Smriti Kiran: To speak about the making of Sherni we have the director, producer Amit Masurkar, story and screenplay writer Aastha Tiku, editor Dipika Kalra, cinematographer Rakesh Haridas and sound designer Anish John. Amit, I deeply admire your work. Your film was produced by T-Series but their and your sensibility is very different, the kind of films that they produce. But here you are, with the vision of Sherni intact. How did you manage to keep your voice uncompromised?
Amit Masurkar: I went to Vikram Malhotra of Abundantia Entertainment, so T-Series was on board as the financiers. I am quite happy with the way the film was treated by all the parties involved. Vikram also understood what was required, in terms of where the money needs to be spent. We got the best VFX teams. We needed to shoot in the jungle during the pandemic. So, he made sure that all the COVID protocols were in place. We had booked entire hotels. We had a proper COVID management team on set. We really lucked out with respect to the producers that we have on board. I’m very happy that this was the team.
Smriti Kiran: For me, Sherni debunked a lot of things: the way we look at heroes, the jungle, the people who live around the jungle and the tiger. Aastha, this is the first film you’ve written that has found a release. You’re not a trained screenwriter. What has informed your screenwriting journey? How did you start exploring how to do this without having any kind of formal education in it? And how did you build the world of Sherni?
Aastha Tiku: My background is in philosophy and psychology, and I did a lot of qualitative research before I even thought of writing fiction. The way I approached the story was through a sound methodology because I was sure that I couldn’t just sit on a desk and write it. So, there was a lot of primary research, a lot of case studies that we went through, and also a lot of ethnographic immersions. With all that data, the story started appearing and the fictionalizing of these characters happened. Then, I used psychology, MBTI and Big Five models to create those characters and make them come to life.
I did educate myself when I started realising that I want to pursue screenwriting. I studied all the rules, but then I’m not so stuck in the rules to follow them at every step. Of course, you have your characters, you have your arcs, you have the basic things that are common to both literary fiction and screenwriting. The difference I feel between screenwriting and fiction is that screenwriting is more visual. You’re also time-bound in screenwriting. But I feel there are a lot of common things between fiction and screenwriting. So, I thought that I should structure the story not keeping the rules but the story in mind and what I want to say. That is why you see that it’s not only one person’s journey. We are constantly deviating into different characters’ lives, which is more like a novel. There’s a lot of meandering and there’s a lot of getting lost in different worlds. I wanted to stay true to that feeling of being in this particular world. It was a world-building choice that I made.
Smriti Kiran: Rakesh, I love the way you framed the jungle. In the film, it’s bustling with light and life. There are beautiful shots of butterflies, water bodies and lush greens. It invokes a sense of mystery and magic. Throughout the film, even when you get out of the jungle, the visuals are saying so much beyond the dialogues. How did you work out the visual design of Sherni?
Rakesh Haridas: When we were discussing during prep, we already knew that a lot of the actors and people that were going to populate the film would be drawn from the area where we were shooting the film. So, we decided that any equipment, any lights, whatever we brought in would have to be very non-intrusive and mostly observational. For people who are new to filmmaking, we wanted to make it as comfortable as possible. We used fixtures that we could already place if it were the interiors. If we had lights, we would keep them outside the building so that we could liberate the actors and they could move around anywhere. In doing that, I realised that I could also be free because I could also move around with the camera 360. So, that was really good. There was a feeling of freedom, fluidity and no restrictions. Smriti Kiran: It’s also a very different way of looking at the jungle. You usually see it framed in such a way that there’s always this fear.
Rakesh Haridas: It’s conditioned. The kind of cinema that we have seen get made in the jungles, be it Apocalypse Now or Kaal, have inculcated sort of a fear of the forest or its denizens. So, what we set out to do was to look at it in a way where the jungle is more welcoming, more compassionate. Like Rani says, ‘You’re not foreign – you’re natural.’ Human beings are natural to the rest of nature. So, we wanted our gaze to be a part of the world or the environment that we live in and not separate.
Smriti Kiran: Dipika, I read somewhere that the three things you hold on to while editing are objectivity, patience and being brutal while cutting. Explain that to me in the context of Sherni.
Dipika Kalra: Objectivity is very difficult to maintain, especially with this one because we pretty much lived with it right from the last lockdown. We just escaped this lockdown and we finished it. Because you’re living with it for so long, you get attached to so many scenes. You just fall in love with something you have cracked or something you just can’t figure out. Thankfully, screenings helped me and the whole team to figure out where to maintain objectivity. We can be as indulgent as we want, but ultimately, we can’t bore our audience. If it’s boring, we all have this option of ten seconds fast forward now. The idea is to not get the audience to that 10 seconds fast-forward button anymore.
Of course, there is a lot of patience required. I used to say in film school that there is a lot of, pardon my language, a lot of shit through which I have to sift through and come to something coherent.
