As Ram Madhvani’s crime-thriller series Aarya returns to Disney+ Hotstar with a third season, we see how far Aarya Sareen (Sushmita Sen) has come from the woman we met in the very first episode. The show marked Sen’s small-screen debut, making her one of the first erstwhile film stars to embrace streaming. Unlike most of the films she’d done as a younger actor, Aarya places Sen front and centre, and has her playing a character that challenges the traditional notion of a heroine. Sen embraces the role of this gritty mafia don, imbuing her character with beauty, grace and power. Aarya threatens and kills, and then comes home and treats her children with utmost tenderness. Even when the narrative arc threatens to collapse under the weight of the action, it’s Aarya’s charisma that holds the show together.
In one of the first sequences of the show, Aarya gets called to school because her youngest son, Adi, brandishes a gun at another student. Although she knows what her son did is wrong, she defends him to the principal of the school, who eventually rusticates Adi. Aarya, whose family controls a big part of the drug trade in Rajasthan, wants no part of the opium empire. She only wishes to keep her children out of harm’s way. She tells Adi, “Violence is never the answer” but also confesses privately that she wishes she could've shot the school principal then and there.
After the devastating murder of her husband due to a drug deal gone wrong, Aarya is compelled to take charge of the very business she detests. She is blackmailed for large sums of money and pursued by resentful former allies, rival gangsters as well as the police. Her children are in danger and her bank accounts frozen. More than the violent streak, it’s in Aarya’s ability to maintain her composure in these challenging times that we really get a sense of her strength and intelligence. Her children seem to be her biggest weakness, but she turns them into her most formidable strength. Her bodyguard Daulat likens Aarya to a sherni (lioness), who is most dangerous when she is a mother. “Get your claws out,” he tells her. Moments later, Aarya stands up to a thug who had been blackmailing and threatening her, refusing to be cowed down. Once the man runs away, Aarya laughs almost self-consciously, as if surprised by her own courage.
The first season of Aarya feels tremendously satisfying because the bad guys consistently dismiss the titular character as nothing more than a recently widowed housewife, but Sen as Aarya keeps surprising both her adversaries and the audience. She keeps her cards close to her chest, makes a deal with the enemy, uses her feminine wiles to charm a government employee to get her way, and misdirects the police at every turn. By the end of the season, Aarya discovers — SPOILER ALERT — that it was her father who had her husband killed. She makes a deal with the police in which she gives up her father and his henchman. Moreover, Aarya is wracked by guilt over the death of her sister who was caught in the crossfire, but she’s also a very different woman from the one we met at the start of the show. “You're no longer the Aarya I used to know,” says her best friend. Aarya isn’t perturbed. Instead, she and her kids head out to New Zealand under a witness protection programme — except the Russian drug cartel find her.
The Aarya we see at the beginning of the second season is tired, vulnerable and slow to trust, seeking nothing more than to escape with her children and leave her past far behind. However, she is forced to return to the world of Rajasthan’s drug mafia and testify against her father and brother. Turning against the police, Aarya lies to the court and takes her safety into her own hands. The sherni comparison rings true again: Lions hunt in packs, while a lioness ventures out alone to protect her cubs. Between traitorous family members and untrustworthy accomplices, Aarya quickly learns that she can only really rely on herself.
Compared to the first season, Aarya embraces violence easily and even displays hints of bloodlust. In one scene, Aarya hangs from the ceiling of an interrogation room, her hands tied above her as a police officer and prosecutor prod her for vital information. Aarya keeps her silence, her only emotion being fear for her daughter’s safety. When the prosecutor provokes Aarya with news of her daughter’s drug overdose, Aarya’s composure is consumed by a feral rage. She wraps her legs around the prosecutor’s neck, strangling the other woman with unadulterated fury. Later in the season, Aarya kidnaps the daughter and grandchildren of rival drug lord Shekhawat. She brutally cuts a finger off the woman’s corpse, using it to send a message. Even when she has a gun pointed at her, Aarya is brazen in the face of death. On the occasion of Holika Dahan, Aarya says that she rather likes the violence of the mythological bonfire. “It means good wins over evil,” she says, offering this as a justification for her own behaviour.
Through her clever strategising and sheer grit, Aarya wins the respect and support of her biggest adversaries. When she shoots Shekhawat (who is revealed to be her birth father) in self-defence, Aarya feels little regret. “Isko hata do mere raaste se (Move him out of my way),” she orders coldly. When her long-standing nemesis, ACP Younus Khan, points out that she’s become quite the don, Aarya quietly retorts, “I’m just a working mother.” She sees in her mind’s eye all the death she’s caused and recoils briefly, as if surprised by what she’s become. As the characters celebrate Holi in the final scene of the season, Aarya — dressed in a white sari with red powder all over her face — looks every bit the vengeful goddess. She dances, her uninhibited movement speaking of strength, freedom and wildness.
Two seasons later, Aarya, with her Russian cigars and casual violence, is very much the boss. Where there was once distaste and fear for her family’s opium business, there is now an ambition to rule the criminal roost. “There’s no reward without risk,” she says, before taking on a Rs. 1000-crore heroin consignment.
There is an androgyny to how Aarya’s strength is expressed, fusing traditionally masculine as well as feminine depictions of power. She is both protector and nurturer to her children, her violence and viciousness intertwined with her tenderness and mercy; self-assured yet vulnerable at the same time. She oscillates between being a criminal kingpin and feeling apprehensive about the consequences of her choices. She is stubborn but not hard-headed, open to swallowing her pride and changing her mind. For instance, Aarya initially swears off her father’s wealth and resources, determined to forge her own path. Later, when in dire straits, Aarya has no qualms falling back on what had been left to her in her father’s will.
When aggressive men attempt to intimidate Aarya with their physicality, she stands her ground and looks them in the eye. She wields guns like they're an extension of her own limbs, and makes difficult decisions, like sacrificing a loyal employee who also happens to be Aarya’s son’s pregnant girlfriend. “Sometimes, to protect her children, a mother must become a monster,” muses Aarya, her heart heavy but hard. As another character points out, “Rakshas (demon) and rakshak (protector) are two sides of the same coin.”
In sharp contrast to how the show viewed Aarya in the first and second season, there’s an ambivalence creeping in now as those around Aarya become unsure about her. Her children begin to distrust and feel alienated by her. When Aarya comes face-to-face with the man whose wife’s death is on her hands, he calls her an animal. The show remains sympathetic to Aarya, who is overcome by remorse for her actions. At one point she falls to her knees and admits, “These killings have to stop. I am the animal.” We see Aarya slowly coming to terms with the fact that being a sherni may just have come at the cost of her humanity.
Ultimately, the one goal Aarya has not lost sight of over three seasons is her children’s safety, which sometimes comes at the cost of their happiness or even their affection for her. For the things she’s done, Aarya has been called sherni, don and bitch, but it is the wry moniker she adopts for herself that feels most apt: “A working mother.”