Writer Charudutt Acharya’s crime thriller series only come alive after the half way mark.
Rating: 2.5 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
How does an industry perfect a web series when it struggles to produce many two-hour engaging films? Despite the spurt in quantity, most Indian web series lack quality. This is reflected from the average second season of acclaimed shows like Sacred Games , The Family Man . It’s well documented how second season only comes into play if the first does well.
The Indian catalogue on Netflix has often copped criticism, but there has been improvement in the last couple of years. Producers Ramesh Sippy, Siddharth Roy Kapur have pinned their hopes on Aranyak , a mystery, crime thriller drama series. Directed by Vinay Waikul, the 8-episode Netflix series is written by seasoned writer Charudutt Acharya.
Set in the fictitious land of Sironah, Himachal Pradesh, Aranyak  seeks the truth behind the rape and murder of a 19-year-old French tourist Aimee Baptiste [Anastasiya Hamolka]. The pug marks on her body make locals [even local cops] believe that the nar tendua [leopard man] has returned to haunt them after 19 years.
Leading the investigation is seasoned police officer Angad Mallik [Parambrata Chatterjee]. He is aided by SHO [Station House Officer] Kasturi Dogra [Raveena Tandon], the very woman whom he has filled in for after the latter got her year-long leave approved. Not prepared to let go off this golden opportunity, Kasturi wouldn’t rest till the murderer(s) is/are nabbed. They don’t start off on a good note, but as the investigation gets murkier, the duo is determined to get to the bottom of this crime. The subsequent revelations open a can of lust, greed, crime, political opportunism.
Aranyak means forest grown. The myth of the nar leopard hovers around the first season but the season finale reveals a different tale. Only for the writer to tease us with a grisly parting shot. It makes you wonder, has Angad and Kasturi truly got to the bottom of the mystery?
Like stated before, the future of season two depends on the fate of the first season. Acharya has a fine plot, but Aranyak  leaves you with a sense of frustration. It’s first half is underwhelming in every sense and there’s a strong fear that a viewer could lose interest after just a couple of episodes. Whilst the first half is disappointing, but we request a viewer to bear patience for the series truly comes alive from the 5 episode. Be it in writing or performance, Aranyak gathers momentum, builds strong engagement all the way till the final shot. That the damage was already done is a fair argument, but it is also true that Aranyak redeems itself in the second half.
Part of the problem is the inconsistent screenplay in the first half, and the average show by it leads – Tandon and Chatterjee. What frustrates you is the incompetence, moral bankruptcy of the entire town and especially the people in power. One is particularly enraged at the insensitivity of the lone coroner Dr. Joshi [Anant Jog] who shamelessly proclaims that the girl was a virgin before she was raped and killed. We are more frustrated at the incompetence and gullibility of the local police who easily believe the legend.
We understand the frustration when Angad chides, “Come on, this is 21 century and you still believe in beating people into confession”. The first in line of the guilty is Kasturi herself who indulges into character assassination of Julie Baptiste [Breshna Khan] the mother of the victim. Kasturi starts off as a confused protagonist. Here is a woman desperate for a career defining case. She is impatient, temperamental, judgmental. She loves her children dearly but doesn’t rate herself much as a mother and wife. Clearly, Kasturi suffers from a confidence crisis. Mind you her husband Hari Dogra [Vivek Madan] is no matured character either. It’s a miracle how they are still a couple.
Kasturi is incompetent to start off, but it is the moral bankruptcy of the people in power in Sironah that makes you feel sick. There’s Kuber Manhas [Zakir Hussain], the local politician, businessman who wants to milk the crime for his vested interest. Jagdamba Dhumal [Meghna Malik] the reigning politician not prepared to let her son’s transgressions come into the way of her political ambitions. Ashok Srivastav [Lalit Parimoo] the District Collector who has a dirty secret to hide.
While politicians and bureaucrats make for the perfect antagonists, but the victim’s mother, too, is no saint. In fact, it was Julie’s [Breshna Khan] greed that is largely responsible for her losing her daughter. Whilst one mourns the loss of an innocent, but it is hard to find any empathy for Julie. Even the popular local café owner Govind Agarwal [Danish Iqbal] seems suspicious. One even gets curious by the conduct of Hari Dogra and his father Mahadev [Ashutosh Rana]. There’s one too many suspicious characters but credit to Acharya that he doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to decipher the real criminal. You feel it could be anyone from them or you wish all of them as they deserve to rot in hell.
Despite its average first half, what keeps you afloat is the legend of the nar tendua. As things get murkier, the myth increasingly appears to be just a myth. There is a fear of having too many characters but all the dots connect well linking these characters directly or indirectly to the crime. One such individual is a ghost from Angad’s [Chatterjee] past.
Aranyak takes time to get going but once it does, it doesn’t leave your attention.
Raveena Tandon makes a maiden foray into the world of web series. There is a certain empathy with 90s actresses who played second fiddle in cliched Bollywood dramas of yore. Thirty years later, there’s been a tidal shift with producers, directors unafraid to show faith in content and right talent. It’s provided an opportunity for Tandon-like actors to find their voice in this new phase. Unfortunately, we found Tandon to be below par in this effort. The Mumbai-born Punjabi lady doesn’t quite grasp the Pahadi accent. It’s hard to hide that distress. The scrappy first half screenplay is partly to blame, but Tandon needed a better effort to convince us. She seems comfortable though at handling the crisis hour at the end.
We are left more frustrated by the show of Parambrata Chatterjee. An acclaimed name both in Bengali and Hindi cinema, Chatterjee would have relished at getting this opportunity to play the lead protagonist in a Hindi web series. Sadly, he isn’t his usual confident self, lacking the requisite intensity to play such a character. Both Tandon and Chatterjee’s show can be summed up as inconsistent. The director surely cops the flak here.
Ashutosh Rana has his own inimitable style. It earned him awards in the late 90s, early 2000s, but today the same style would fall in the ambit of cliché. Despite a powerful name, Mahadev Dogra [Rana] strikes you as a weirdo. Yes, he’s had a rough life, but the archetypal show by Rana doesn’t draw you to Mahadev. However, Rana would be thrilled to bits for trading punches in the all-decisive action scene in the climax. Jeez, there are too many bad people to chase, and hence the director had to call the Ranas and [Danish] Iqbals into action. But both Mahadev Dogra and Govind Agarwal had a score to settle with the feared beast.
Whilst the leading characters are inconsistent, but it’s the experienced trio of Zakir Hussain, Meghna Malik, and Lalit Parimoo who drive this show. Acharya and director Waikul do well to have these artistes in the pivotal scenes in the last few episodes. These artistes have quietly moved their way up but never got the adulation that their peer protagonists enjoyed.
Also impressive are the baby-faced young artistes – Wishvesh Sharkholi, Taneesha Joshi and Pratyaksh Rajbhatt. Kasturi’s daughter Nutan [Joshi] is in a relationship with Bunty [Sharkholi]. Rajbhatt plays Gagan, the scholastic, state-topper son of DC Srivastav [Parimoo]. These kids display the confidence of a pro.
The only thing consistent in Aranyak is the neat cinematography, deft background score. The dark blue hue creates the right atmospherics for the story/scene.
From its cast to creativity, Aranyak  leaves with you mixed emotions. The parting shot of a grisly shadow in the swamp teases you that maybe the real beast is still to be tamed. We hope the mixed review doesn’t deter Netflix from having a second season. Let’s hope that Aranyak doesn’t go the The Bard of Blood  or Betaal [202O] way.
Watch the trailer of Aranyak below.