I got very lucky that I read the script and had a sort of philosophical discussion with Amit on what the film was about. This was a new environment for me. I’m not a person who’s been so much in the natural habitat. Of course, I’ve been to jungles on a safari, but this was a completely new space for me. We had some discussions on the script to understand what the whole idea behind the story was. I understood the philosophy or the emotion behind the story rather than the plot. The plot comes out with all the screenwriting, the dialogues and everything. The idea was, as humans, what are we doing in the jungle, or what does the jungle do to us?
The visuals were fairly challenging for me. For me, this film was more of a challenge to do justice to what Rakesh and Amit might have shot and brought to my table. I was in awe of the footage in the first week or so because it was just so beautiful. Like Rakesh said, in other films, the jungle is this horror space that we have created. Even in our cultural context, the jungle is a scary space and not an inviting space. So, those conversations with Amit helped me come up with the fact that we have to create the jungle from the point of view of the people who are associated with it and not from the eye of an urban living being. That was the constant thread that was going on throughout the film, and keeping the jungle as the centrepiece and what is happening around it. I was very fortunate that I had footage that was given over to me with the responsibility of managing it, which was absolutely stunning to start with.
Smriti Kiran: Anish, sound design is like a dark art. One doesn’t really know how the magic is created, but you can pretty much make out when things go horribly wrong. I read in an interview of yours that Labor of Love, which also played at MAMI in 2014, was the first time you got the opportunity to really explore sound design. You also said in that interview that you like to come on board projects at the scripting stage because you can do so much more and plan so much more. So, when you came on board, what was your approach towards Sherni?
Anish John: Amit and I had a discussion even before they started writing the film. He told me about the idea and I was already fascinated by it. It sounded like a very interesting subject. Having worked on Newton, I knew that the approach or the point of view would be very different from what we’re usually used to seeing. Because even Newton was set in the jungles and I’ve seen him in that space interacting with the locals, I know that his approach is to integrate himself rather than show an outward point of view. But then when I read the script, Aastha’s sensitivity shone through in that as well and the fact that she feels so strongly about things we’ve addressed in the film.
Right from a very early stage, we started discussing that the point of view we would have would be such that the jungle would be a character more than a device. A lot of films that are set in a jungle usually use it as a device to take the plot forward or the story forward. In this case, very early on, we knew that the jungle would be the character itself and all of these elements come together within that. So, that’s what we were trying to do.
Coming back to the point you made right at the beginning, if you notice the sound design, then it’s a problem. So, we are always trying to stay in the background and enhance the experience. The moment you start noticing it, then that’s a problem.
Smriti Kiran: A lot of people have loved Sherni, but there’ve been people who also felt that they missed the drama. I thought the last two scenes were so brave. Was there a time when the ending was different and then you changed it? Or was this always going to be the path that you take? Aastha Tiku: We looked at the story in a very interconnected way. So, the story couldn’t have worked as a singular character navigating the space because we wanted multiple perspectives to be a part of the narrative. Also, for me, it was a choice to not use the suffering of the animals and the people around them for the character to get insight into herself. That was a moral and ethical choice that I made. It’s not about how she changes in the film, but more about how she contributes to the world that she’s a part of. That’s why you see that there’s not a lot of drama because the focus is not to create tension between the character and the environment that she’s in. It was more of her looking at the world around her with compassion. Seeing how she can lend herself to this problem and how she can help the situation around. Even though she’s struggling and she’s facing patriarchy in different forms, she’s also in a position of power. At no point did Amit and I want to exploit that. We wanted to have her heart in the right place, and that’s why we made certain choices in the film that probably don’t induce a sense of drama. It’s a more ethical and correct way of looking at the reality of the situation.
Smriti Kiran: Was it ever tempting to think that this might become a little more palatable if we have that one victorious moment? It’s not the most obvious way of showing victory to a lot of people because we are very unfamiliar with the way you’ve shown that. But was there no temptation?
Aastha Tiku: No. As I always say, if you work in the development sector or if you work in policy, you realise that people who actually bring out systemic changes are people who don’t believe in sudden wins. That’s a different mindset. People who work in these areas, who want to build systems and bring about a change, are very process-oriented. They don’t need a shabashi or an appraisal every two days. They work because they actually feel for the things that they do. It was really interesting for me to explore characters that are soft and mild. This film is happening over the span of two or three months. What can a win really mean in a problem that’s been created for so many years? There are no quick fixes in an issue like this. So, we just wanted to stick to the reality of situations like this that happen all over India.
Smriti Kiran: The cast was very diverse. There were, of course, established actors who’ve been working in the industry and also conservation officers and people who work in departments who were chosen. There was this one particular scene where Bansal and everybody from the department is sitting in the office and viewing the footage of the tiger and speaking fondly of them. Did this come out of your observation of a relationship that they form with the animals that they encounter? Amit Masurkar: When we were talking to people on the field, this is how they spoke about them. It was almost like, ‘Ye iska nephew hai,’ ‘Ye iski grandmother thi,’ ‘Abhi usko wahan bheja hai.’ They would talk about these animals as if they were people. They would say things like, ‘Haan, woh thoda sharmila hai,’ ‘Iska pehla litter iske saath tha, dusra iske saath hai.’ So, all these kinds of things that you hear in soap operas used to happen here. In fact, we had longer dialogues there, but then I thought it was too much, so we cut it out. But this is how people in the conservation circle, especially in the forest department, talk. For them this is an everyday thing, you know? When they want to identify an animal, this is how they remember these animals.
