Navigating the rough terrain of gender politics in the forests of Madhya Pradesh in Sherni is Vidya Balan who plays the role of a Divisional Forest Officer (DFO).
As much as DFO Vidya Vincent who is in-charge of a formidable tigress hunt wants to transfer the ‘man-eater’ T12 to the protective cover of the nearby national park, she is up against a male-dominated force. It includes her spineless senior hand-in-glove with corrupt politicians and an ‘alpha male’ of a brute hunter masquerading as a conservationist. If a man is surprised when she asks for whisky instead of kala-khatta, her mother-in-law insists she dresses up as a bride and not an officer and even asks her son to accompany his wife at her midnight official duty.
If a man is surprised when she asks for whisky instead of kala-khatta, her mother-in-law insists she dresses up as a bride and not an officer and even asks her son to accompany his wife at her midnight official duty.
Like the tigress compelled to venture out of her natural habitat due to human greed, Vidya Vincent, the human sherni is entrapped in an alien land watched over by a ruthless patriarchal force. Even as continuing deforestation and dried-up watering holes force tigers and bears to hunt near the village bordering the forest, it is not the wild but men in power who are a real threat to the locals’ rights. At an after-work party, the drunken men entertain themselves by dancing to sleazy Bollywood tracks and mimicking animal sounds, a scene that blurs the dividing line between man and animal is effective in portraying their moral degeneration. In contrast, it is the upright officer Vidya Vincent who at the end is able to rescue T12’s cubs taking support from a local woman.
The Amazon Prime release that raises pertinent questions about development and environmental conservation, has as its heart an alternative Hindi film heroine, a shero. She knows the perils of being a ‘lady officer’, one who is either not taken seriously or subject to mansplaining. She has none of the rebellious outspokenness or swag that one might expect from her, but intelligence, ethics, commitment. When she says, “but it is not right”, she conveys a quiet resilience and a determined gaze that doesn’t position her as a larger-than-life protagonist. The flesh-and-blood Vidya Vincent, a Christian Malayali, is rather real, be it her nondescript meals, her regular marriage with a North Indian Hindu or her inability to overturn the patriarchal nexus. Her frustrations and failures are real but so are her toughness and courage.
The film, which supposedly revisits the killing of the tigress Avni in Maharashtra in 2018, gives a restrained Vidya Vincent, who like T12 fights a jungle of patriarchy — one who is not necessarily devoid of ‘feminine’ empathy. Sherni gets its gaze correct in locating empathy in professor Noorani (Vijay Raaz) as well, thus freeing it from a feminine bias.
Balan expands her graph of nuanced female leads in Hindi cinema once again with this portrayal of a doer in Sherni where she doesn’t make the battle about her. Vidya Vincent’s feminism comes as a call of duty, and doesn’t need to make a shrill noise.
Big, bold, badass
A decade earlier, when Balan was offered the role of Reshma/ Silk in The Dirty Picture (2011), loosely based on the life of Southern adult film star Silk Smitha, she was reportedly told that she must be ‘mad’ to sign up for the role. But Balan as the big and bold Silk not only shed her good-girl persona but got into the skin of a woman who earned money and fame by weaponizing her sexuality. It was in her hyper-sexualized image that Silk found her stardom and a way to counter patriarchal hypocrisy that deemed adult film actresses as unworthy of respect. It was also a time when the film industry and audiences at large had started worshipping the size-zero fad, and Balan as the curvaceous Silk challenged that demanding standard. She later thanked director Milan Luthria for making her “feel free as a bird”.
In the same year, Balan played the bespectacled Sabrina Lal who struggles to find justice for her bartender sister killed by a politician’s son in a murder case that shook India. If No One Killed Jessica gave a determined Sabrina taking on a system that favors the high and the mighty, it was Silk in The Dirty Picture who established Balan as a bankable box-office star with her own kind of success sans any formula.
A year earlier in Ishqiya, Balan as the rebellious, revenge-seeking widow Krishna in Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh) seduces the small-time criminal duo of uncle and nephew. Her uninhibited seductress-persona, dance and dalliance punctuated a romance-and-crime-genre heroine with refreshing freshness, wit, pride and ego. The song Dil toh baccha hai ji (the heart is young after all) filmed on Balan and Arshad Warsi’s Babban gives the audience a glimpse of that earthy, badass energy.
Balan doesn't fit into the predominant Bollywood school of magazine-cover-approved female aesthetic. In the last decade, the 42-year-old actor has also chosen her scripts carefully, letting her female leads be at the center of gravity thereby setting a trend in heroine-led films. Earning critical acclaim for some of her roles and getting the box-office numbers, Balan has challenged mainstream Hindi cinema formula with an ecosystem of individual talent and intelligent collaboration with boundary-pushing filmmakers.
In Sujoy Ghosh’s motherhood thriller Kahaani (2012), Balan stars as Vidya Bagchi, a pregnant woman who comes to Kolkata in search of her missing husband. Set against the backdrop of Durga Pujo, the film gives a defiant heroine who questions the patriarchal gaze on motherhood and exposes misogyny. In Kahaani, Ghosh and co-writer Advaita Kala are able to create an anti-heroine with no trace of romance and one who is free of male protectionism.
If playing ordinariness is something Balan does remarkably well, her portrayal of the titular Sulu in Tumhari Sulu (2017) is a slow-beat exercise in women empowerment. As an ambitious homemaker who becomes a radio jockey for a late-night relationship advice show, Balan lends agency to an everyday middle-class woman.
The tigress who breaks rules
Last year, Balan was seen as the legendary mathematician Shakuntala Devi in the namesake biographical drama. This Amazon Prime drop saw Balan in her over-the-top gear as the ‘math whiz’, rendering a feisty performance as an extremely independent woman who stands by her choices even in the face of criticism.
With Sherni, Balan once again shows how she commands storylines in a largely male-dominated industry. One where probably the name Vidya Balan — who has often appeared as Vidya onscreen — means one who breaks the rules.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)