It might sound odd, but I find in director Ram Madhvani, so much of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The kind of meticulous craft that is subtextually empty, yet hints at depth, but is so compelling, so dramatic that you don't mind that emptiness. You coast along. Text, subtext, and paratext — everything is drama, and everything is in service of drama.
It is what made the first season of Aarya the finest show — and I say finest without a hint of exaggeration or rhetorical excess — Indian streaming coughed up. A consummate binge, unlike Paatal Lok or Sacred Games, and a sensational drama with an afterlife, unlike Bombay Begums or Mumbai Diaries: 26/11, it followed in intimate close-ups Aarya Sareen (Sushmita Sen), who is forced to wield a gun and become a gangster to protect her three children, after her husband is gunned down. A remake of the Dutch show Penoza, Aarya was a deft cultural translation. She belongs to a royal family, so the setting, in Rajasthan, was stylistically lush — that emerald and gold striped blouse Sen wore, that turmeric yellow lehenga, those milk white poppy fields — yet casual. These are rich people who don't wear their richness like a gift, but like a right. Sushmita Sen padded that entitlement with kindness and grace.
This is what makes the second season feel, at first, visually dull and unsteady. That royal burnish has dimmed — Aarya has forsaken her family and left for Australia, from where she is shipped back to India to provide evidence in a dingy court. The only glitter is her jewelry, which she has kept locked, safe for when she can sell it off. She is wearing only leached hues, fluttering pantsuits. Even when she finally wears something Indian, it is for holi, where a red bandhani odhna is awkwardly draped around her as a half-sari. The glamor is completely gone. (Theia Tekchandaney is the costume designer for both seasons.)
Even the background music feels insistently, deafeningly dramatic. Sometimes Aarya is just walking down the corridor to the courtroom, but the music is suggestive of a bomb being diffused. The score isn't aiding, but creating drama. Then, there is the suspect duration of the first episode — only half-hour. Suspect, because they needed more time. Between the first and second season, more than a year has passed, and yet the characters feel stuck in amber. What about the education of the three kids? What about their lifestyle? How did Aarya spend her mornings? We know she likes scotch, but what about her morning coffee? Brief flashes of Aarya's daughter's suicide attempt are bunged in so unsubtly I was afraid the show lost its grip — that tantalizing combination of intimate drama and hyperbolic action. The first we see of Aarya in this season, too, feels unlike the steady certainty of the first season, when she was hanging upside down, holding onto gymnastic rings. Here, she is huffing and puffing. Your first thought is — is she running away from someone? No. This is her morning jog.
But soon, like muscle memory, the show finds its footing — along with its hour-long duration and pacing. Soon, we begin to see the dignity in the drama which Ram Madhvani — like Bhansali — brings. It's a knockout 8-episode fare, each with its own hurtling immediacy. Along with his co-writers Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh and Anu Singh Choudhary, and co-directors Vinod Rawat and Kapil Sharma, Madhvani cooks up a delicious, tense, dramatic but dignified sophomore season. Take the scene where Aarya's best friend Maya (Maya Sarao) is posing nude for painters, to make money. There is no frivolous drama attached to the moment. Her face isn't weepy, and neither are her dialogues. In fact, she looks melancholically regal. For these aren't steel-spined heroes. They are heroines who learn to make steel from bone. Take, also, the scene when Aarya nonchalantly tells someone, "Maarega mujhe? Maar!", but when the man presses the nuzzle of the gun to her skull, she still screams. This is not because she is cowardly but because she is human. Madhvani refuses to make of Aarya, a heroine, and Sen refuses to embody her as that. Even at her most victorious — strangling a public prosecutor with her legs — she is losing. Even at her most confident, she is doubtful. Sudip Sengupta's camera captures this reluctant heroineism on Sen's permanently arched brows.
That Aarya has a time problem is, however, clear. The show works best when it is intensely present, grounded in the action of the moment. When it tries to explain the past — either as a predictable twist, or a flashback context — it flounders. This is because there are so many characters to plot for, it feels like the narrative does not know what to do with them. Every time you meet a character, it is as if between the last time you saw them and now, nothing happened. As if time stopped for them. It is why side-characters like Daulat (Sikandar Kher), Aarya's protector, or the sneaky, corrupt police officer (Geetanjali Kulkarni) feel wasted, and their arcs, so sudden and diffuse. Even ACP Khan (Vikas Kumar) who wears both his Muslimness and homosexuality without a hint of drama — until I saw him in Aarya's first season, I didn't think we knew how to tell stories of minorities as people — is saddled with a mopey lover in Delhi that doesn't add depth, despair, or drama. In between there is a rival gang, the Russians demanding 300 crores worth of drugs, and Aarya's own family members giving her existential worry, as her children keep giving her, alternatively, problems and solace. Veer (Viren Vazirani), Aarya's eldest, who was given a sweet flush of love the previous season is her rock now. And rocks, famously, don't have personalities. Instead, all of that is given, in excess, to Aarya's daughter Arundhati (Virti Vaghani). The asymmetric attention is palpable here. Characters just walk out of the narrative as others are fixated on. But the thing is — and if there was a narrative bandaid, it is this — it just doesn't matter. So bright the light of Aarya and Aarya shine.