Smriti Kiran: Dipika, do you have to cut differently when there are non-professional actors involved?
Dipika Kalra: A little bit, yes, because they could have delivered the perfect line but somebody is looking into the camera. So, of course, it becomes slightly different in how you observe the footage, but I wouldn’t say I have to cut differently, per se, because it has to still remain in the spirit of the scene. Yes, technically, it sometimes becomes a little challenging or different in how you view the actors, not the characters, their performances and their pitch.
Smriti Kiran: On YouTube, there is Raja Periyar Chandu who says, ‘Rakesh, all the time spent in the wild growing up is beautifully captured. Awesome.’ Rakesh, what is this time that you spend in the wild? Tell us about that.
Rakesh Haridas: I grew up in the tea estates in South India. Where we lived, the forest was really close. Sometimes in the night, we’d have elephants coming home to raid the vegetable patch or eat guavas from the tree that was nearby. I used to go on treks. So, I spent a lot of time in the forest and the jungle growing up. He’s referring to that. That also helped me to portray the forest. It’s not a place where you have to be afraid. Especially for urban people, a forest is a place that you do not know about. Therefore, there’s a bit of fear about even things like leeches or insects. You don’t really have to be afraid of life, or something that you’ve not seen.
Smriti Kiran: Aastha, I’m curious to know about the men in the film. There’s Bansal, Pintu Bhaiya, Nangia and Pawan. Tell us a little bit about constructing the men in the film.
Aastha Tiku: Constructing the men is an easier task as compared to women. We face similar situations. A lot of it was drawn from observing the world around me. But obviously, I wanted to explore different facets of masculinity – from the very hyper-masculine to the soft. Now there’s that whole thing of soft boys, people who are emotionally aware and who can express their love for the world around them. It’s like that whole spectrum. I think all the men fall on one end or the other. We’ve covered the whole gambit of identities within the male archetype.
Amit Masurkar: For me, the process of finding a story is just going with your gut feeling. Whatever you feel at that point in time is what I try to sink my teeth into. With respect to Sherni, Aastha wanted to do something in the conservation space. We’d been discussing various different ideas for the last three-four years. The basic theme was that conservation is not hero driven and it needs to involve an entire community. Through this film, we also wanted to study power structures in society. So, there were various motivations to start this film.
Debaleena Saha: How did you come up with the last scene? And for Dipika, your cuts are absolutely brilliant and so soothingly seamless. What was your approach to the milieu of the film?
Aastha Tiku: The last scene changed between the first and the second schedule of shooting. Initially, we had a closure for the character, where there’s an ending to her emotional journey. Then the pandemic happened, and everybody’s minds changed and our world changed. We were looking at the world at large and we felt more connected to the world. Then, I wanted to end the film with a pressing question for the audience. If we don’t save our forest covers, rivers and river basins, and the marine population, if we don’t save our environment, then what do we have left? Then we’re just going to see taxidermy animals. We’re going to be so removed from our natural environment that we will have nothing to connect it with. Also, I think we used a more surrealistic ending because we wanted it to be more poetic than literal. The ending is a question to the audience about what we are really doing and what our place on this planet is. Dipika Kalra: I think the seamlessness comes from the philosophy that Aastha and Amit have brought into the film. The idea was never to make something that keeps you on the edge. It was about the journey that the forest officer and the villagers were living through. We had to create that pace from what they were seeing, what they were observing and what the jungle was doing. So, it was all driven by the screenplay and the philosophy of the film. Nothing happens so fast in the jungle. You don’t catch a tiger immediately, or there is no hero and tiger wrestling match that’s going to happen. So, we had to cheat it in that zone of keeping it moving from one moment, of having found something, to the other, of following another track.
Similarly, we had so many tracks in the film to follow. So, of course, it was a challenge to make sure that we didn’t bore our audience and keep it as realistic as Aastha and Amit wanted to treat the film.
Technically, as an editor, music plays a very important role in creating the whole space, which, at the edit stage, is the reference music that we use while cutting creates. It is a very important aspect of cracking a sequence or a scene. In fact, there were some scenes that we kept on reworking for weeks on end because we just couldn’t crack the right tone or the right energy or emotion to portray what we wanted to. There are a million ways to cut the same footage. Based on the kind of shots we had, we could have done some very edgy cutting as well. But we planned to not create it as a potboiler or a dramatic edit.
