The real deal: director Amit Masurkar’s journey from Newton to Sherni
He was 19, studying industrial engineering in Manipal, when Amit Masurkar fell in love with cinema. He watched Quentin Tarantino’s neo-noir noir comedy Pulp Fiction 17 times that year (it’s a 1994 film, but still played almost on repeat in the video lounges that dot the student town of Karnataka). “I didn’t understand it the first time. I wanted to understand what was in the film that people liked so much, ”says Masurkar.
So he found the script online, read it, watched the movie again. With each viewing, more layers emerged. He went from Tarantino to Spike Lee, Werner Herzog and David Lynch, watching their films in the same little video lounges.
For someone who hadn’t engaged in films far beyond the family group date, these storytellers sparked something in him. So much so that he abandoned his engineering studies, determined to make his own films. He started off on a slight tangent, drawing cartoons for a children’s magazine, then interned at MTV, assisted filmmaker Aanand L Rai on a TV movie, and wrote sketches for The Great Indian Comedy Show.
Through it all, he continued to write. Script after script collected in a stack (it always has the stack). Until Sulemani Keeda. The lazy 2014 comedy about two struggling writers trying to make it in Bollywood actually benefited from her tight budget. Most of the cast and crew worked on it just for the credits, and Masurkar asked for favors to get to the filming locations. But that meant that the struggle in history was also the struggle of its making. The storyline exploited the absurdities inherent in an industry that demands hope as some kind of blood sacrifice, while generally offering nothing in return. Overall, the film exuded an authenticity that would become a Masurkar hallmark.
Sulemani Keeda was a slow enough success to make it easier to raise funds for her next film. But Newton (2017) would be more than what Masurkar bargained for. It performed well at the box office and with critics. It brought glory to Rajkummar Rao, won a national award and was India’s official entry to the Oscars. “There were a lot of expectations and I was a bit overwhelmed,” Masurkar says, speaking from his home in Mumbai.
Now 40, his third directorial feature, Sherni, was released on Amazon Prime last week. Shot in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, the film explores the strained relationship between villagers living and farming on the edge of a forest, a tigress trying to make its way between shrinking habitats and a forest officer (Vidya Balan) trying to to keep the tigress and her two cubs from being slaughtered.
With the exception of the quiet energy of Balan’s character Vidya Vincent, the innate lethargy of the system shines through in the gradual pace of the action. The electoral campaign turns the tigress into a political pawn. Rather than joining forces to find her, the regional head of the forestry division organizes a havan in the office, which the staff eagerly attend.
Aastha Tiku’s script, like Mayank Tiwari’s for Newton, is the result of hours of in-depth interviews with locals living in similar situations. “When you meet people and talk to them, you find players that you might miss when you sit in Bombay and write a script. It is therefore important for a writer to travel, to meet people and to read, ”explains Masurkar.
Sherni’s cast is a mix of top talent, veterans like Neeraj Kabi and Vijay Raaz, and real inhabitants of villages near the forests where the film was filmed. “Most of the rangers, with the exception of three or four actors, are also real rangers,” Masurkar explains. “All the villagers except Sampa Mandal, the NSD graduate who played Jyoti, were from local villages.”
On the surface, Sherni seems like a logical progression from Newton. Like the election official played by Rao, Vincent struggles to navigate a bureaucracy that doesn’t care about his passion or a job well done, as long as paperwork is okay and local bosses from all walks of life unfazed.
But where Newton was fiery, uncompromising and quick to anger, Vincent was softened by nine years of hard work. She doesn’t fight because she knows she can’t win, but she keeps trying.
Masurkar sees his cinema as “being interested in big ideas and paying attention to small details”. After Newton, he knew his next story had to be particularly meaningful, layered, and commented. The climate crisis seemed like a good topic to tackle since it is also something that occupies his mind. “It’s all about how we deal with nature – global warming, species extinctions and to some extent even the pandemic,” he says.
“Over the past few years, Aastha and I were talking about doing something in the conservation space. She began to look at various case studies involving rhinos, elephants, whales and tigers. They ultimately chose the tiger as a representative of the larger cause, the jungle itself.
While he tells his stories, creates his authentic worlds, Masurkar, 19, is always there, to watch, to question, to learn. “These new wave Malayalam films are quite inspiring. i just watched joji [starring Fahadh Faasil]. I really liked The Disciple [a Marathi film directed by Chaitanya Tamhane]. I watched [the 2019 film] Sound of Metal recently. I like Riz Ahmed.
His next challenge will be a web series, working again with Tiku. “A storyteller must be curious. Each movie of him tackled a different subject, so he ends up learning with each of them too, he says.
The conversation switches to Masurkar’s first time on a film set. “There was shooting outside my school and it was recess, so we just stood and watched them. I don’t remember who was in it but I remember getting really bored, ”he says,“ because they kept saying the same thing over and over again.
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