A new season of Aashiqana is here. After three seasons of "Murder ke mausam mein pyaar" (love in the time of murder), the "mur" has been slashed so that it's "Darr ke mausam mein pyaar" (love in the time of fear). The good news is that the lead pair of Chikki (Khushi Dubey) and Yash (Zayn Ibad Khan) are still hopelessly in love with each other. However, in its first 10 episodes, the fourth season of Aashiqana feels almost … normal, which is more unsettling as a concept than all the moments of horror in its first week.
So far, the show has had merely two truly bonkers moments. First, Chikki has literally come back from the dead. Second, we've learnt there's a killer on the loose who appears to be as good at civil engineering as he is at murder. After stabbing his chosen victim, he breaks a wall, places said victim in the hollowed wall (a la Anarkali), then plasters and even paints over that area — all this is in the time it takes for the Chauhan family to go to a temple and then return home. It says a lot about Aashiqana's track record that the following don't count as noteworthy: A spooky curse uttered by a tattooed Himani Shivpuri; charred, dead bodies impaled on trees; a scowling man who roams around the Chauhan home, carrying ashes in black cloth; and a woman with a fake beard, pretending to be a liveried butler.
In three seasons, Aashiqana has raised the bar for madcap entertainment, giving us plot twists that are untethered to reality and melodrama that's cheerfully self-aware of its clichéd excesses. There's overacting, patently fake sets and gloriously bad visual effects. We've seen Chikki and Yash bring down a drone using the string that held together the plunging back of Chikki's kameez. The second season began with Chikki being kidnapped in a suitcase. In the third season's finale, we got surprise twins, fake deaths, real shootings, fake policemen and real dialogues like "Aunty-ji ki do auladein? Dono psycho?! (Aunty has two kids? And both are psycho?)"
This is a show that worships at the altar of silliness and revels in the tropes of soap operas. It can't be bothered with either finesse or logic. Aashiqana takes the business of entertaining its audience seriously, but it’s also constantly laughing at itself and unafraid of cracking bad jokes. For example, when Chikki comes back to life (season 4, episode 4), Yash's brother marvels at how coherent she is. "People get disoriented when they come back from the US," he says. "Chikki's returned from Yamlok, and she's completely coherent. No jet lag!" You can facepalm or allow yourself a giggle. We won’t judge.
The focus of this season appears to be the supernatural and superstition, but more interesting than the low-budget horror tropes and the promise of Yash discovering his doppelganger is the target painted on what has been Chikki's defining characteristic so far: Her confidence. There's now a voice in her head that tells her she is cursed, that she is the reason that her loved ones will suffer. The ever-spirited Chikki is going to doubt herself and it's too soon to tell how well Aashiqana can use horror to talk about the clash between tradition, conservatism and modernity. We can only hope that the Anarkali-inspired attempted murder is the first of many insane setups and that the show surpasses the gold standard of silliness that it has set for itself.
Aashiqana's cuckoo aesthetic is only half its charm. Unlike a lot of mainstream entertainment, Aashiqana dares to be proudly progressive. Created by Gul Khan, who has also written many episodes (the show has had numerous writers over its three seasons), this soap opera is packed with messaging that demands women (particularly upstart young women) be seen as equals to not just men, but also matriarchs. From celebrating feminine desire to championing a woman's right to work outside the home, Aashiqana isn't afraid to wear its feminist heart on its sleeve. While giving the heroic Yash all the slow mo and wind machine a man can wish for, the show also fills its frames with women who are indomitable, like the quick-witted Chikki or the Chauhan family's formidable and conservative grandmother (played by Geeta Tyagi).
Women in Aashiqana have agency and aren't afraid to be irreverent. Some wear sindoor in deference to tradition, some wear skimpy clothes that scandalise the old guard; all of them have slowly but steadily come into their own. The show is also careful to establish that it’s possible for both Yash and Chikki to be central protagonists. They don’t have to vye for the spotlight and (much like in life) there’s room enough for both a hero and a heroine on the show.
Over three seasons, Yash has been schooled into behaving better and although he's undoubtedly the hero, the show doesn't forgive him for behaving badly with Chikki. This is a man whose introductory scene in the first season had him casually lugging a surface-to-air missile. He has since learned to cry, be a caregiver, lose his shirt for the benefit of the female gaze, and humble himself in love. Meanwhile Chikki has grown up without losing her feistiness. She's worked hard to become a police officer, she's learnt to hold her own in the joint family setup, and she remains defiantly bad at both English and the idea of submission (in more ways than one. Who can forget her tying Yash to the bedpost in the first season? Not that he's complaining. Three seasons later, he's got velvet-lined handcuffs).
At the end of the third season, Chikki walked out on the Chauhan family, despite being in love with Yash and having spent two and a half seasons trying to prove she can belong to the Chauhan family unit. In the episode titled "Marriage Mayhem" (rarely has a title been so accurate), Yash lost his temper after Chikki shot his grandmother (it's a misunderstanding. It's also a long story). He yelled at Chikki for being stubborn and always doing what she thinks is right, rather than listening to his directives and sticking to the plan. Chikki, matching Yash decibel for decibel, tried to explain that she hadn't intended to hurt Yash's grandmother. She also called out the Chauhan family. "If you'd been the one holding the gun, would anyone have demanded an explanation from you?" she asked Yash, pointing out that the worst is assumed of her and while allowances are unhesitatingly made for Yash. "Safai sirf bahu se maangi jaati hai (explanations are only demanded of the daughter in-law)," said Chikki before telling Yash and his family that she doesn't want a future in which she has to undergo "agnipariksha" (trial by fire) daily. Resplendent in her fury and bridal finery, Chikki pointed out that the love the Chauhans profess for her doesn't include either respect or trust. Then, literally turning her back on them, a tearful Chikki stormed out. The show doesn't censure Chikki for being "ziddi" (stubborn) or having a temper. Instead, it picks her as a champion and leaves the Chauhans looking pathetic and struggling to justify their behaviour.
It's an unexpectedly powerful moment — especially since Yash and Chikki's exchange comes after a series of ridiculous, trigger-happy twists — and over its three seasons, Aashiqana has been full of such surprises. The show has dropped truth bombs at regular intervals, often through the dialogues spoken by Chikki and Yash's younger brother. Most of the time, sharply progressive thought is packaged in a layer of humour, but the insights are delivered with the intention of packing a punch. Everything about the show is the opposite of subtle, but when it comes to the messaging, it's evident that a lot of thought has gone into what Aashiqana codes into its characters. The show is not careless when it comes to the ideas being conveyed to its audience. This is a soap that is determined to be progressive and it works. Aashiqana has consistently been among the most-watched Hindi shows in the country.
Now to see if Chikki and gang, when faced with horror, can hold on to both their madness and feminism.