Nasreen Munni Kabir: I wanted to know from Rakesh, how difficult was it to grade the shots in the forest? Because there’s so much dappled light and it’s very difficult to shoot under shaded conditions like that. How did you approach the shoot and then what did you do to recoup stuff in the grade?
Rakesh Haridas: We had to do a lot of planning because the sun was not waiting for anyone. We had to figure out how we would be approaching the day’s exterior scenes as the light was constantly changing and it was dappled at times. Sometimes, we had to wait a little bit for the sun to come out from behind the clouds. But fortunately, nature helped. We were able to get a consistency at least at the time of shooting. Once the edit was locked, I worked with Sidharth Meer, who did a wonderful job of aligning all the images together and making it seamless. Thanks to Sid also, the film seems so seamlessly connected and put together.
Also, I have to mention my gaffer, Maulik Kamdar, who helped figure out new ways of cutting up the sun and helping us dapple the light where we had no natural light. My team was a great help.
Nasreen Munni Kabir: Were you able to do any tracking shots or was that out of the question?
Rakesh Haridas: We used a gimbal. Oommen Jacob, who was key grip, devised different ways to move the gimbal around in the forest. Also, we got lucky with shots like the ones of the goat, who gets up and goes around. That was one of the first shots that we did. We were really blown away by how choreographed it looked when in fact it was natural. In that sense, it really inspired us and gave us confidence going ahead. Vipin K. Waghmare: Can we know more about the process that involved the writing of the dialogues? It’s so authentic that I felt like I was living in that environment. How much improvisation was done on location?
Amit Masurkar: Once the screenplay was written, I was the bouncing board. I wrote the dialogues mostly in Hindi but with a little bit of English here and there. Once we had the thing ready, we got Yashasvi Mishra on board. He’s from Raipur, so his Hindi was better than ours. So, he tweaked them. I’m from Bombay, Aastha is from all over India, so our Hindi can’t be the Madhya Pradesh Hindi that is required here. So, Yashasvi helped us tweak the lines.
All the actors have said the lines that are there in the script, but you couldn’t expect the same from actors who were acting for the first time like the forest guards or some of the villagers. For example, the scene where they drag the guards out of the jeep and everybody’s fighting, those lines were not written. Those are obviously improvised. But all the other lines that you see people saying,like ‘Agar aap jungle me 100 bar jayengi to ho sakta hai tiger aapko ek bar dikhe…parantu ek baat to tay hai ki tiger ne aapko 99 baar dekh lia’ are always written. Then there were other lines in which we had written indicative dialogues, for example, ‘Tiger kaise milta hai?’ when the two female guards are talking to each other. So, the lady used her own language to express what was written. It was a mix of everything.
It helped that we were shooting in an area where Hindi is the mother tongue. Most of the people spoke exactly the same language. That is their native accent. So, that helped.
Sahi Arora: Rakesh, what went into deciding how you chose to treat the subject visually?
Rakesh Haridas: When we were prepping for the film, one of the things that we thought about was to make the film immersive and to be with the characters. We didn’t want to single out characters from the spaces that they inhabit. So, that informed a lot of the choices that we made. For example, the lensing. We were mostly going with 25, 35 and 40. The way we looked at characters and the way we moved around them was informed by that. We did not want to focus separately on one person or one particular thing. It was more cohesive and trying to make it like the viewers were in the room, or with the characters in the jungle if we were shooting there.
Vijeth Balila: Aastha, what was the research behind this film?
Aastha Tiku: The basic premise was to study climate change and conservation. When we started carrying out our field research, we went in with a very broad question. We wanted to just understand the aspects of conservation because it’s a very broad topic. You can make a 10-hour documentary, and even that’d not be enough. So, we wanted to stick to what we felt was a more immediate problem, which is human-animal conflict and not often spoken about. It’s actually quite a serious issue in our country and globally because the forest cover is shrinking and the animals are forced to go closer to civilization. Civilization is also expanding into the jungles and that’s a huge issue. So, we wanted to distil all our writing into that particular space.
We went about studying various case studies, not just related to a particular animal but generally, the human and animal conflict. So, we studied elephants and leopards, we studied the issues happening in the Sundarbans, wherever there is this kind of conflict. What we were constantly interested in is the big picture, which is what the cluster of issues is and what is the machinery that operates around issues of this nature. So, it was a big picture focus. If you see the case studies about the elephants near the plantations in Kerala and Karnataka, you’ll see that it’s the same cluster of issues. What’s surprising is that it’s almost identical. But our movie is a work of fiction that is based on the cluster of issues and the machinery that operates around the man-animal conflict.
Maitreyi Mittal: Dipika, what did you want to exactly convey when you put together the montages of the forest? I noticed that you go from some really wide shots to some really micro ones, like the shot of the spider web. Rakesh, you chose to have a very restrained number of close-ups in this film. There is no one character who we ever go to with just this much of the frame of and I was wondering why. Anish, I noticed that during the film, there are lots of periods where you know that the character is in a silent space but the film is not silent. There’s a cricket or there’s the sound of water rushing. So, I was wondering how you constructed the soundscape of silence in your film and what was that process like?
