Ram Madhvani directed a host of award-winning commercials and short films, along with feature films like the critically acclaimed Neerja (2016) and Dhamaka (2021), before making his OTT debut in 2021. Aarya, starring Sushmita Sen in the lead, follows the story of an ordinary mother who gets embroiled in her family’s dangerous drug business. With two successful seasons, and one half of the third season of the Emmy-nominated crime thriller under his belt, the series creator and director has much to celebrate. The first part of Season 3 of Aarya is now available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar, with the next four episodes set to premiere on 9th February.
In a chat with Film Companion, Madhvani spoke about how he is drawn to strong female characters, gave some behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the sets of Aarya, and pondered over what good storytelling means to him.
Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
You had initially planned on adapting the Dutch show Penoza into a feature film. A decade later, the world saw Aarya. What is it about this story that stuck with you for so many years?
You know, my nieces are from Rajasthan, and this was about an urban family. So I wanted to make something that wasn't really about crime or drugs, but it was about business, and the dynamics of a joint family. I also come from a joint family — not any longer, just like all of us. And I felt that the whole family structure, how you deal with all the various egos — that was the most fascinating thing about why I wanted to make the show. More than anything else, it's also about Aarya herself, in the tightrope of her roles as a mother, as a daughter, as a wife. I was very fascinated by the tightropes that women walk by juggling all these roles. It's incredible how y’all do that, because it's like the working woman meets the wife meets the sister meets the daughter — all these multiple roles, which I don't think men actually juggle as much as women do. So that's what kept me going.
The Aarya we see at the beginning of the show is very different from the one we see in Season 3. She seems a lot more comfortable with her power now, although she is also reckoning with all the death she has caused. Did you always have this arc planned for her, or does your story evolve as you’re writing?
No, I think that we always knew that she didn't want to join the business. As soon as you begin with a character that does not want to join the business, it means that she will. And in some ways, that's exactly what Michael Corleone in Godfather does — an innocent who never wanted to join the business, but does so for his father. So I’ve always felt that the price of maturity is the loss of innocence. Aarya loses her innocence and has to pay for that by becoming a part of this business. The only reason that she does it is to protect her children. But the price of protecting her children is, in fact, as you will see, that the children themselves are now going against her. That’s the arc. Obviously, people don't see it coming, but in the writers’ room, you know that's what you need to do.
We’ve seen a great number of crime thrillers, both in India and internationally, which feature men in pivotal roles. Of course, Aarya refers to herself as a “working mother”, which I find very interesting. How do you think the energy shifts when you have a woman as the don?
I'll tell you one of the things that shifts is the bag that she carries. Men don't carry bags. Women carry bags. So when you have to get into a car, when you come out of a car, when you're running — at least one of the good things about the bag is that you can keep a gun in it. (Laughs) But like I said earlier, I'm just fascinated by the roles that women play. And obviously, Sushmita Sen herself. It was a blessing to have her because she's one of the rare actors who can pull off action, power, grace and vulnerability. I don't think there's any other actor who can do all of that. So it was a blessing that she agreed to do it. In this season, we even got Ila Arun to play (Nalini Sahiba). It was meant to be a man. While we were writing it, I said, “Guys, come on, let's make her also a woman. Let's make the villain also a woman.” I think the dynamic with her son — because she's also, in a way, a working mother, and she's also having to juggle all these roles, and she's also having to look after her kid. When the next season comes out, you'll see the dynamic between these two women and their children, and the price that the children have to pay, and that they have to pay for their children.
Sushmita Sen has made the role of Aarya her own. What is it like directing her?
When we first met, she asked me, “So how do you want me to play Aarya?” I said, “Sushmita, just play you!” So she's constantly giving ideas, she's constantly improving scenes. But I think more than anything else, what happens is that when you're working with Sushmita, you're working with an actor, and you're working with a star. You're working with an actor who's very, very hungry, because she also realises that at the age that she's in, to be given this kind of an opportunity, to be given this kind of a role, is something which is very rare. Her star power — not that she puts it on — but there is an energy and an aura that she has. If there are 200 people in a room, and if Sushmita Sen enters from one of the doors, you don't even know — you may be facing the opposite side, but suddenly you'll find that the energy has shifted, and you'll say, “Something happened over here in this room.” And then you realise, “Oh, Sushmita Sen has walked in.” So I think that's rare. There's probably three or four people who have that in this industry, right? Maybe a couple of male actors, maybe a couple of female actors, and she's one of them. She has that aura, and she has it by just being there and giving you that kind of attention and care, and making you feel as if you're the most important person in the room. That, I think, is a lot to admire and learn from, and she does it with no fakeness. She wants to do it, she wants to create and leave behind a memory.
She's also a big hugger. She goes on hugging people. It was very difficult during COVID to tell her, “No, Sushmita, you’re not going to hug everybody!” Even though we'd all done tests and everything.
Aarya has been getting so much love from both critics and audiences. Did you feel any pressure about living up to expectations with the third season?
You know, I think that there are good pressures. I think that there is a sort of pressure that you live with and that you breathe into, and that comes as part of the territory. And I don't mind those pressures, quite honestly. I think that they're good to have. It’s good fear and good anxiety to make sure that you're on your toes, and that you're not disappointing people, because you're constantly worried, that “Oh gosh, I hope I can live up to what people's expectations are.” Then you do that whole thing for a year, year and a half, and then on Friday morning, you get a critical reaction — in those 2 hours, your reputation is made or not made. By Monday, you call up Disney+ Hotstar and get the public reaction. Thankfully, this time, the public reaction has been fabulous. I think even with the critical reaction, by and large, we've sailed through. So I'm relieved on both those fronts.
What was the motivation behind splitting up the third season into two parts?
You know, Disney+ Hotstar are the right people to ask this. They've done it in the past, and it’s something other OTT platforms are also doing. Obviously it seems to be working, right? I'm not too sure whether the people — every time that I meet somebody, they say, “Oh, but why did you only release four, and why couldn't you have released all eight?” That's so sweet in a way, that they're actually wanting all eight (episodes). I think that the numbers seem to dictate, from Disney+ Hotstar's point of view, to make it four and four. So that seems to be working as an overall plan. It may be sort of frustrating for the viewer. But we had known about it and we knew that this is where it was heading to. So we made sure that the arcs and the breaks are keeping that in mind. But I know that from the audience's point of view, I'm happy at least that they're saying, “When are the next four episodes coming?”
In a time when we’re getting so many OTT shows week after week, what in your opinion makes for a good show?
There are two things that I look for. One is something which becomes part of cultural consciousness, and two is, “Does it have a value system? What are we putting out into society?” I think that if you have both of those, I think that — at least in our world, in Ram Madhvani Films, we want to make work that actually can become part of cultural conversation. The good thing about Aarya is that people are talking about it, about what (Aarya) goes through, how she feels, what she's doing for her children. It is eventually about a mother, it is eventually about family.