Disney+Hotstar’s Aarya Review: An Absorbing, Well-Performed Portrait Of A Desperate Housewife

Sushmita Sen, who last appeared in a Hindi film ten years ago, delivers a career-defining performance
Disney+Hotstar’s Aarya Review: An Absorbing, Well-Performed Portrait Of A Desperate Housewife

Creators: Ram Madhvani, Sandeep Modi
Directors: Ram Madhvani, Sandeep Modi, Vinod Rawat
Cast: Sushmita Sen, Vikas Kumar, Namit Das, Sikandar Kher, Maya Sarao, Chandrachur Singh, Alexx O'Nell
Streaming on: Disney+Hotstar

Aarya opens with the visual art of foreshadowing. The gist of the entire series lies within its first shot. A woman's body is suspended in a reverse handstand on gymnastic rings. She is perfectly static. This holding routine is traditionally reserved for male gymnasts because it requires great upper-body strength. The image alludes to two things: The woman's world is going to be turned "upside down," and she will soon be required to master a male-dominated field. She is Aarya: a unisex name that, depending on its roots, translates to "noble" or "song" – both her nobility and her love for song will feature heavily in her journey.

I can also think of a third thing. Her mid-air handstand in black overalls makes her resemble a bat. Think of the Batman origin story: A tragedy spurs a dormant millionaire to become an iconic protector. The murder of her husband (Chandrachur Singh) spurs Aarya (Sushmita Sen) to go from wealthy housewife to steel-minded protector of her three kids. Her mask and cape are figurative; she will play superhero. The only difference: Aarya has inherited a life of villainy. She is forced to exploit her family-business roots of drug-trafficking to pay off her late husband's debts.

Aarya, created for India by Ram Madhvani (Neerja) and Sandeep Modi (Chumbak), is a remake of Penoza, an acclaimed Dutch series that charts the rise of a widow to the top of organized crime. The narrative arc of Aarya is loyal to the original. Some shots from the Penoza trailer look familiar, too. And reasonably so: why change a successful formula? But cultural adaptation is the clincher. It's where other well-cast Hotstar shows like Criminal Justice missed the bus. In that sense, Aarya smartly locates its source material within the upper-class Rajput confines of Rajasthan. (Perhaps the "pink" city is supposed to symbolize feminine courage).

Jaipur is also a place where two Indias meet: the past marries the present, and the exotic India that foreigners imagine meets the modern India struggling to fill its palatial void. Aarya's family – an ailing old patriarch (Jayant Kripalani), a bitterly lavish mother (Sohaila Kapur), a hustling do-you-know-who-I-am brother (Ankur Bhatia), a spoilt but sweet younger sister (Priyasha Bhardwaj) – is visibly one of old wealth and aristocratic privilege. Dysfunctionality is organic to their status: they wear the aura of lost royals who, in their pursuit of relevance and influence, run an international opium empire under the front of a pharmaceutical company. "In India you don't marry the girl, you marry the family," warns the father of an American musician, whose wedding to one of the heirs defines the first episode.

Aarya's husband, Tej, knows what this means. The episode does a fine job of exposition through domestic dispute. When Tej and Aarya argue about their 8-year-old son finding his gun, we learn that Tej had left his Chandigarh life to handle Aarya's family "business" after her father suffered a stroke. He did it for love. He is a reluctant criminal, the CEO of Aarya Pharmaceuticals, and partner to a greedy brother-in-law and an opportunistic best friend. Tej and Aarya want out, they make plans to disappear, but a 300-crore cocaine deal gone awry results in him being gunned down at the end of an eerie first episode. A pen-drive that Tej leaves behind forms the crux of Aarya's navigation through a murky world of cops, hitmen, Russians, rival kingpins and dead puppies. It's how Ozark might have panned out if Jason Bateman's Marty was killed by the Mexicans in the opening episode.