Dipika Kalra: While choosing the shots with the one specific sequence that you mentioned, where we’ve used wides and then gotten extremely close, we were trying to show that there is this amazingly beautiful place, yet there are these micro things which we don’t notice, like the spider’s web, which is deadly for something like the tiger, who hate it, but it can look so beautiful at the same time. That one sequence where the forest guards are explaining tiger dhundenge kaise, there is this whole jungle that they have to explore, so there are these wides that we have used to show the expanse that they have to walk every day, search every day and look for these really tiny clues – where there is a cobweb, where there is a wet patch. All these decisions came from what the forest guards are going through and what they are looking for. It was their gaze that we were trying to establish.
If you notice, that sequence also has a certain voiceover, which is supporting our visuals in terms of what we are looking out for. They talk about bandar hulchal karenge and there is a shot of a monkey climbing. So, it’s not a bandar is equal to a bandar kind of an edit. We were simply trying to show what is happening in the forest, which we don’t usually notice when we go on a safari. In urban spaces, we don’t notice what the animals are doing. There is so much detail in every sound that happens or every movement that happens in a jungle. This was the leading force in deciding what is going to be our next shot.
Rakesh Haridas: I didn’t want to really separate the characters from their environments. Also, it was an attempt to include as much of the forest in the lensing without cutting separately to the jungle to show the landscape. So, all the lensing that was used was mostly wide and, maybe, mid-shorts and very rarely coming into closeups of people. Also because the language of the film was like that. You didn’t want to punctuate a dramatic high point by cutting to a close because that is not how the film had been structured. So, it was written into the language of the film from the beginning. That is why you don’t see too many people in closeup. Anish John: Essentially what we were trying to do was to capture the environment that the characters were in. Of course, the narrative is being driven by dialogue and that’s the information we have to convey. But apart from that, there’s also a certain mood that gets conveyed or communicated because of the environment that the characters are in. The jungle provides us with that opportunity to explore the environment aurally and we don’t have to resort to the background score all the time. There are certain punctuations we use like a bird call. My team would go back to Dr. Ramzan Virani, who was our consultant on this project, to check with him how animals react when there’s a tiger in the vicinity. It was a very collaborative effort in that sense. Obviously, I’m not an expert when it comes to the forest, so we had to rely on Dr. Virani’s feedback. He would constantly tell us how the monkeys react or how the birds react. We tried to incorporate that. In the goat scene, we had to get a sense of the tiger coming in. So, we had to really drop the ambience. We didn’t do that for dramatic effect. We checked with the experts and they said that this was naturally how the forest reacts when a tiger enters that space. So, that’s what we were trying to do and I hope we were able to capture it correctly.
Siddharth Menon: Amit, Newton and Sherni are both in a similar ecosystem and space, where there is talk about government and bureaucracy and a host of other distinctive things. How did you ensure that they did not intersect?
Amit Masurkar: You know, we didn’t even think about that at all. It didn’t matter to us if it intersected or not. Newton was a story about democracy, we were being honest about the way we were telling it. Sherni was about conservation, coexistence and cooperation. We were honest about that. We were not really worrying about how one may affect the other or how one may not affect the other. These were independent processes made with completely different teams. So, I wasn’t really worried about that.
Anshul Gupta: I want to know from Amit about the shooting style and the treatment you used for the storytelling. Was the documentary-esque style that you chose deliberate? Also, why did you choose to tell a story of bureaucracy and hierarchy from the point of view of a jungle?
Amit Masurkar: The issue that we had taken up in the story is a real, pressing issue, so it had to look authentic. It had to look real and there were no two ways about it. It had to look real in terms of the way we cast the film. It had to look real in terms of how the production design was done. Devika Dave did the production design. I mean, it’s all production design, but you can’t make out because that’s how good a job she’s done. It had to look real in terms of the costumes done by Rushi Sharma, Manoshi Nath, Bhagyashree D. Rajurkar. It had to look real in every aspect of filmmaking. That’s why Rakesh had to make sure that it made you feel that you were a part of that scene. A way to make you feel part of the scene is to be immersive in terms of the lens choices that you use, in terms of where you’re placing the camera, in terms of how the camera is moving. The camera’s breathing, so you feel like you’re part of that whole environment. It was a very conscious effort. We had to make sure that all departments were on the same page when it came to telling the story.
Rakesh Haridas: The thing about the documentary aesthetic is, I think people sometimes use it without being aware of what they’re talking about. For example, if you look at film history from the 2000s onwards, or the late 1990s, films like Dancer in the Dark, City of God or Amores Perros, Saving Private Ryan came in with a sort of hand-held camera to ratchet up the feeling of you actually being in that space and to create more realism. So, they borrowed heavily from the documentary aesthetic and now it’s a part of fiction. But if you look at documentaries today, they are using track and trolly, gimbals, Steadicams, drones and cranes. They are borrowing heavily from the fiction aesthetic. Both the genres are taking from the other to make themselves more interesting or to make things more real.
