An engaging plot, with an imperilled Sushmita Sen at its centre. It’s a concoction many of us know too well. More than her billowing red saree in Main Hoon Na, I remember her frantic dash in Aankhen, the clock ticking as she comes to grips with a truly desperate situation. She fended off a stalker in Dastak, a serial killer in Samay, and half a dozen ghosts in Vaastu Shastra. Often, the stakes in these films concerned the safety and security of a child. It’s at this juncture that we meet her again, ten years after she took a break from Hindi screens.
Neerja director Ram Madhvani’s maiden web series, Aarya, is about a mother wildly and recklessly looking out for her own. Streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, the 9-part series — adapted from the Dutch drama Penoza — starts out slow, with little narrative momentum to justify its crime-and-drugs setup. Madhvani is clearly interested in La Famiglia, blithely baring his Godfather fixations with swish mob weddings, reluctant successors and severed animals on beds.
The focus on relationships isn’t always captivating — some conflicts and arcs flit in and out at will. Yet, with its fair mix of solid performances, perceptive character psychology and some cleverly peppered reveals, the show largely works.
Aarya (Sushmita Sen) is the eldest heir of a big pharmaceutical company in Rajasthan. The family’s real business is opium, jointly overseen by her husband Tej (Chandrachur Singh), younger brother Sangram (Ankur Bhatia) and their business partner Jawahar (Namit Das). Aarya and Tej have three children, and despite the latter’s plans to build their lives elsewhere, have stuck it out with the syndicate so far. It’s not a brooding life exactly: Aarya is close to her family and Tej, despite keeping a loaded gun in his car, is too mild-mannered for a drug lord (his love for old Hindi film songs becomes a leitmotif).
A consignment belonging to a rival group is stolen, and Tej gets shot. A pack of ravenous characters close in: among them, the sly and prying ACP Khan (Vikas Kumar), who’s after a missing flash drive, and Shekawat (Manish Choudhary), a gangster looking for his stock. Over these parallel hunts, we see Aarya’s life come undone. It’s the most thrilling of transformations: from watchful mother to ruthless mafia queen. The show, though, limits her decadence within a rigid moral framework. Initially, Aarya is driven by vengeance and the need to shield her family from further harm. Even as the stakes rise and she enters the drug trade, her motivations remain squarely justified, virtuous even. She pays a terrible price near the end, but that too is subsumed in the larger quest for revenge and survival.
The unflagging nobility of her character does not stop Susmita from turning in a compelling performance. She’s warm and magisterial in the opening episodes, jamming wonderfully with Chandrachur Singh’s soft-voiced sulk. Flickers of that warmth are retained as Aarya emerges from grief and finds her feet in an increasingly precarious world. Namit Das, playing the inept and unreliable Jawahar, is one of the more compelling characters in the supporting cast; the brilliant Maya Sarao is largely wasted in a superfluous role.
The show is racked with parental guilt. Reeling from loss, the three kids develop addictions and dependencies (a tenuous mirroring of the narcotics trade their family runs). “The past is not important,” Aarya confesses to a friend. “The future of my children is.” Even minor characters bring up their kids when faced with life-threatening danger. For all the thrills, this is a story about protection and care, and the brief oasis we regard as home. Madhvani turns up the violence, then defuses it with a smitten soundtrack. The humour is spare but enjoyable. There’s a lot of killing and double-crossing, but also birthday parties, jam sessions, and dips in the pool. It’s a suggestion that love and loss must co-exist, each reinforcing and lending meaning to the other.