Director: Ram Madhvani, Vinod Rawat and Kapil Sharma
Writer: Ram Madhvani, Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh and Anu Singh Choudhary
Cast: Sushmita Sen, Ila Arun, Sikandar Kher, Indraneil Sengupta, Vikas Kumar, Maya Sarao, Geetanjali Kulkarni, and Shweta Pasricha
Number of episodes: 4
Available on: Disney+ Hotstar
The first thing that strikes you about the second part of the third season of Aarya — Ram Madhvani’s adaptation of the Dutch show Penoza which transplanted the story of a woman gangster onto the dry, baked Rajasthani landscape littered with poppy fields — is how the show has lost its color and Rajput pizzazz. The head of the cartel, Aarya Tej Sareen (Sushmita Sen), who is forced to take up the gun to protect her family, has leaked out of her wardrobe any traces of zari and silk and bandhani that we have seen glimpses of in previous seasons. No longer invited to weddings where she can wear Raw Mango to, no longer part of a functional family she can ring in Indian festivals with, the third season is a sharp descent into formals — maroons and grays and blacks — that allow no hint of the maximalism that is part of the Rajput aesthetic tradition to which Sareen belongs. Where are the palaces of the first season? The Holi celebrations of the second season? Costume designer Theia Tekchandaney instead gives her dour formals, elegant cuts and silhouettes with a gorgeous, metallic flow.
It is a cultural rewriting of a character. Aarya’s descent into becoming a criminal, a bad person who does bad things for a good end — protecting her family — is not allowed beauty and fussy fabrics. The counterpoint to her in the third season, Nalini Sahiba (Ila Arun), a heroin supplier, is also a Rajput woman, a criminal, but decked in decadence. Hers is a criminality that is both an immoral means for immoral ends — money, greed — but also, she isn’t as hand-on as Aarya. We often see her watering her plants — a domestic queen who outsources the labour of her criminal empire. Villainy needs its own wardrobe and the Rajput costume in Aarya is somewhat coded with that immorality and indolence.
Aarya’s Main Character Energy
The final resting pose of Aarya, one foot on the chest of the demon like Mahisasuramardhini, folding Hindu iconography into her pant-suit-ification, is a powerful image that comes after a strange shootout, where swords that become the weapon of choice (Rajputs, amirite?). How, then, to hold the power of the image and the absurdity of the context together? To hold the competence of craft and the charmless pandering together? To keep her daughter’s spoken word poetry and our patience? At some point, something gives.
The show’s descent is, thus, also of a graver thing holding the fashion and its subtexts together — the plot. Aarya’s children are now older — Veer (Viren Vazirani), Arundhati (Aarushi Bajaj), and Aditya (Pratyaksh Panwar), each burdened by their own psychological torment. In the previous instalment of the third season we saw Veer’s faith in his mother fray when she lets his lover, who is also pregnant with his child, die. Here, the love and faith of Arundhati — the less said about her starched poetry that gilds the episodes, the better — and Aditya are also put through the wringer, giving Aarya’s domestic problems a sedimented stake that often rivals her professional problems, which includes getting her hands on a heroin consignment that has been confiscated by the police, and shoving it along the distribution channel.
Aarya has so much main character energy, helmed confidently even if monotonously by Sushmita Sen, that every other character is relegated to the side, especially the antagonists, even Aarya’s own children. The show slackens when it turns its gaze away from her, because only she is allowed complexity — to be both “majboor” and “mahaan”, to be a “bali” and to make a “balidaan” (Arundhati’s vocabulary, not mine). Though, it must be said, Aarya constantly reminding every shuddering leaf around her that she will protect them, while her entourage are falling like flies, grates from its repetitiveness as much as its ineffectiveness. At what point is she saying this to convince herself of her power? In this season, her intimate psychology is reduced to a posture, as if she is playing a surrogate of herself.
It was the decision to give each child an arc that burdens the show, whose attention to Aarya’s running of the criminal empire becomes diffuse and comical. At one point, a Rajasthani woman, Nalini Sahiba, hires an African gangster to kill a Russian dealer — if ever anyone were to make an argument against globalisation, I would submit this plot line, which treats each of its cultures with equal stupidity and as equally stupid; a democratic distribution of narrative rot.
A Clash of Sensibilities
Often in Aarya there is the sense that there are two shows that are running parallel, drawing from two distinct — perhaps, even mutually exclusive, but certainly distinct — schools of filmmaking: Hyperbolic melodrama and invasive realism. The background score, by Vishal Khurana, for example, is designed to elevate every trip into a descent, even nip into a throning, every scratch into a mauling. Derived from Hindu prayer, there is ominous chanting that is ever present, blaring through the show.
Show creator Madhvani and cinematographer Kavya Sharma use cinematography to hew space with action and personality. It’s as though a camera has been suspended, dangling impatiently in the midst of a room — you don’t get top shots establishing space till the very end — chafing against the surface of the score, like sandpaper. At its best, it is the harmony of television with premium streaming. There’s harmony between these almost-binaries when Daulat (Sikander Kher), the loyal hitman, re-enters the show, a moment of raging heroism and sighing relief. At its worst, however, Aarya is a clash of the two, where one keeps trying to drown the other out, leaving neither to emerge to the surface and breathe. It is this claustrophobia that dominates this farewell batch of episodes.
It is not just the tone of the background score, but also the plot that is touched by these melodramatic swings — mistaken fathers, mistaken murders, moles and double crossing; convenience as both a plot crutch and catharsis. At some point, the writing lays bare its desperation to be over, for the show to close, for characters to meet their respective ends. Death begins to feel incidental and convenient, but not final. The moment a police officer talks to her child — the child missing her, longing for parental presence — she is killed immediately after. Right after Aarya sees a photo of her holding an infant Veer, he stumbles into the room, drunk, tripping over himself, shattering the bottle. It is the kind of writing that infantalises itself to cater to an infantilised audience, the stating of the emotional surface and its rippling happening in close proximity, almost sequentially.
Aarya was once an ideal, of seeing how cultural translations could look, of how Indian streaming could establish tropes of itself, leaking from both cinema and television. The descent, at once steep, at once tragic, into a final season, is palpable, where episodes cling with desperation to that one tense, densely dramatic moment, where the end of the show and the drawing of the curtains on this show feels more like relief than longing.