Priyesh Choudhary: Were you tempted to give Vidya a more glorified redemption than a very surreal one? What made you give her a more real redemption and not something melodramatic?
Aastha Tiku: I’m not a writer who can write without a lot of research. I had to make the character come alive in my head. A lot of literary fiction writers do that. You need to understand the childhood, the teenage years, the adult life of that character to place her in the world that you create. If you see, her archetype is that of the caregiver but she’s also rebellious. You can see that she has this feeling of caring about the world at large, but she also goes about it in her own way. She’s not a conformist as such, she has a streak of rebellion in her. It’s a very soft rebellion. It is a rebellion that has a purpose behind it. She’s not a rebel without a cause. These aspects of the character dictated her journey throughout the film. Keeping the tone of the film and the characters in mind, I just felt that we had to be so immersive in the way we shoot the film and decided to tell the story that I wanted the audience to be even more immersed in the ending of the story. At the conclusion of the story, I wanted to pose a direct question to them. Cubs are wild animals. You can’t hold them in your hands. Even if you hold a cat in your hand without their permission, they’re going to scratch you all over. So, the idea of holding two tiger cubs would be unrealistic. They would be fierce wild animals. I don’t think anybody from the department could do that. I just wanted to immerse the audience even more into the world by involving them in the conversation around climate change and conservation.
Amit Desai: For a movie like this, how do you plan a budget?
Amit Masurkar: This is a pretty high budget film. It’s got the A-list Bollywood star, Vidya Balan. All the other actors are highly paid actors. The film is also not an easy film to make with a low budget. All the animals are done using VFX. The people who worked and acted in the film believed in the film. They believed that there is an audience willing to watch it. It was made with the intention of releasing it in the theatres. The only reason it was released on Amazon is because of the pandemic. Otherwise, the intention was to go for a mainstream release after a festival run, but due to the pandemic, we decided to go with Amazon. I think that was a good decision because it was released at a time when conversations on climate change have a much wider reach.
Regarding the budgets and the specificities of it, I think the best person to talk about that would be somebody from Vikram Malhotra’s team. They’ve done the budget. I think it’s always a challenge to balance budgets in a film that has such a huge cast and such a good crew. But I think they’ve done a great job at what they’ve done.
Aksh Calvan: Amit, how do you workshop with the non-actors? Anish, I really loved the soundscaping. When a director or a writer comes to you with a requirement like ‘I want my jungle to be a character,’ there’s a certain level of responsibility that comes on to you. I wanted to know about your conversations with Amit and Aastha about what they wanted and how you delivered on that.
Amit Masurkar: Casting is always a big challenge. Romil Modi and I have worked on Newton before. Romil casts a wide net. If we’re shooting in a particular village, he’ll go to 15 other villages and conduct auditions almost on a daily basis. People who come for auditions are generally people who want to act. So, that is the number one pre-requisite: that the person should be willing to act. Once you have somebody who’s willing to act, then you can always work with them.
Romil would organise these workshops. He had at least three or four other associates who were involved in this. In the scene where the forest guards get manhandled by the villagers, those kinds of scenes are rehearsed for nine days. But it was for one hour a day after work time, around four o’clock-five o’clock. People would work in their fields, then assemble in somebody’s house and they would all rehearse these scenes. For other actors, like the forest friends, these were young men and women from the village. They were also selected after auditions, so they would also take part in these workshops.
Also, another way of getting people who are acting for the first time to act is to do improvisational exercises. This can work even with actors, like Aastha and I did this with Vidya and Neeraj Kabi. Before we shot the scene where they meet for the first time, we did an improv exercise with Vidya and Neeraj, where they meet for the first time during Vidya’s time at the forest institute and he is a young forest officer who has come to deliver a lecture. Right after that, they meet in the canteen and they have a half an hour conversation. We did this in the hotel, where the two of them were sitting and talking for half an hour straight. Aastha and I were sitting at the next table and listening to the conversation. After a point, we didn’t know if it was the real person speaking or the character speaking. But obviously they were playing characters, so they would ask each other questions and answer as the character. That was very interesting. When you do these improvisational exercises of scenes which are not in the film, you will start bringing out the character from within them. You need to have a notebook with you. You need to start looking at what they’re saying, patterns of speech or interesting insights that may come out of these conversations. These are basic improvisational exercises that we did with a lot of these characters, which gave them the confidence to act. That also gave the casting director an idea of who could deliver the scenes.
You don’t have to load people with lines that are written and make them mug it up because a lot of times that doesn’t work when you’re shooting. When a camera comes and there are 50 people in the unit watching you, even I won’t be able to deliver those lines. So, when you do these improvisational exercises, I think it loosens everybody up and it becomes a fun process.
