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Thursday, July 09, 2020

Aarya review: A slick and enjoyable web series

For the most part, Aarya stays on course, taut, unpredictable, pacey and enjoyable. I was eager to know what’s going to happen next, and that’s straight away a win.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Written by Shubhra Gupta | Updated: June 20, 2020 8:46:46 am
Aarya review Aarya is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

Aarya cast: Sushmita Sen, Chandrachur Singh, Vikas Kumar, Ankur Bhatia, Sikander Kher, Namit Das, Manish Chaudhary, Jayant Kriplani, Sohaila Kapur, Maya Sarao, Priyasha Bhardwaj, Sugandha Garg, Alexx O’Neil, Vishwajeet Pradhan, Jagdish Purohit, Flora Saini, Virti Vaghani, Viren Vazirani, Pratyaksh Panwar, Joy Sengupta
Aarya directors: Ram Madhvani, Sandeep Modi, Vinod Rawat
Aarya rating: 3 stars

Watching Aarya reminds you of how well it incorporates that classic phrase, ‘even in the best families’. From the outside, Aarya Sareen, a supremely fit, still-stunning mother of three, seems to have everything: loving husband, luxe life, no problems other than to choose the outfit of the day from a seriously classy wardrobe. Scratch a little, though, and out spill several cans of wriggly worms, which keep us busy watching through the nine episodes of the web series, co-created by Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi. Yes, there’s dirt and grime under all that glitter, and that happens in the best of families.

Based on Spanish series Penoza, Aarya gives us the story (co-written by Sandeep Srivastava and Anu Singh Choudhary) of a woman who is catapulted into the hot-seat of her dodgy family business. After initial reluctance, she takes charge, growing in confidence and aplomb, facing down one challenge after another: how do you react when what you thought was a pharmaceutical concern has a dark underbelly? (‘Afeem se dawaai banti hai, aur heroin bhi’ is the adage the family lives by) How do you respond when your near and dear ones, people whom you thought had your back, turn out to be snakes? Simple. When you are a woman whose sole concern is to protect her family, you steel yourself, and step up to the plate. Or, as in this case, you pick up a gun.

Fashioned as a crime thriller with a strong emotional core, Aarya sets up quite a pace. It moves swiftly, and that is its best quality because while the solidly written plot, detailed characters and smooth storytelling are all to the good, there are also the dips, contrived scenes, and loose ends, which we don’t quite have the time to dwell on. By the time we notice a flat register, we are already on to the next thing.

Through it all, we see just how atmospheric the whole is: the design is terrific. The background score stays in the background, thank the almighty. It’s set somewhere in Rajasthan, so we get beautifully appointed homes, ornate havelis, polo team-owning crime lords, liveried staff, factories as big as barnyards, fancy cars, fancier shades. That’s the rarefied setting of the rich people. There’s also the parallel stream of cops stations, jails, courtrooms, and grungy godowns perfect for dubious purposes. As well as the more regular spaces like beauty salons, neighbourhood eateries and homes which aren’t museums.

But the series never really takes its eyes off Aarya, and the never-a-hair-out-of-place, always immaculate Sen, clad in elegant pastels and huge solitaires, fills the titular character. You wish that she would get a little rumpled, a little ruffled, especially when everything around her seems to be falling to pieces, and more so when you see her with best friends, Sarao and Garg, who are both such naturals. But it’s good to see Sen back in the grid, and grow into her part, especially when she begins breaking through to a woman who discovers her innate toughness, and learning to stay a step ahead of her sneaky, heavy-handed father (Kriplani) and too ambitious-for-his-own-good brother (Bhatia).

A big pleasure of this series is being able to watch so many good actors, all getting something substantial to do. Namit Das as a cocaine-sniffing business partner, Jayant Kriplani as the randy I-me-myself patriarch, Sohaila Kapur as the vodka-tippling, long-suffering matriarch, Manish Chaudhry as the cigar-smoking mob boss, Bharadwaj as Soundarya, Aarya’s younger sister, O’ Neill as her firang musician husband who loves the Bhagwad Gita. Even the relatively smaller parts are handled with care: Vishwajeet Pradhan as an honourable goon, Joy Sengupta as a vulnerable worker, Flora Saini as arm-candy with feelings, all fit in. Props to Vikas Kumar, who plays ACP Khan, the cop investigating the case, who makes a worthy, dogged antagonist. Not just Sen, Chandrachur Singh returns too. As Sen’s Hindi film-song-loving caring spouse, he wears his expansive middle with as much ease as he inhabits his supporting role: I hope he sticks around. If the movies won’t have him, the web series will.

The children, Vir, Aru and Adi (Vaghani, Vazirani, Panwar), are written with welcome detail: Aarya is not just a designer mom but involved with their well-being. They are not two-dimensional flatties. Teenagers in our movies and television are never given their natural strong pubescent desires; we almost never see them experience their first sexual stirrings. A strand involving Vir and his equally young ‘girl-friend’ becomes squelchy but it’s also real: it feels like two horny teenagers wanting to get it on. It’s unclear whether this is borrowed from the original, but it gives the series weight. A detail involving a dead animal, in a very Godfather-like scene, makes you wince, though, even if it’s used as a plot device to drum up sympathy for a little tyke.

A few of these bits and bobs stay in the realm of either a very Western conceit, especially the too-brisk candences of the conversations, or more than a trifle unbelievable. There’s a little personal detail about Khan, which is left hanging. And Sikander Kher strides through the series without quite getting a clear motif: he’s a striking actor, but here his character stays fuzzy. Another irritant, something even the most creaky movies have stopped doing: why does a line in English need a Hindi repeat immediately after? I counted several instances in the first episode itself. Sample: ‘Don’t do this. Aisa mat kariye’. This sticks out in a series aiming at finesse. What saves it is no excessive use of ‘naani sa’, and ‘khammaghani’ and in-your-face-leheriya saris: these done-to-death-in-bad-TV-serials elements are around, but just to the right degree.

But not one of these things is a deal-breaker. For the most part, Aarya stays on course, slick, unpredictable, pacey and enjoyable. I was eager to know what’s going to happen next, and that’s straight away a win.

All set for the second part.

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