Disney+ Hotstar's latest Indian series Aarya is an official adaptation of Dutch show Penoza. A seamless blend of a family and crime drama, the show follows a woman who is forced to take charge of her family's drug empire when her husband is killed.
From creators Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi, who also directed the show alongside Vinot Rawat, the series is led by a stellar Sushmita Sen who last appeared in a Hindi film 10 years ago. In the show she reluctantly takes charge of the family business and gradually discovering how capable she is at it.
From writers Sandeep Srivastav and Anu Singh Choudhary, Aarya is Disney+ Hotstar's most acclaimed Indian series yet, finally giving the platform's Indian content a much-needed win. Over a spoiler-filled Zoom call, co-creators Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi spoke to me about their winning show, their favourite moments and their vision for its future.
Warning, spoilers ahead:
When did you first discover Penoza and what made you want to adapt it?
Ram Madhvani: 9 years ago, Hotstar's creative head, who was ironically named Neerja, sent me Penoza to watch and I thought it was a great show but I had no clue how to make it Indian.
Later, I was asked to make a clip for Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate for which we were on a train to Rajasthan and I looked out of the window and saw these endless fields of flowers. I asked someone what they were, and they told me it's opium, and I said 'what? It just grows like that?!'. They said it's government regulated, but it is opium. Also my niece lives in Rajasthan, so I was familiar with that milieu. I have been to those big bungalows with those SUVs. So from there I started to get a sense of where to set the plot and what this could be.
It did take a couple of years for me to say yes because I thought it was wrong to do adaptations. But adaptations are okay, it just depends on how you do them. We started writing the script as a feature film, because back then there was no concept of OTT platforms but eventually, that became this series and the universe has blessed us by making this possible.
The show is anchored by a fantastic performance from Sushmita Sen. Was there a specific moment early in the shoot where you were thought 'that's her, that's Aarya'?
Ram: I think that occurred to us, strangely enough, in the first shot itself, when we saw her upside down on those gymnastic rings holding herself for a minute. We saw the strength with which she did that, and then she walked into the kitchen and became a regular mother, and I thought 'okay, we are safe. We have a woman who is strong and vulnerable. We have a mother'.
Sandeep Modi: I realised it when we shot that sequence in episode 2 when Aarya's house is raided by the police. The whole sequence was shot in a single take. When Sushmita is walking out of the car, she didn't know there were going to be so many reporters with all the flashes in her eyes or that there would be a cop ahead on her right who is peeing.
Then suddenly an actor realises they can no longer rely on their years of training, but instead have to rely on instinct. We see her walking into her house, reacting to the chaos around her. She goes upstairs, gets the gun out of the house and as she's walking out of the house, she pauses for a minute and looks at the state of her house. At that point I felt, she really is Aarya.
That was the gaze of an actor who was feeling it. Somewhere by the end of that scene, the entire unit, from the first AD to the costume team, everyone felt that we have Aarya.
My favourite moments were the ones where you see Aarya fully embrace her inner 'don'. Like when she's on the gymnastic rings threatening Jawahar or smiling on the Segway before Shekhawat is killed. We know she does whatever she does for the sake of her family, but does she ever enjoy it?
Sandeep: Whether she is enjoying it, is tough to answer but she knows she is good at it. We all felt like it was the destiny she was running away from. She's better than everyone else at running the family business, it's just the fact that she hates it. When she walks away after killing Shekhawat, she walks away like a sage, as if nothing had happened. That for me was the defining scene of how Sushmita played Aarya. I think in that scene Aarya shed her skin. Regardless of the morality of her actions, she became confident of her choices at that point.
Ram: I agree with that because in that scene when she's holding the cigar cutter, she giggles knowing that Daulat is about to kill Shekhawat. But just as she's beginning to enjoy it, karma comes back at her when she comes home and finds out her sister has been killed. That's the price she has to pay. Because she started this whole chain of events. She said to her husband 'if you don't leave this business, I will divorce you'. As a result of that, he did certain things which had consequences, and who is to be blamed eventually? She is. So she enjoys killing Shekhawat, but there is moral retribution coming back to fight her which is what the tragic part of the show is.
There's also that wonderful scene with ACP Khan where you reveal he's gay and we see him share a meal with his partner. It's such a tender moment which humanises him. Up till that point, he's just the enemy. Why was it important to you to have us empathise with him?
