When disaster strikes, a desperate housewife takes charge of an increasingly perilous world. In director Ram Madhvani’s maiden web-series, Sushmita Sen plays the titular Aarya, a mother and successor to a narcotics empire in Rajasthan.
The nine-part series — adapted from the Dutch drama Penoza — is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. The show has been praised for an impactful comeback by Sushmita and its array of intriguing characters.
It treads the crime thriller path, with missing drug loots, unexpected shootouts, twists, and double-crosses.
The core emotions, however, are centred on themes of parenthood, loss, familial conflict, and child psychology.
Ram says he wanted to steer clear of a whiz-bang crime show.
“Just like Neerja (2017) wasn’t a hijack movie but a mother-daughter story, Aarya is all about the characters and their relationships. I was particularly drawn to the strength of Aarya, not just because she’s a woman but because of the innate human strength she possesses.”
For the show, Ram devised what he calls a ‘360 degree’ shooting style.
The format entails freeing actors of shot and angle restrictions and focusing heavily on prep and workshops.
“There were no rehearsals. The actors had to be the characters and arrive at a moment of truth,” the director says, rejecting the ‘industrial process of filmmaking’ that handcuffs actors into rigidity.
“I don’t do that. I shoot with two-three cameras and allow my actors to use the space freely, not worrying about focus and marks.” Besides Sushmita, Chandrachur Singh made his comeback as Tej Sareen in Aarya. The actor had broken out with his debut in Gulzar’s Maachis (1996).
It was followed by a string of memorable roles in Tere Mere Sapne, Daag: The Fire, Josh, and Kya Kehna.
He appeared in films intermittently through the 2000s, eventually fading out from the mainstream for supporting turns in Zila Ghaziabad, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Aa Gaya Hero.
“I went through a phase of disillusionment and also had my personal responsibilities to take care of,” Chandrachur says.
“However, what kept me going was the love and interest of the audience. A lot of my films like Josh and Kya Kehna became hits on television, so people remembered me despite the years of absence.” Chandrachur credits serendipity for Aarya falling into place.
“I was flying to Mumbai from Dehradun when I met two air-hostesses. They wanted a picture with me but it wasn’t allowed. So they asked for autographs and one of them was named Sushmita Sen. At the time, I didn’t know Sushmita was in the show. It was a beautiful coincidence and felt just right.”
Namit Das essays Chandrachur’s best friend Jawahar in the show.
After Tej is gunned down, he teams up with Aarya to track down her husband’s shooters as well as run the family trade. In dark shades and a stache, the character is a shift from Namit’s usually upbeat turns.
The actor envisioned Jawahar as a mix of ineptitude and unreliability. “We dropped the mafia clichés of speaking in a heavy voice or a sharp look in the eyes,” Namit shares.
“Jawahar is an outsider. He’s not a part of the family, because of which he ends up in situations that become the biggest arc after Aarya’s. He’s involved in multiple sub-plots, and his transformation is the most unique one in the show.”
While Namit straddles a grey line, the show’s candidly flamboyant villain is played by Manish Chaudhari.
Manish is known for playing suave authority figures in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, Bombay Velvet, and Batla House. Here, he appears as Shekawat, a rival gangster looking for his consignment.
Along the way, he forges a dangerous, sexually-tense alliance with Aarya, leading to dramatic results. For Manish, it was important to blend Shekawat’s viciousness with his cool exterior. “Ram wanted the character to be sophisticated yet rustic at the same time,” Manish shares.
“If you notice, Shekawat is never still. He’s constantly talking or cheering his horses or smoking a cigar. Even if he’s in the car, he’s busy with his cigar-cutters. A lot of dramatic dialogue is underlined with gestures and physical action, which makes the character more menacing.” Another sub-plot revolves around Aarya’s teenage daughter Aaru (Virti Vaghani).
Reeling from her father’s loss, she develops a closeness with Bob (Alexx O’Nell), her uncle by marriage.
Bob is a singer creating fusion music with Sanskrit shlokas. The character cuts close to Alexx, who has acted in several Indian films and shows and recently released his debut single Still On My Mind.
“Bob, like me, is an American who has embraced Indian culture,” Alexx notes. “He studies and adapts the Bhagavad Gita into his life and music.
It’s a quintessentially Indian text that underlines every aspect of people’s lives, and to have Ram trust me with something so important was both exhilarating and terrifying.” Alexx had to learn Sanskrit for his Gita recital in the final episode.
He calls it the crescendo of the entire first season. “Bob’s performance is happening as the world is crumbling down,” Alexx says. “It’s a result of the clash between his and Aarya’s world. It shows the transformative changes that these two characters have gone through.”