It was certainly not the intention, but the coronavirus pandemic has given Bollywood film Sherni a more profound significance, says its lead Vidya Balan.
'Sherni' (meaning "tigress" in Hindi),, the drama set deep in the jungle features Balan, 42, as a forest officer trying to maintain the precarious balance between man and nature.
"We didn't plan it like that but it turned out to be such a timely film," she tells The National. "If we want natural calamities not to hit us, if we want to make sure there are no more pandemics, we have to make sure there are healthy boundaries between nature and us.
"We can't go into the animal kingdom and make it our own, because that imbalances things," she says.
Sherni, out on Friday on Amazon Prime Video, is directed by Amit Masurkar, who helmed Newton, India's entry for the Oscars in 2017.
Balan hopes the film will trigger more conversations about the importance of conservation.
“This film taught me that nature is as much part of me and my life as I am a part of nature. And we have to respect that relationship and make sure we respect nature, the forests and the wild, because it’s crucial to our survival,” she says. "If this becomes a conversation, it will be very gratifying.”
Balan, who was last seen in 2020's Shakuntala Devi, a biopic about the Indian maths whiz, is known for playing strong women in her films, starting with her Bollywood debut in 2005's Parineeta.
She's since starred in many hit women-centric titles, such as The Dirty Picture, in which she played an adult film actress, and Kahaani, which cast her as a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband. In 2019, she played a scientist who was part of India's first interplanetary mission in Mission Mangal.
She says she took on Sherni because it was a world she was unfamiliar with.
“I thought it was a unique opportunity for me because it’s a story not just based in the jungle, but is about the jungle,” she says. “And I think this is the first Hindi film of this nature.”
Besides its environmental message, the film's story, told from a female officer's perspective, is an important one, she says.
"I believe every woman is a sherni. She is navigating her way through this thick jungle called life," Balan says. "We are constantly facing challenges. I know that at every step of the way, women today are [overcoming difficulties].
"You don't need to roar to be a tigress," she says. "There are various reflections of sherni that each of us represents. My character is a woman of few words, reserved but strong-willed. So you can be that. In each of the households in India, there's a sherni and a lot of times she's invisible. This is my salute to all of them out there."
Balan also stars in the theme tune's music video Main Sherni (I am a Tigress), performed by singer Akasa and rapper Raftaar, along with four other women whom she refers to as "real life shernis".
Indian F4 racer Mira Erda, body positivity influencer Natasha Noel, hula-hoop dancer Eshna Kutty and transgender doctor Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju all feature in the video, which received more than five million views within 24 hours of its debut.
"I absolutely love the song. It's so powerful and full of energy. I've been hearing it for the past few weeks and it gets me going … like I can take on the world," Balan says.
She also speaks about being seen on a streaming platform as opposed to the big screen. Balan's last film, Shakuntala Devi, was also released on Amazon Prime Video last year as cinemas remained shut due to the pandemic.
"Shakuntala Devi was released in 200 countries on the same day. So all my relatives and friends who don't live in India also got to watch the film on the very same day. Also, the reach within the country is massive. And now with Sherni, we are reaching 240 countries. I think it's really fantastic, especially given the circumstances," she says.
Balan also says the pandemic has taught her to be more appreciative.
"It's made me realise that nothing is permanent. The pandemic has made us realise we need to take it one day at a time and it's made me grateful for all the things I have in my life," she says.
"We thought we were in control of everything and now we've realised we're not. I don't think I want to waste a single moment being untrue to myself. Even in terms of my career, that's how it impacts my choices."
She’s still unsure, however, if she wants to dive into TV shows.
“I’ve been offered quite a few [roles]. I’ve always been very wary because it requires a huge time commitment. But I hope some day I’ll take a plunge. When something excites me and I feel this desperate need to tell a particular story that’s been offered to me, I’ll do it.”
Balan will next reunite with Suresh Triveni, who directed her in the hit 2017 comedy Tumhari Sulu, in a yet t be titled film.
For now, she’s happy with how her career’s shaped up after almost two decades in the industry, but she remains eager for new challenges.
“There are genres I feel I haven’t really explored. I would love to do something dark, maybe play a serial killer or some such. And I wish someone would write a Chaplin-esque role for me,” she says.
“I am satisfied with my career, absolutely. But I will get hungry again. I am a tigress on the prowl.”
Sherni is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from Friday, June 18