Content Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Posted by Anomitra Paul
Ecofeminism as a political, cultural, and academic movement emerged in the latter half of the 20th century and continues to solidify its space in the spectrum of feminism in light of an increasing emphasis on the need for environmental empathy. Ecofeminism or ecological feminism ties the two movements of feminism and environmentalism together – and locates male dominance and a patriarchal societal structure as the primary cause of the exploitation of both women and nature. Amit Masurkar’s latest film, ‘Sherni’, starring Vidya Balan, emphasises the ideals of ecofeminism effectively through its plot, a welcome variation from and strengthening of the simplistic approaches Bollywood tends to use to demonstrate the empowerment of women in an increasingly complex world.
The plot of Sherni is led by Vidya Vincent, played by Balan, who arrives at a village as a Divisional Forestry Officer and finds herself in a high-stakes political situation. At the heart of the crisis is a tigress, T12, who is terrorising the inhabitants of the village. The village is situated in an area which is an interweaving of agricultural land and the forest, where the villagers graze their cattle. The villages are dependent on the forest for their survival, and the tigers inhabiting the forest are dependent on the villagers’ cattle for their survival.
The setting establishes the interdependence among man, animal, and nature effectively. Hassan Noorani (Vijay Raaz), a professor in the local college and an entomologist, makes a meticulous effort to educate the members of the constituency regarding the tenets of co-existence of the tigers and the inhabitants of the village. Meanwhile, the ruling and opposing factions of the municipal government use the agenda of killing the tiger to stir up support for their political cause. Vidya Vincent is a principled Forest Officer who believes she has to save the lives and livelihood of the villagers without killing the tigress, T12.
The primary opposition of the ecofeminist agenda and the masculine disregard for nature emerges in the rivalry between the poacher, Pintu, played by Sharat Saxena, and Vidya. The political top brass in the village, comprising male politicians, and Pintu, intend to capitalise on the situation for making political gains or asserting their power. Pintu’s claim on hunting down the tigress is driven by an agenda to assert his masculinity and thus, he appeals to the local government to be part of the mission to find the tigress. But as Noorani rightly points out, Pintu wants another trophy – he wants to assert the power of man against nature.
Vidya, dedicated to her work, furthers Noorani’s goal of educating the villagers to empathize with the tigers, who are the inhabitants of the territory as much as the human beings are. The film constantly focuses on the role of female forest officers in locating the tigress, in sitting through government meetings trying to analyze the psychology of the tigress. The forest officers and the women in the village, along with Vidya and Noorani, are shown to be particularly empathetic towards the needs of the tigress – they assert the rational perspective that carnivorous animals are never inherently looking to hunt and kill human beings – it’s the need for sustenance that compels them to traverse territory inhabited by man. In one instance in Sherni, this argument comes as a direct retort to Pintu’s claim that he has the ability to identify a man-eating tiger merely by looking into its eyes, an irrational statement shrouded in the constant need to assert masculine dominance and power over nature and its animals.
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French feminist Francoise d’Eubonne, who coined the term ecofeminism, propounded that the movements for gender equality and environmentalism are related, as the disenfranchisement and oppression of women, people of colour, and the ecology, are all perpetrated through patriarchal dominance. Sherni explains this interrelation by drawing a parallel between the suppression and manipulation of women in the workforce, the political suppression and manipulation of the powerless, that is, the population of the village, and the oppression of the tigress.
Halfway through the mission, Vidya and her team discover that T12 has given birth and is thus compelled to find sustenance for her cubs, which would be a plausible cause for her to wander near the villages to hunt down cattle. Meanwhile, Vidya is constantly hindered from doing her job of protecting the forest and its ecology by the overarching goal of those in power – the politicians, the poacher, and even a senior forest officer whom she aspires to become in her career.
Conservation is not a part of the agenda of the male-dominated system of Indian bureaucracy, even though there are government directives to plant more trees as a capitalistic effort by the government to represent itself in the environmental agenda of the international community. As we learn from the opposition of Bansal (Brijendra Kala) to relocate the villagers in an area currently comprising empty swathes of land occupied with a teak plantation, the Indian government’s orders stipulate that planting a definitive number of trees in forest areas in a year is mandatory.
Across the country, as more land is fenced in for plantations, conflicts routinely break out between local communities and forest officers. In some instances, forest officers have been assaulted by villagers attempting to reclaim the land after being forcibly displaced. The separation of village populations from nature with barbed wires and government directives does not facilitate the coexistence of human beings and the natural land. Most Adivasi communities who inhabit these areas are not well-versed with the law and are unable to reclaim their forest rights.
In Sherni, Vidya‘s qualification as a government officer is questioned by PK when she first arrives at the tigress’ kill site, but her cause is repeatedly undermined by the men around her who use manipulation and political connections to achieve their goals. Nangia (Neeraj Kabi) is a senior forest officer Vidya initially looks up to and admires, but her faith is destroyed when he asks her to “pick her battles” and adopt a non-controversial position in her job even after Pintu deliberately kills T12.
The killing or maiming of animals is illegal under Sections 428 and 429 of the Indian Penal Code, but most Indians torturing animals to death for business or for pleasure in India do so with impunity. We gather a fair understanding of Amit Masurkar’s portrayal of these men in government in the preceding scene, where Bansal, Nangia, Pintu and his cronies are seen making incoherent animalistic noises in a drunken stupor. Through this dehumanisation, Masurkar blurs the difference between man and wild in Sherni – creatures of intelligence are seen to be driven by the base, primal impulses.
Pintu, through his claim of being able to know a man-eating beast by looking into its eyes, also betrays that blurring of the line between the wild and the “civilised”. He not only disregards the conservationist cause, but also undermines humankind’s scientific effort to close the barrier between human beings and nature. Moreover, when Hassan Noorani tries to point out the irrationality of Pintu‘s claims, the latter condescends to him for being a lepidopterist – one who studies moths. This also suggests that the scientific interest towards nature is considered to be a “feminine” trait, as opposed to Pintu‘s boorish, physical excess which he considers as a sign of the masculine.
Through this decentered portrayal of an ecofeminist heroine, Amit Masurkar introduces a new frontier to feminist Bollywood cinema in Sherni – the connection between the nurturing tendencies of the woman and nature. Vidya tells her mother that she does not want children, but we can see she wants to do her part in protecting the ecology – this goes to show that women’s nurturing role can be invested in spaces besides child-rearing and caregiving within the family. Masurkar’s films tend to focus on characters who are relentlessly principled and dedicated to doing the work that they have been trained in the world for – an act of giving back to the country, as seen in ‘Newton’, and to nature as seen in Sherni. The latter remains an extraordinary landmark in terms of a woman working against the tide of a patriarchal country and government.
Anomitra, a Master’s student in English Literature at Jadavpur University, is highly experienced in oratory and literature. She is the Founder and Chief Editor of the independent digital magazine, The Decadents Magazine, which focuses on sociopolitical issues and the representation of identities across media and cultural platforms. She is an instructional facilitator for the organisation Openhouse Clubs. She can be found on Instagram and Facebook.
Featured image source: Spotboye