Sandeep: This was a very important moment for me. We were, of course, humanising him and we wanted everyone to feel for him and not see him as a two-dimensional guy. With that scene, you suddenly start investing in him and the lines blur, and you don't know if you want him to win or lose. Also, one of the few things we wanted to do was have all the cops around him behave very normally when his boyfriend walks in. We were very clear that we didn't want people to make a big deal out of it.
It was a very normal scene, like a wife bringing a dabba for the husband and credit to both the actors for how they played it. The actual scene was just 2 lines and we didn't know what was going to happen. They just knew what they had to feel, and it just flows beautifully. I am really proud of that scene.
I have to ask about the casting of Chandrachur Singh. He's very good in the series and he wasn't a typical scary drug lord character. He's a family man for whom who you feel for as the show goes on. How did he come on board?
Ram: We were very clear actually that we wanted somebody who was not a man with the ponytail, a typical drug lord kind of a thing. He is a regular man who runs a business and that's okay. These are just regular people.
We knew that this character wasn't going to be around very long, so the investment in him had to be very strong and we had to find the right person to play him. So we reached out to Chandrachur who was in Dehradun at the time but, like Sushmita, to woo him is not an easy thing. We really thought we'd have to plead, but honestly, both of them really liked it and instantly said yes. We were completely surprised to see their enthusiasm and motivation. Because the kind of process we follow involves actors not to be waiting in a makeup van. They need to be there, whether the camera is on them or not. There has to be an equality of talent and ego. All of that requires discipline and work ethic which, Chandrachur and Sushmita brought with them.
That scene where they actually get Khan off their tail before Aarya goes to kill Shekhawat is so important because suddenly everyone felt like they were involved. One thing I've been very intrigued about and this is a question which I haven't answered myself – do the kids know that Aarya is going to kill Shekhawat? Do they know what they're helping with?
The way the show treats the three kids is interesting. You didn't just make them victims of their parents' actions. In fact, they get increasingly more involved in the business and by the end, they're actually plotting with Aarya.
Sandeep: What is really nice about Penoza is it's not just about a woman taking over the family business, it's a family taking over the family business. That scene where they actually get Khan off their tail before Aarya goes to kill Shekhawat is so important because suddenly everyone felt like they were involved. One thing I've been very intrigued about and this is a question which I haven't answered myself – do the kids know that Aarya is going to kill Shekhawat? Do they know what they're helping with? Has she told them the full plan? It's a very interesting question and I always say 'only Aarya can answer that'.
Ram: This is a very important thing he's pointed out because even when I watch that scene, even I ask myself that same question. When the kids say 'all the best' before and 'how did it go' when she comes back, do they know what they're asking?
One scene which I think perfectly encapsulated the show is when Veer tells Aarya about Pallavi being blackmailed. On the one hand, it plays out like a son making an innocent request to his mother, but it's also him asking a don to 'deal with a problem'.
Sandeep: That's one scene where the actors really made it their own. The way Veer asks and the way she responds is just wonderful. Is what he's saying a statement or a question? What is he asking? It's a simple 3-line sentence which can be interpreted in so many different ways.
Ram: We've actually used a line from that scene in our marketing, which is when she says "Mujh pe chhod do, I will take care of it.".
Did you ever consider making Pallavi someone who's been sent in to disrupt and infiltrate the family from the very start? Because I was suspicious of her from the first moment.
Sandeep: When we saw Penoza, this was one character we really thought we could interpret in our own way because the arc of Pallavi's character in that show was technically over after the drug overdose. She was there just to help Veer's character get over a difficult period in his life. But we felt we had to complete that, so that's when this idea of her being blackmailed came about. It's a great track and what a lovely actor she (Gargi Sawant) is.
Ram: We also have to say Penoza has a lot of the stuff you're praising us for. And we would love to say 'yes this was all us', but due credit should also go to the people who wrote and created Penoza. They're from Holland, I've spoken to them and I'm so grateful that they've allowed us to do this
Do you have a favourite character?
Ram: For me, it's an ensemble piece. We have 23 story arcs. You should see the index cards across the walls of our office and the highlighting on each one, where green is one character, pink is another, orange is another, it's a work of art! But for me the greater question is who have we not done justice to? More than my favourite, it's who is the person I feel most guilty about not giving more footage to? And one of them for me is Hina, Sangram's girlfriend, played by Sugandha Garg. I want to know more about her and her back story and I would've like to have given her more character development.
What's your vision for the show? Penoza went on for five seasons.
Ram: Well we want to make all five seasons. Now is when we will know the response to the show. One of the successes in movies is box office collections are. But on OTT platforms I think one of the successes is getting to make a season 2. And we are hoping that happens.