Aarya Review: Sushmita Sen Makes a Stellar Comeback in this Engrossing Crime Series

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Aarya Review: Sushmita Sen Makes a Stellar Comeback in this Engrossing Crime Series

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In Aarya, Sushmita Sen’s faultless turn as a grieving housewife forced to learn and exploit the language of ruthlessness in the wake of a tragedy, achieves the same effect that Jaideep Singh Ahlawat’s Hathiram captured in Paatal Lok.

It’s the kind of performance that doesn’t just define a show but also has the power to alter the viewer’s perception of right and wrong: influencing whether we stick to viewing the morality of a person, family, or the society at large, in binaries or arrive at a larger understanding that has no easy conclusions. That’s because in both Aarya and Paatal Lok, its lead protagonists are reduced to a product of their circumstances, and then emerge as its survivors.

Naturally, these are characters that demand more from the actors essaying them than from the writers creating them: a peculiar alertness to their surroundings, an ability to connect how their characters could relate to the bigger picture. Even as both these actors rise up to the challenge in similar ways, there’s a crucial difference. Ahlawat’s Hathiram feels more like an industry norm – a seasoned actor finally getting the chance to display his fullest potential (Manoj Bajpayee in The Family Man or Saif Ali Khan in Sacred Games).

On the other hand, there’s Aarya, casting an actress whose last film was a decade ago. Women of a certain age, especially those almost archived in public memory, don’t get the same number of chances or leeways as their male counterparts. It’s perhaps why casting Ahlawat, Khan, and Bajpayee were experiments but having Sen step into a lead role is an undeniable risk – and the pressure on Sen to deliver, insane. A large part of the pleasure of watching the tightly paced Aarya is this precise realisation. It’s impossible not to read Sen’s depiction of a woman left to clean the mess perpetuated by men in positions of power, as both a revelation and a reclamation.

Women of a certain age, especially those almost archived in public memory, don’t get the same number of chances or leeways as their male counterparts.

Co-created by Neerja’s Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi, Aarya, streaming on Hotstar, is an official adaptation of Penoza, an excellent Dutch series that paints a portrait of an ordinary housewife rising up the ranks of organised crime. Even then, Aarya is by no means a generic remake, unlike earlier Hotstar Specials (Criminal Justice, Out Of Love). The show bristles with originality in how it goes about adeptly translating its universe in accordance to the cultural equations of its setting: a patriarchal, violent Indian society. That, in turn, changes a universal story into a specific origin-story.

Set in Rajasthan, a state still reeling from a royal hangover (early on, a character equates “guns” with “the pride of the city”), Aarya revolves around an affluent, upper-class family: Tej (Chandrachur Singh) and Aarya Sareen, a married couple, parents to three teenage kids. Under the guise of running a pharmaceutical company, Tej oversees an illegal drug enterprise with his unhinged best friend Jawahar (a fine Namit Das) and short-tempered brother-in-law Sangram (Ankur Bhatia).

As we learn in a breathless pilot, the drug enterprise happens to be their family business. Seventeen years ago, Tej, the dutiful son-in-law left his Chandigarh job to take over the family inheritance in the wake of a tragedy. The plan was always to figure an exit route at some point: Tej has been promising Aarya the same for all these years. When their youngest son Adi ends up being caught pointing a gun at a classmate in school, a shaken Aarya, who has never wanted to be associated with her family business, gives Tej an ultimatum: Either leave the business or give her a divorce.

Before Tej can put his exit plan in place, he is shot to death leaving behind a chain of dangerous business rivals (Manish Chaudhuri is compelling), a persistent cop from the Narcotics Bureau, financial bankruptcy, and a series of debts. Suddenly, Aarya’s life comes full circle, except this time around, a tragedy forces her to take up the reins. The starting point of Aarya hinges on a familiar question: the identity of Tej’s killer. The questions that we, as viewers, want answered revolve around motives – the whos and whys. But the makers remain invested in broadening the scope of the material at hand to an extent that after a while, the revelation of the killer seems besides the point. What takes centre-stage instead, complemented by a striking ensemble cast, is an examination of power, desperation, female agency, and what happens when these three things collide in the unlikeliest circumstances.

Aarya bristles with originality in how it goes about adeptly translating its universe in accordance to the cultural equations of its setting.

The result is a series that isn’t just engrossing and rooted in its milieu but also surprisingly intelligent. Aarya (the direction team includes the two co-creators and Vinod Rawat) manages that by primarily earning the viewer’s investment. Even as a one-woman show, the makers pay equal attention to the motivations of its complex web of secondary protagonists, whose moralities and frailties invite constant curiosity.

The sub-plots stand on their own and simultaneously inform the larger picture, acquiring layers that make its central premise more sinister. The smallest of details are elevated by straightforward filmmaking that connects the dots in clever ways. Even then, the flourishes, and there are several (the editing frequently juxtaposes different moments to derive two different readings of the same scene), never get in the way of the story that the makers are telling.

If the measure of an arresting crime series is its efficiency in keeping the audiences guessing about the direction it takes, then Aarya exceeds those expectations simply by reminding you episode after episode, why you might find yourself guessing in the first place. Is it because you want answers or because you want a good story? That Aarya manages to do justice to both, largely due to Sen, alternating between emotions of hesitation, submission, and conviction with an ease of a veteran juggler, makes it one of the better Indian offerings of the last two years. So many shows barely achieve even one.

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