With less-skilled actors, Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga could have been a laughable disaster doing exactly the opposite of what a satirical film with a social message is intended to do. The majority of the blame for this lies at the feet of director Srijit Mukherji—of Autograph and Baishe Srabon fame—who co-wrote the film with Sudeep Nigam and Atul Kumar Rai.
And why is that? Because the script turns a fascinating, absurd and heartbreaking premise of rural poverty and tiger attacks in northern Uttar Pradesh into a tension-free narrative with predictable story beats. Fortunately, however, Mukherji paired Pankaj Tripathi with Neeraj Kabi, Sayani Gupta and a host of excellent Hindi cinema character-actors, and seemingly let them loose to have fun with the generic scenarios.
The premise, based on a true story, is simple but provides enough material for absurdism and lampooning societal issues. In search of financial relief for his village, a Sarpanch comes across a government circular promising Rs 10 lakh in compensation each to any village where a resident has been the victim of a tiger attack. He comes up with a plan to go into the tiger reserve as easy prey and secure the money — the ultimate ‘balidaan’.
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A stellar cast
As the bumbling Sarpanch of village Jhundao that borders the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, Tripathi is the film’s focal point and rises to the occasion, engaging in memorable interactions with the supporting cast when he attempts to convince villagers of the merits of his scheme. These interactions rest on some much-needed dark comedy and gallows humour, from the opening sequences itself when a government official discusses with Tripathi the factors behind suicide.
While Sayani Gupta does well to portray the Sarpanch’s sceptical wife and the village’s two elderly statesmen have plenty of delightful deadpan moments, the scenes featuring Tripathi and Neeraj Kabi together are the Sherdil’s clear highlight.
The dreadlock-donning, gun-toting Kabi enters the fray in a manner that is extremely played out in jungle-based films but once his background and motivations are established, his hilarious conversations with Tripathi do more than enough to keep a stagnating story chugging along.
Even in not-great films like Line of Descent (2019) or Kaagaz (2021), Kabi and Tripathi respectively almost always leave their mark. I could have watched the duo chew the scenery for hours in Sherdil without any issues, with the unexpectedly funniest philosophical bits rooted in toilet humour.
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A screenplay too safe
The cinematography brings most of the village and forest settings of Sherdil to another level, as Mukherji and company insert plenty of extended shots of Tripathi and Kabi ambling around the lush greenery and riverbanks that the reserve’s tigers are known to frequent.
However, what really prevents Sherdil from becoming the next Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron or Peepli Live is the screenplay’s refusal to take risks or say anything insightful beyond the basic “poverty makes people do insane things” point. Even with the injection of dialogues finding the funny in death and systemic inequalities, Mukherji plays it too safe. The forest scenes make way for a preachy climax in which a further elaborate courtroom subplot and one final twist are tacked on.
Amid the well-intentioned attempts at consumerist satire and depicting exploitative behaviour of civilians and politicians alike, Sherdil’s concluding scenes—reminiscent of the Norwegian Netflix film The Trip—are too rushed and lazily written to have much of an impact.
Instead of amusing or moving me, the ending simply made me yearn for a scenario in which Mukherji let his cast run with their cracking chemistry and banter, and improvise the rest of the film around what happens as a result of these interactions.
Mukherji’s next project comes thick and fast, in the form of a biopic on Mithali Raj, with a different screenwriter in Priya Aven. But if his narrative choices in Sherdil are anything to go by, expect another mediocre effort in the end.