Anish John: It is a huge responsibility on a film like this to be given this job because it can go horribly wrong. I collaborate with the director early on. I get a very detailed brief on what we’re trying to communicate. Without doing that exercise, if I just go straight into it, or my team starts working on it without understanding what we’re trying to convey, let’s say I start designing the sound as if the forest is a scary place, everything can just go horribly wrong. It’ll just not create the sort of impact that we are trying to create. At least working with Amit, we have a very good understanding of each other. He gives me a very good brief and I try to stick to that. I try to understand what he’s trying to communicate. The detailing then is just something we collaborate on.
Amit Masurkar: I like the way Anish thinks. Also, he has a sense of humour. For example, there is a scene at the beginning where Vidya and her husband are talking on the phone. You’ll notice that there is a dog barking in the background. Now, that came from Anish. It’s so subtle that 90 percent of the people will miss it. I must have missed it the first few times I saw it. But then when I noticed it, I was like, ‘Wow, Anish, this is really fun.’ We’ve done little things like these.
As Anish mentioned before, Dr. Virani was very helpful with a bee’s or bird’s sound that was coming. Even in the indoor scenes, you’ll see a lot of these inputs that have really added to it. He had to construct the entire environment of the office with phones ringing in the background or somebody talking. Even in the party scene when Vidya goes and sits with the whiskey, you hear this lady narrating an entire menu in the background. These things are done in ADR. That sort of stuff really helps create the aural soundscape of the film.
Smriti Kiran: You spoke about the party scene. There’s this guy who is dancing consistently, in the white shirt, at the back.
Amit Masurkar: Amit Singh is the manager of Hotel Gateway in Gondia, where we stayed. He was a contestant in Dance India Dance. He is an extremely talented dancer. When I first met him and I found out that he dances, I asked him, ‘Would you like to do this?’ He was very sporty. We gave him this song and told him that he should do it in a way that should look like he’s serious about it. ‘Obviously, it’s going to look funny when we shoot it, but you need to be completely involved in what you’re doing.’ He did that. That is his own choreography. He’s a talented person and a great host. Because we were in a bio-bubble, the hotel had to feel like home. This was probably the best hotel staff that I’ve interacted with. They made us feel so safe and secure.
Smriti Kiran: Brijendra Kala was amazing. He’s such a memorable character that you guys created. Aastha, Amit, talk a little bit about him, because he was just flawless in the film.
Amit Masurkar: Brijendra Kala was one of the actors for whom the role was written. Just like Sharat Saxena was the hunter when we thought of the hunter, Brijendra Kala was this boss. So, one thing I found out from him when we were talking was that he loves karaoke. That’s his hobby. He loves singing. Then we thought, we should have a song for him. Initially, there were some other songs that we’d thought of, but then since T-Series was on board, we were getting access to their entire library. All the three Hindi songs that we have used are thanks to that library. Then, of course, Kala sahab, as we call him, is also very good with sher-o-shayari, so we thought we’d give him a little bit of that. It’s always interesting to have a government babu who’s more interested in the arts. He was an interesting character. We wanted him to be a likeable guy, who also wants to be likeable, so he’ll also take that effort to make everyone happy. I’ve always admired Brijendra Kala, so I thought he was perfect for this part.
Vishesh Gandhi: I wanted to know more about the lighting of the film. It was mostly natural. How did you go about it?
Rakesh Haridas: The office space is a place of corruption, with files in cobwebs. Also, if you notice, there’s no sunlight coming into the office at any time. I lit all the spaces in the office, the interiors, with tube lights. The lighting is all coming from the top. That’s also the other reason why we could move around in that space so much. Vidya’s house, for example, is her officially allotted quarters, so it’s a mix of tube lights and some warm sources. I tried to be true to the light that was coming from the source. I tried to make it look natural like that.
Lasya Rao Vishwanath: What were your challenges while you were shooting on location? While you were using safety procedures and protocols, like PPE kits and sanitisers, apart from that, was there anything, in terms of logistics or work schedules, that posed a challenge?
Rakesh Haridas: When you’re dependent on natural light, your challenge is always time and to marshal your crew to follow you and take the path that you want to take. Coming to the pandemic, there had to be a lot of protocols that had to be followed at the beginning of the day. It was not like you come in and whenever you get a break you quickly do that. It had to be done every day at the beginning of the day. The disinfecting and using UV lights on the set had to be done before the crew came in. So, it was a challenge to give that time to the health and safety department to do their job, and then come in and do what we had to do. That was a bit of a challenge, especially when we had a finite amount of time with the sunlight.
Anish John: Even in post-production, it was a learning curve for all of us. I haven’t worked on a film like this before, where we are trying to work remotely and in different spaces. Usually, we’re all in the same room and we’re reacting simultaneously and working. But here, we had to work remotely and put our collective minds together. It was very, very different. But, again, we took on the challenge. I guess it was new for all of us.
Smriti Kiran: Amit, is it better to have the HODs in place at the time you begin scripting? Did you crew up at a very early stage to get the kind of effect that you got with Sherni?
Amit Masurkar: Everybody came on board after the story was written. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anybody when the story is being written. It’s only after it’s ready or we have some sort of an idea that it’s going to happen that we search for collaborators. It’s also based on the story. Even with actors, it’s always better to write and then think of who can fit the part, rather than thinking about a particular actor and writing. Sometimes, a face gets stuck in your head and you write with that person in mind, then when that person is not available, you feel dejected. So, it’s always better to just write it with a blank slate and then get people on board.
From the stage where we got signed to write it till the stage where we shot it was done in a very short period of time. Right after the first draft was written, people came on board. In fact, I was on the recce when Aastha was working on the subsequent drafts. She would send it, and we would sometimes talk on the phone about what we could do. It’s different for different films. With Newton, I had a lot of time. With Suleimani Keeda, the script was already written for a while and then I was looking for collaborators after we wrote it. With Sherni, people came on board before the final draft was ready. And the draft kept changing. During the pandemic, some scenes were added in the middle, the ending was changed. A lot of these little, little things happened. So, with this, the experience has been a little different.
Mohit Lodha: What happened to the cubs in the end? Did they go to the national park?
Amit Masurkar: That track ended when you saw the cubs. The rest of it was all procedure. They would have been waiting for two hours till some experts came with their vans. That would have made it look more like a documentary. Because Vidya is involved there, you know that the cubs are going to be safe. So, whatever the procedures demanded, she would have followed it. So, that’s why we didn’t really get into that detail.
Vinayak Mehta: A lot of directors try to find their footing early in their career and a lot of people find it later. Your stories stem from the environment. Do you think that you’ve found this to be something that you could sink your teeth into and call your world, something that is your identity now?
Amit Masurkar: I don’t want to box myself as somebody who’s only doing one kind of film. I’ll go with the flow now. I’ll see if there’s something else that interests me, and I’ll go to that. I’ll try to do that with sincerity. So, that’s what I would say to answer your question.
Garima Pura: We understand that Sherni is about the environment, conservation and communities. In reality, all of these three teams are underlined with feminism. There’s no taking away from that. Usually, when such subjects are taken and made into films, feminism gets shaved off. Your frames are populated with women. You made the creative decision to have these female characters. I want to understand how those decisions were taken while writing the screenplay.
Also, there are scenes that start very intensely and end with humour. Did you decide that you’d start things intensely and then end with comedy?
Aastha Tiku: When you talk about human versus nature, gender is an important part of it. When you talk about conservation, women have been on the forefront. So, it was really important to represent the other half of the population when we talk about conservation, especially when you talk about communities that live close to the forest. We have a deep history of women’s involvement in conservation. You look at the Chipko movement or various other environmental movements. So, it would be extremely unrealistic to remove women from the narrative. As a female writer, I naturally, organically tend to notice women and women’s contributions in every space.
Also, the lens was very specifically intersectional. Feminism is often spoken in pop culture in a very different way than it really is on ground. I wanted to cover the lens of looking at the world through a feminist lens, which is also an extension of human rights. It’s a body of knowledge. It’s a way of looking at all human beings, not just women. We want equality for everybody. So, it was intersectional. It was giving agency to all the female characters that are involved. The characters are all self-aware. Vidya’s character also knows that even though she is suffering issues in her own private life, she also exercises a certain power over the men and women in the areas that she’s posted in. She’s not oblivious to that and that’s why she starts using her influence to make a difference.
Often, I find in cinema we have these sort of trope-ish feminists, who are self-actualised, who know how to navigate those spaces and they kind of go in knowing who they are, but most women navigate our spaces on a daily basis. I didn’t want to lose that aspect of being a woman in a woman’s body. So, I was very sensitive to that issue.
When you talk about diffusing a stressful situation with humour, I think the lens with which both Amit and I discussed this was that we didn’t want to demonize anybody. We wanted to keep the humanity of all the characters intact. We didn’t want anybody to think that this was the bad guy because he only had bad things to offer, and this was a good person and they’re perfect in their lives. We didn’t want to get stuck in that binary of good versus evil. We didn’t want to navigate that space at all. We wanted to keep it more realistic.
Smriti Kiran: Aastha, there were murmurs about the fact that Vidya is not very likeable and why she was married to this guy.
Aastha Tiku: Why does anybody get married or date anybody? It’s the same. It’s a personal story.
It’s a feminist critique of literature and cinema that we tend to make an active effort to make the female character relatable to the audience at large. Women are roughly 50 percent of the population. Most women know what it is to be a woman and the experience of being a woman. I didn’t want her to be defined by the role she plays. She might not be good at certain roles that she plays in society, but she’s good at her job and her heart is in the right place. I think that makes a good enough character to be explored instead of trying to say that she’s a perfect human being who does everything right, who balances her words with equal precision. None of us has that in our lives. We don’t get it all right.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with The Making Of Sherni with the team in conversation in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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