Home >Lounge >Features >Review: Sushmita Sen strikes back with 'Aarya'
A still from 'Aarya', streaming on Disney + Hotstar.
A still from 'Aarya', streaming on Disney + Hotstar.

Review: Sushmita Sen strikes back with 'Aarya'

The show's pulp plot could engage in itself, but 'Aarya' focuses on its central character's motivations and limitations rather than her force

A teenager asks for money and her mother says no. The girl, precisely old enough to be convinced the world is against her, promptly whines about her brother’s spending money. The mother, multitasking around the kitchen, swiftly informs the daughter that she could get an allowance if she played a sport, like her brother. This is cleverly improvised incentive, from a woman who was just canoodling with her husband, indulging an in-joke involving an old movie song. Moments before that, she was suspended upside-down from gymnastic apparatus. All in a morning’s work. A woman balances.

A Disney+ Hotstar series created by Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi, Aarya is an adaptation of the Dutch thriller Penoza and features Sushmita Sen as the bird on the wire. Circumstances force her into a tightrope walk. The setup is straightforward: This woman, Aarya Sareen, loses a husband and inherits dangerous debt. Guns, gangsters, curses, kidnapping. That pulp plot could engage in itself but the show focuses on Aarya’s motivations and limitations rather than her force: She musters up bravado because she has no other choice. The show works as a character study, an exploration of a woman who finds herself on the verge…of anything.

Set in affluent, labyrinthine Jaipur, the central drama lies in Aarya’s refusal to break bad. Forced to assume a position of power, she emphatically draws lines she will not cross, vengeance she will not wreak. This will be hard. A cigar-slicing villain demands 300 crore, a brusque cop knows too much and manipulation runs in her own family—a family that got rich making and smuggling illegal opioids. Her grizzled father is being investigated by the narcotics bureau, her hot-headed brother is in prison and her three children, having lost their father, are each acting out in their own uniquely painful ways. And then there’s the husband, who isn’t around but lingers on.

We see Aarya take a moment to collect herself in her car before going home to her children. She stretches under and around her eyes, reshapes her mouth, braces herself. She literally puts on a brave face.

It is a nine-episode series—each episode directed by Madhvani, Modi and Vinod Rawat—and the show deliberately takes its time. Because of the departed husband’s love for old Hindi vinyls, Aarya uses classic movie songs as emotional shorthand—Mohammad Rafi’s exquisite Akele Akele Kahan Jaa Rahe Ho underscores the abduction of a lonely girl—but also emphasizes how personally we consume music. Bade Achhe Lagte Hain is a tender, hopeful 1976 song forming an appropriately poignant motif for the series, but it also marks obvious lyrical innuendo between a man and his statuesque lover, a soft song nevertheless making her blush. It is that shared musical wink that devastates Aarya when he is gone and she, crushed, hugs a laptop screen to her heart.

There’s a lot to like in this twisty series, even if some twists come too easy. The plotting is frequently simplistic but the dialogues shine. A rich brother uses chopsticks even when eating in prison, a thoughtful sister carries flat shoes to the hospital, a homophobic boss tells his gay subordinate not to insist on playing by the book. The cinematography, by Harshvir Oberai, is smartly unobtrusive for the most part but striking in certain sequences: The aforementioned abduction, for instance, comes to us by way of cigarette embers flying in the night as an underage smoker is lifted away.

It’s lovely to see Chandrachur Singh as Tej, the music-loving husband too soft for this world. Ankur Bhatia is great as Sangram, the hot-headed brother who thinks he can handle anything. Sikandar Kher smoulders as a quiet enforcer (who really needed a deeper character arc). Vikas Kumar is a very interesting actor in a tricky role. His ACP Khan is a character one may be tempted to call problematic—an obnoxious homosexual Muslim cop—till we realize the guilt of ourselves judging him too soon. The kids are good too, though one Bhagavad Gita rap subplot is unnecessarily overwrought.

Aarya’s jaded, gin-loving mother, played by a superb Sohaila Kapur, is introduced to the series like a Bond villain, stroking a cat in her lap, and proves to be as formidable—there is a scene near the end where she steels herself right after we have seen Aarya do the same, and we realize where she gets it from.

No role has suited Sen more. Eighteen when she won Miss Universe, she was appropriated by the garish Hindi cinema of the mid-1990s without ever fitting in. Not just taller than her leading men but seemingly brighter, her aura of intelligence stood out in movies that didn’t often make room for strong women. Despite a solid ensemble, Aarya is a one-woman show, allowing the actor to showcase her ability to rein it in, to take a mature role and play her cards close to her chest. She displays reserve and fear without spelling them out, keeping the crux unspoken, hinting at the turmoil within.

She displays the screen presence to slay a loaded line when a pathetic cohort asks why she hadn’t already taken over the business. “First the men used to handle it," she says pointedly, in Hindi. “Now there aren’t any left." Other times, she shrinks from saying things—like who will take charge, or what has happened to her daughter—as if saying them out loud will make them real. Sen is at her absolute best wordless, like when stifling a gasp or when, in my favourite moment, she can’t stop herself from smirking when hearing about her son’s first kiss. The incident involves drug use and she is supposed to disapprove, but she can’t bring herself to.

Parakeets who fly around poppy fields can’t help but get high. “Bloody nasheeli totein," says Sangram Sareen with a laugh. Out on parole to attend his sister’s last rites, he’s laughing before another sister pulls a gun on him. The world has been undone by these men around Aarya, intoxicated birdbrains, too reckless and too compromising. It is from these men that our heroine pieces together half-truths to form her own, it is from these bloody men that she runs. The series is about that run turning into a stride.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter: @rajasen

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