lot, which means a 270-degree clear field. The advantage of hand-held and natural light is that it frees you and it frees the actors to move around without bothering about catching the light and standing on a mark.
After the acclaim for ‘Newton’, did you feel pressure for your follow-up project?
Yes. I took that pressure for one year after Newton was released, when I thought my next needed to be something deep. I was also getting a lot of offers suddenly, with bigger actors. But then I realised that it doesn’t make sense to take that pressure. So I took my time and I am glad I have done Sherni with Vidya.
How would you describe yourself as a film-maker?
I am not very ambitious in terms of volume. I want to enjoy the process because I like every part of it. I get involved in research—I am a curious guy. I enjoy shooting, editing and music. I like taking my time with the films I make. A film needs to be made with a lot of love.
Sherni is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer.