Aranyak Review: Too many cooks spoil this promising broth

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Aranyak Review: Too many cooks spoil this promising broth

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In the third episode of Netflix’s Aranyak, an entitled young man under judicial review stubbornly claims that he slept eight times with a woman before she called him out for rape on the ninth time of asking. “Sex without consent at any stage is rape,” a righteous police officer sermonises as a way of dumbing down ‘No means no’ for the audience. It’s an odd scene, forced upon the narrative that serves little purpose other than to desperately clutch at some elusive woke sensibility. Perhaps to the creators, this is some sort of politics to espouse in a show that teases many but carves none. Aranyak follows most stereotypes about life in the hills, the inherent mysticism of the forest (Aranyak means one who dwells in the forest) but it is let down by poor casting, acting and a whole bunch of ideas that are simply present without any conviction or vision.

Aranyak follows most stereotypes about life in the hills, but it is let down by poor casting, acting and a whole bunch of ideas that are simply present without any conviction or vision.

Set in the fictional town of Sironha (with clear hat tips to Himachal) Raveena Tandon plays Kasturi, a local SHO who is about to go on sabbatical. She is replaced by Angad, Parambrata Chatterjee at a moment when the abduction and rape of a teenage foreign national brings the two mismatched cops together as they navigate petty local politics, personal demons and the myth of a folksy beast. For some reason that is best known to the casting team, Tandon plays a 30-something mother that she can’t pass off for while Ashutosh Rana – only few years her senior – plays her retired father-in-law. The first episode does an underwhelming job of introducing all characters because it simply runs through their arcs like it were a credit reel of faces rather than a peek into their lives and stories. There are scheming politicians, shady marriages, all-round bureaucratic intrigue and a handful of spoiled teenagers. The last one is a welcome addition to the spoilt brats of the OTT space because for a change, young adults are consistently finding reference points in the entertainment they consume.

The first episode does an underwhelming job of introducing all characters because it simply runs through their arcs like it were a credit reel of faces rather than a peek into their lives and stories.

Billed as a return to belated form of the once star Raveena Tandon, Aranyak is instead, anchored by the wonderful Chatterjee. Tandon’s inability to catch the local accent – she sounds Haryanvi rather than pahadi – is only one of the many flaws in performance. As a workaholic mother, who is poor with her motherly instincts, there should have been ample material to give Kasturi layers of nuance and yet she is reduced to a loud, short-tempered dolt. Even the limits of this definition could have elicited a more comprehensive performance from someone else but Tandon looks out of her depth, unsure of the difference between internal and external conflict. Instead, it’s Chatterjee’s eloquent, almost mesmerising portrayal of a cop dealing with loss in the back of his mind that steals the show. Angad’s righteousness has cost him dearly in the past, but he continues on the same path still, as the man who can’t help but do his job right – yes, there are those.

A host of tertiary characters, most of them decent but forgettable in the end make this soup too dense to be able to sift the bran from the bile. The series has a decent The Killing like pace with suspects and mysteries changing and interchanging positions but eventually, there just isn’t enough depth to any of the antagonists to care what they are hiding or what they are about to reveal. Vulgarity amongst kids, drugs, rape, sexism are all new-age topics but in the hands of creators who have evidently been lifted from the cable tv age, there is precious little that is new here.

Aranyak becomes serviceable because it hides its secrets well, but in terms of performance or presentation it lacks on more ends than it can ultimately conceive.

It’s clear what the writers believe are ‘woke’ illustrations of life in the hills without so much so a perspective of their own. Last year’s SonyLiv series Undekhi and Amazon Prime’s The Last Hour, did a better job of contextualising life on the mountains from the perspective of the outsider, so as to not exotify it beyond the realms of possibility. Chillums, drugs, folk tales and myths are all imperial ideas that most creators in today’s day and age just can’t seem to go beyond.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of the show is in the way it wastes Ashutosh Rana. As a delusional and retired constable, Rana is underused and calamitously unrealised. It’s one thing to write stories poorly, it is another to make brilliant actors like Rana look patently mediocre. When the same scene of a police car running across a bridge with snow covered mountains as backdrop, plays across different episodes, you know that the story is trying to inherit a mysticism that it cannot for the life of it bring itself to write. It wants to convince you through the pleasures of sight rather than the conviction of its narrative. Like any whodunit, Aranyak becomes serviceable because it hides its secrets well, but in terms of performance or presentation it lacks on more ends than it can ultimately conceive.

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