Director: Vinay Waikul
Writer: Charudutt Acharya, Rohan Sippy
Cast: Raveena Tandon, Parambrata Chatterjee, Ashutosh Rana, Indraneil Sengupta, Meghna Malik, Anna Ador, Zakir Hussain
Streaming on: Netflix
Aranyak is the kind of spooky hill-station noir that gets consumed by its desire to be spooky hill-station noir. The eight-episode Netflix thriller is strikingly shot, turning the mist and mystery of the mountains into a primary character. The fictional town of Sironah comes alive through its assortment of Himachali locals, tourists, cops and politicians. But the influence of Nordic and British slow-burners is so strong that this cultural translation over-over-reaches in its pursuit to be original. The greed to involve everyone and be everything – including the ambitious marriage of man and myth – overwhelms a basic sense of intrigue. Aranyak then ends up as the greedy answer to two questions: How much atmosphere is too much atmosphere? And how much plot is too much plot? The balance of both elements is essential for any whodunnit. One simply enables the other. Here, however, the two seem to be competing with each other – the more compelling Aranyak looks, the more convoluted it becomes.
It starts off well. Familiar tropes emerge fresh-faced in the first episode. A French teenager (played by one of Hindi cinema's go-to Caucasian actors, Anna Ador) is murdered in sleepy Sironah. Her mother is arrested for being a drug addict. The manner of death triggers whispers of the return of the town's own Loch Ness, "Narr-tendua" (Leopard-Man), after 19 long years. A haunted city cop named Angad (Parambrata Chatterjee) arrives to replace outgoing SHO, Kasturi Dogra (Raveena Tandon), who is taking a year-long sabbatical to be a better mother. Two rival politicians (Zakir Hussain, Meghna Malik) scramble to protect wayward family members. Kasturi's teen daughter sends a nude video to her tense 12th-fail boyfriend. Kasturi's emasculated husband, Hari, taunts her for being a strong woman. Hari's father, a retired constable (Ashutosh Rana in the most Ashutosh Rana role possible), smokes up all day and doubles up as the wise old man of Sironah. Angad gets flashbacks of losing his son at a school play years ago. In short, the camera makes sure to linger on every character towards the end of a shot.
The setup is fertile, but I couldn't help but wonder why a series needs to introduce so many threads – and if so, how many loose ends need to be tied up eventually? It reminded me of the promise squandered by The Last Hour, a similar city-cop-in-the-hills drama based in the Northeast. At times, it seems as though the writers of such shows get so excited by the parameters of the long format that they go wild with bulk instead of depth. The "less is more" rule goes out of the window, and red herrings become the norm rather than the exception. The urge to end every episode on a cliffhanger or a revelation further crowds a packed narrative. I get that everyone is supposed to be a suspect, but seeing the two cops bark down any tree that shows them a shiny fruit is hardly inspiring. When they reach a dead end, the plot conveniently throws up hidden camera footage from a bunch of wannabe reporters, or worse, a delayed phone-call list.
While it's productive to paint Sironah as a laidback place with its own due-process pace, this trait cannot be the exit clause to create suspense for the sake of it. At some level, it's necessary to engage the audience with the one-step-ahead strategy, not alienate them with a 100-steps-everywhere approach. So many little threads aren't examined with full conviction – Kasturi's shaky marriage, for one, hinges on dialogue rather than feeling. Ditto for the developing chemistry between Kasturi and Angad, who seem to be speaking to each other like screenwriting devices instead of unlikely colleagues. By the time the payoffs arrive, it stops mattering who killed poor Aimee, because by then we've seen her in so many flashbacks being assaulted from so many different perspectives that it's hard to retain any curiosity about the incident. Every episode virtually adds a new angle and character, making it impossible to follow or remember the motivations of any single one. The machinations of the town and its secrets hijack the core of the series, which I suppose the makers will say was deliberate.
The cast is vast, but it doesn't help that the French accents – which are relatively important in terms of the premise – sway between Russian and Nepalese twang. A CGI leopard that appears early on looks at odds with the foggy environment – as though only one part of the screen were hit by motion-smoothing. As for the main performances, Aranyak is a bit of a mixed bag. Parambrata Chatterjee is too pensive, especially when he does a scowling Anil-Kumble-ish rendition of the no-nonsense outsider. He's no David Tennant from Broadchurch, more so because he sounds like he could be from any metropolitan city in India; the lack of cultural specificity makes him more of a brooding spirit than a broken person. If someone had told me five years ago that Raveena Tandon and Sushmita Sen would be going head to head with rival web platforms on a Friday in 2021, I'd have scoffed and done a Mohra-Dastak double bill in response. While the internet is in danger of becoming a small-screen surrogate for commercial Bollywood, one of its enduring lights has been the tapping of veteran stars with unfulfilled acting talent.
Tandon in Aranyak as the unlettered but sharp Himachali cop isn't as good as Sen in Aarya, but she has her moments. To the makers' credit, that trademark voice acquires a raspier and more rooted identity, despite an on-again-off-again dialect. And to her credit, Aranyak is not all Raveena Tandon; in fact, Chatterjee's Angad is the de facto protagonist of the series. I'm not sure we realize how difficult it can be for yesteryear stars to not only overhaul their '90s-acting vocabulary but also adapt to a new-age language of TV realism. We see it in Tandon's overplaying of certain emotions – like rage, exposition, inner voice – but the mere willingness to do an Aranyak informs the ego-fading presence of Kasturi Dogra. If Kasturi was perhaps written and filmed with the idea of a regular lady in mind – and not Tandon – the actress might have had more scope to make it her own.
Ultimately, what we choose to derive from a series like this depends on us: Am I satisfied with the immersive texture of the story? Or is the headless-chicken script a deal breaker? In the case of Aranyak, it's not an either-or conflict. It's because I'm satisfied with the texture that I'm disappointed by the screenplay. You simply cannot have so many names – Chottu, Bunty, Aimee, Gagan, Kanti, Manhas, Nutan, Bhaati – floating around in an ordinary exchange between two cops in the final episode. By the time you remember who one is, the scene is over. All that's left is the cinematic atmosphere which – like a designer dress sauntering down a ramp – would rather be seen than worn.