“I did it for the family.” Don’t they all say that?
It’s a glib line and a comforting cover, designed to make the scoundrels virtuous. A con that first deceives the con man. A deception internalised so well that it’s impossible to separate the lies from truths. Yet, that line deserves considered scrutiny, as it also imprisons those who mean well.
Humanity’s profound crisis is not that people are monsters; it’s that even monsters are people. Hotstar Specials’ latest nine-part series, Aarya, co-created by Ram Madhwani and Sandeep Modi – based on the Dutch drama Penoza – interrogates that conundrum. Aarya is about a family in danger, facing a multi-headed threat whose main source is unknown. It’s conceivable to save yourself from others, but what do you do if the suspected threat is a part of you? How do you save yourself from…yourself?
Aarya opens to an affluent family in Rajashtan. Tej Sareen (Chandrachur Singh) and his business partners, his friend Jawahar (Namit Das) and brother-in-law Sangram (Ankur Bhatia), own a pharmaceutical company, which is a front for an illicit drug enterprise. Tej’s wife, Aarya (Sushmita Sen), disapproves of it and threatens to divorce him if he doesn’t quit. But it’s not as easy, because her father, Zorawar (Jayant Kripalani), started the drug empire, involving her husband in the business after she got married.
Tej, a hopeful “idealist”, keeps assuring Aarya that he will quit: it’s been 17 years. Over time, they’ve had three children: the eldest, Aru (Virti Vaghani), a teenage son Veer (Viren Vazirani), and the eight-year-old Adi (Pratyaksh Panwar). They look well-adjusted and happy. That doesn’t say much though: the true test of any family is adversity; that’s when the skeletons clash.
But before Tej can orchestrate an escape, he’s shot dead. Aarya’s house is raided by the Narcotics Enforcement Bureau — headed by ACP Khan (Vikas Kumar) — who wants Tej’s USB stick, which contains crucial information about the illegal drug business. Tej had promised that to Khan in exchange of a safe passage to New Zealand. Left in the maelstrom is Aarya, trying to hold a family disintegrating in grief, warding off loan sharks, while suspecting all along that her husband’s murder could be an inside job. Facing a series of locked doors, Aarya’s forced to open that cellar she had forever shut: taking control of the family business.
Stretching over nine episodes — each almost an hour long — Aarya tells a long, dense story. The series has many characters, multiple sub-plots, several stakes, all contributing to a cumulative tension that keeps rising. In the hands of anxious, overwrought makers, the end result could have been a sprawling mess or a confused mix. But helmed by Madhwani — who directed one of the finest films of 2016, Neerja — Aarya is taut and assured.
The series is driven by precise, economic storytelling. Madhwani and his team, Modi and Vinod Rawat (who share directorial credits for all the episodes), often tell multiple stories in one scene. Take, for instance, the sangeet ceremony — for Aarya’s sister’s wedding — in the first episode. On the surface, it’s a typical family function: couples dancing on stage, relatives meeting after long, people drinking and chatting. Yet, look closely, and that scene shows at least three stories — Veer flirting with a young bartender; the three business partners fighting among each other; and Zorawar’s henchman, Daulat (Sikander Kher), looking at Aarya — which will intersect later.
The makers are always in tune with the show’s rhythm, dropping hints and inviting interpretations, making you a part of the ensemble. The show’s very first scene — Aarya hung inverted on a rope, exercising in her home — is a brilliant bit of foreshadowing because, after Tej’s death, her world does turn upside down. There is impressive commitment to build intrigue; we’re often shown a scene that finds new layers in the subsequent episodes — Aru getting suspicious of her mother, Aarya struggling to crack the USB’s password, Tej’s love for old Bollywood songs — that lend this show a feeling of cohesion and consistency.
Cross cutting has always been an effective way to collapse time and elevate tension, but Aarya’s makers give it a clever twist. In the fourth episode, we see Aru and her uncle Bob (Alexx ONell) jamming to a few lines written by her; it then cuts to a scene of Aarya in the car, but the song — whose lyrics echo the onscreen action — keeps playing in the background, thereby splicing two scenes in one. A similar set-up pops up in the fifth episode, but this time it’s an old Bollywood number (Duniya Me Logon Ko Dhokha Kabhi Ho Jaata Hai) — an electric, little segment that winks at vintage Bollywood. The tonal variations are a significant highlight of Aarya, escalating pace, juggling different filmmaking styles, keeping us hooked.
Hindi cinema reveres a default hierarchy: there’s a hero, and there are ‘others’. Aarya doesn’t suffer from that parochialism. Like most films and series, it has a protagonist, but it allows even the smallest of characters to revel in their moments. ACP Khan, for example, is gay; we get a small endearing scene with his partner who visits him at the police station to share lunch. Zorawar’s wife, Rajeshwari (Sohaila Kapur), is perpetually miffed that her husband lives with his mistress so, time and again, she gets a few lines, taking digs at her. Tej’s son, Adi, who saw his dad getting shot, wets his pant whenever he hears the sound of a bike. These scenes keep opening up the series, giving us several gateways of engagement: a humane way to see characters as people.
The show is ultimately two-pronged — before and after Aarya joining the family business — and that duality is reflected in the way it speaks to us. So, in the first half, we get a background score that truly stays in the background, sparse yet alert, light yet purposeful, so much so that when it increases its tempo, we know that there’s a good reason for it. But from the sixth episode onwards, the background score always plays at a notch or two above. The makers look clearly invested throughout, and that infectious enthusiasm rubs on to you, the audience, as well. Aarya does what every good thriller should: it makes the audience an active participant; the watcher becomes a doer, a detective.
The casting, too, is on-point and smart — and the actors don’t disappoint. Sen, making a comeback, is a revelation. It’s a role that even seasoned actors yearn for, replete with numerous crests and troughs: constant disappointments and unfortunate surprises, frustration and anger, betrayal and tenderness. She brings to her performance memorable intensity and rawness (there’s a scene in the fourth episode where Aarya, watching a video of her deceased husband, hugs her laptop and cries — moments like these are aplenty, where Sen looks uncomfortably real). Singh too, appearing on screen after long, is credible as Tej: a family man clinging hard to hope. Aarya has a long list of characters, but some actors — such as Kumar, Vazirani, Kriplani, and Maya Sarao (playing Jawahar’s wife, Maya) — deserve special mention, for they interpret their characters in such unique ways that they make their portrayals riveting.
Aarya is a good example of solid genre fiction. It defines its goals right at the start — of being a racy, compelling thriller — and stays true to them. It may not be as ‘deep’, but it’s consistently satisfying. Further, it’s marked by limited flaws: it replays some scenes time and again to establish context (often quite obvious), which seems jarring; some dark humour would have complemented its morbid world; and a few plot points raise more questions than answers.
Doffing their hats to Breaking Bad, the makers leave the ultimate question open: Did Aarya really want to leave the business? At one point in the first episode, when Tej tells her his plans to quit, there’s a trace of hesitation in her. Or maybe she was too stunned to react — it’s difficult to say. We invent some fiction for ourselves, and some for the world — and suspended between them, we spend our entire lives.