When something mysterious – like a murder – opens a television series, the trick is to lure the viewer in with the promise of a whodunnit only to unleash a slow-burning aftermath of a whocares-dunnit. The sign of solid world-building is when we forget about needing to know the identity of the killer, and instead invest into the protagonist's new coping mechanisms. Aarya, too, becomes about its titular character reclaiming the fragile bridge connecting womanhood and motherhood. On one hand, there's the physicality of the plot: she tries to outwit a pensive cop, and suppress the adrenalin rush of dealing with a dreaded Rajasthani drug lord (of course it's Manish Chaudhuri). On the other hand, there's the intangibility of real life: grief, a rebellious teenage daughter (Virti Vaghani), a son (Viren Vazirani) in adolescent love, a psychologically troubled 8-year-old (Pratyaksh Panwar) who witnessed the shooting, and a lack of trust in the concept of home. It's not by design, but the alliterative names of the actors playing mother and kids further fuels the superhero theory.

Either way, there's no winning in her story, only lesser degrees of losing. It's a tightrope balance, and Sushmita Sen, who returns to Hindi cinema after ten years, is a revelation as Aarya Sareen. In a career-defining performance, Sen straddles the complicated subtext between the binary texts of female identity. At no point can this character afford to feel a single emotion at a time. Just like the directors ensure that the voices of panicked people overlap each other for authenticity, even her feelings are meant to overlap. The pain of losing a partner is never lost upon her even as she executes a plan that she is determined to not be dehumanized by. There are times when she is intoxicated by the rush of power, but you can sense the way she invokes her husband's fondness of old Bollywood classics – "Bade Achche Lagte Hain," "Akele Akele" and more – to reign herself in. The music calms her.

Remarkably, there are several scenes in which the secrets and betrayals of her loved ones dawn upon her moments before she must affectionately meet them. The dignity of Sen's experience is evident: her face is a silent storm in these scenes, even as she succumbs to her inherent humanity rather than violent theatricality. One of them features her on a segway, perversely enjoying control while circling her "prey"; the camera on another segway merely adds to her dizzying mindspace. It becomes obvious here that the mad dash to preserve her future hasn't allowed her to grieve the demise of her past. As a result, she keeps checking herself.

Sen is the pivot of an excellent cast that, despite a brief lull in the middle overs, maintains the rhythm. The narrative fleetingly dips its toes into the hidden homes of each character. This gives each of the talented actors – otherwise underutilized by the Hindi-film ecosystem – a chance to shine. I like the little touches: ACP Khan (Vikas Kumar), the passive-aggressive lead investigator, represents both a religious minority and sexual minority. The best friend, Jawahar (a superb Namit Das), is a coke-addled wild card whose wife (Maya Sarao) is conflicted about his spiralling ways. The spiritual foreigner (Alexx O'Nell) gets increasingly tense about the family he's married into. The young second wife (Flora Saini) of the patriarch is not painted as an air-headed gold digger. The Man Friday (Sikandar Kher) lurks like a faithful shadow, shapeshifting between observer and disruptor. A suspenseful scene featuring mother and son trying to guess the late Tej's password becomes a tender reflection of memories (His favourite song? food? book?).

At some point, four different women attempt to weaponize their bodies to manipulate the masculinity of their environment. One of them even pretends to be a bad driver. But despite the stylization of gender politics – for example, "Khoya Khoya Chand" scores Aarya taking charge of office; a sidekick holds sanitary napkins when Aarya tells the boss to "be a man" – it never looks like the women are sudden experts in the art of seduction. The thrown-in-deep-water terror never leaves their eyes. The final episode is a bit overwrought, leading up to a climactic intercut between a funeral and a mythology-infused music show. But again, the lead actress' expression of internal conflict rescues the series from overstating its duality.

Coming back to the opening shot, I can now think of a fourth clue. Aarya's choice of exercise: Steady rings. Over nine carefully paced episodes, we then see the tale of a woman who resists the replacement of her wedding ring by a drug ring. And most of all, I like the 'ring' to the famous Batman line: The night is darkest before the dawn. Given the absorbing first season of Aarya, one might add: the don is coming.

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