In the web series Aarya, crime runs in the family – or is it that the dynamics of the family lend themselves beautifully to crime?
The themes that guided the novel The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed screen adaptations also dictate events in Aarya, which is being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar. Sushmita Sen leads a sprawling cast and is at the heart of a serpentine plot that winds around a drug syndicate in Rajasthan.
Despite dealing with crookedness, frayed loyalties, betrayal, murder and blackmail, Aarya retains its faith in family values. At its core is a woman whose maternal instincts propel her towards lawlessness and lead her to dirty her manicured hands in unimaginable ways.
Chandrachur Singh emerges out of the woodwork to play Tej Sareen, the head of a pharmaceutical company that sells opium-laced fake medicine on the side. With an elegantly furnished mansion, a happy brood that comprises wife Aarya (Sen) and three children, and classic Hindi movie songs for company, Tej revels in his poppy-fuelled prosperity.
It’s a facade, like much else in this land of luxe. Tej’s brother-in-law Sangram (Ankur Bhatia) and friend Jawahar (Namit Das) have swiped a Rs 300-crore heroin stash from local drug lord Shekhawat. Tej, however, refuses to play along.
Shekhawat (Manish Chaudhary) shows these men the cost of trampling on somebody else’s patch. Aarya’s youngest son Adi (Pratyaksh Panwar) is the sole witness to an attempt on Tej’s life. As Tej hovers between life and death, Aarya is forced to step up and into the narcotics trade. She has tried to stay away from the business, which has enriched her father Zorawar (Jayant Kriplani) and brother Sangram. With Tej out of commission, Aarya must mine reserves of strength and cunning that she never knew existed.
Aarya’s troubles are manifold. Khan (Vikas Kumar), a narcotics bureau officer, is hot on her heels. The attack on Tej sends Sangram and Jawahar to different corners of the room. Aarya’s children too threaten to crack from the pressure.
Mini-tornadoes chase every other character. Jawahar has a stormy bond with his wife Maya (Maya Sarao). Sangram tries to control his drug operation from behind bars. Shekhawat’s menace is jolted in the presence of his Russian partners. Khan struggles to gather evidence against Aarya.
The only calm in the storm is represented by Zorawar’s enforcer Daulat (Sikandar Kher). He operates in the shadows and emerges whenever crisis strikes, which is nearly all the time.
Created by Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi, Aarya is an official remake of the popular Dutch show Penoza. Madhvani, Modi and Vinod Rawat have directed the intentionally messy screenplay by Sandeep Shrivastava and Anu Singh Choudhary. There is never a dull moment, what with Aarya careening between a tricky transaction one minute and her children the next. The Sareens frequently cling to one another at the latest instance of peril, with the hugathons serving as visual evidence of Aarya’s preoccupation with her family.
The nine episodes, clocking between 50 and 55 minutes each, keep Aarya at the centre as kingdoms rise and crumble around her. With her polished manner, enviable fitness levels and comfort with the smart set that the series portrays, Sushmita Sen initially appears well cast as a wealthy housewife who is shoved into a filthy rabbit hole. However, Sen turns out to be the weakest link in the chain. Her inability to coax emotions out of her chiselled face are especially acute in the many emotional scenes. She struggles under the weight of Aarya’s numerous identities, and her performance is not enigmatic so much as incomplete.
Sen is surrounded by stronger actors who dive deep to find the emotional core of their characters. The screen lights up whenever the camera moves away from Sen’s often immobile visage and focuses on Namit Das or Maya Sarao. Their tensions, although manufactured to give them something to do, feel real and believable, unlike the soap operatics that govern the Sareens.
Vikas Kumar, portrayed as a rough-mannered outsider, is very good as Khan, while Sikandar Kher is a surprise as the mysterious Daulat. Pratyaksh Panwar, who plays the young and sensitive Adi, turns out a pure and heartfelt performance.
This sympathy-for-the-solitaire-set saga is fittingly very good to look at. The slick production is beautifully lensed by Harshvir Oberai in cold, glistening tones that accentuate the themes of deception and disillusionment. The use of Hindi film music is especially inventive – and also an indication of the soppiness that lies beneath the poshness. Bade Achche Lagte Hain, from the melodrama Balika Badhu (1976), is among the golden oldies that is dexterously woven into the plot. In many other places too, the creators cleverly use film songs and give their lyrics renewed meaning.
And yet, there are many moments when Aarya feels like a very gorgeously packaged and overpriced grocery staple. Many scenes are stretched beyond repair, and the emotional moments seem overdirected. The endless toing and froing cannot conceal the banality of this family’s evil and the hollowness of the big discovery of the identity of Tej’s assailant.
In The Godfather Part II (1974), Michael Corleone’s obsession with his family name transforms him into a fratricidal monster. Unfortunately for cinephiles, Coppola sought to soften the blow in the redundant The Godfather Part III (1990). Aarya takes its cues from both, sometimes to its peril.