There is something to be said about leading ladies of yore coming back to reclaim their space, in this current scenario of the relative freedom provided by streaming platforms. Playing a hard-nosed small-town cop, Raveena Tandon is at the front and centre of Aranyak, an eight-part series set in a fictional town in Himachal Pradesh, which channels a favourite hilly terrain myth: a creature which is half human, half animal. Giving her able company is fellow cop played by Parambrata Chatterjee, who matches her step for step.
Urban legend. Superstition. Lunar cycles. Predatory creatures, human and animals. A nar-leopard is about, and is busy targetting innocent young women. The last time this had happened in Sironah, it was 19 years back. A series of women were found raped and murdered, and the perpetrator was never found. Now the killer is back. Is it a human pretending to be an animal? Who is responsible for the rape and killing of a French teenager, found hanging from a tall tree in the forests abutting the town? Is it local politician Jagdamba’s (Megna Malik) son, already serving a sentence for rape? Is it a young tourist guide who was last seen with her in a crowded local bar? Or one of the several shady fellows who pop in and out of the series, owing allegiance to former royal Kuber Manhas (Zakir Hussain) with a highly-strung daughter (Priyanka Setia) and a mealy-mouthed son-in-law (Indraneil Sengupta)?
There is no dearth of suspects-and-red-herrings in this murder-mystery-thriller, created by Rohan Sippy, directed by Vinay Waikul, and written by Charudutt Acharya. And all sorts of characters– some with enough depth, some a bit undercooked– keep showing up as it progresses. The problem of plenty leads to bits of dense and confused plotting. There are spots of outright silliness: even the most free-with-their-fists cops don’t start slapping suspects around as soon as they set eyes on them. But Tandon’s Kasturi Dogra, a bad cook who is meant to be a good cop, has no such compunction, and after a while it gets trying. The attempts to prove that she’s a hick don’t do her any favours. Then there’s the non-stop emphasis on the ‘19 years’ between the appearance of the predator: almost every single character is made to repeat the phrase till we have it coming out of our ears. And oh, an item number masquerading as a wedding song, filmed as if it would in Bollywood, is given a tiny fraction of time.
What really works is the setting. As does the mostly well-done suspense : the big reveal manages to stay a surprise, though if you keep your eyes peeled you might start seeing where it’s all going. Location is everything– the ‘aranya’ (forest) is truly deep and dark, the paths serpentine, the twists matching the plot. Some of the characters are interesting : a young girl (Taneesha Joshi) being forced to study hard in order to crack the JEE, has an unsavoury secret. A no-account, jobless man (Vivek Madan) discovers that he has fallen out of love with his wife. A grizzled old cop (Ashutosh Rana) who saw the predator slip past him those many years back, is on the scent again. A gong for environmental concerns is banged : if we keep destroying their environment, leopards will come leaping at us, won’t they? But this card needed to have been played a little more smartly.
Raveena Tandon reminds us that there was always an actor beneath the flighty, fluffy girls she mostly got to play in her top Bollywood years. She is unafraid of appearing uncouth and crude, and is able to toughen up and soften when the occasion demands, even if the unsophisticated accent slips. But like the series itself, her character is inconsistent: in repose, and with her glam face on, she looks very far from the homely policewoman she is meant to be. Still, she gets a chance to be a full-bodied character here, not just a singing-dancing cipher. One of the nicer parts of the series is that she is not made into a ‘heroine’ or a ‘female hero’, striding about in slo-mo: this is a woman who is flawed and who knows it.
The steadying factor here is Parambrata Chatterjee’s Angad Malik, who stays on top of his past-and-present tracks, the former told in flashback featuring a terrible personal tragedy which never stops feeling contrived. He does a good job of freshening the trope of the new authority figure arriving from the outside, nursing his own troubles while trying to fix the vexed problems of the locals, especially in small towns which have their own unwritten rules.
Kasturi and Angad make a solid pair. And it feels like they will have more to do when we see them next.