Cast: Raveena Tandon, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Taneesha Joshi, Breshna Khan, Anastasiya Hamolka, Zakir Hussain, Meghna Malik, Tejaswi Dev
Director: Vinay Waikul
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
A picturesque hill station setting, the unusual pairing of Raveena Tandon and Parambrata Chattopadhyay as lead actors, steady and understated performances and unblemished cinematography make Aranyak, a Netflix series produced by Ramesh Sippy and Siddharth Roy Kapur, watchable fare even when it tends to fall back on somewhat facile means to power the story along.
Murder mystery, police procedural and forest lore rolled into one, Aranyak does not rush through with the laying out of its plot details and character idiosyncrasies and yet manages to sustain an illusion of pace. It isn't what one might describe as a heart-stopping thriller, but it is definitely one that never goes off the rails.
The show, created by Rohan Sippy, written by Charudutt Acharya and directed by Vinay Waikul, is infused with enough vigour not to lapse into laidback languor. The plot generates intrigue and suspense at every turn. Each episode signs off with a twist in the tale that serves to keep the audience invested in the murder investigation that constitutes the spine of Aranyak.
Director of photography Saurabh Goswami brings alive the mountains, the woods and the lived-in living spaces in which the story plays out. The atmospherics are spot-on. Editor Yasha Ramchandani ensures that the momentum of the show does not flag.
With its tangled web of lies, subterfuge and betrayals, Aranyak keeps the audience on tenterhooks. A shocking suspected gangrape-and-murder case shakes the sleepy town nestled in a densely forested mountain. The needle of suspicion points to a whole bunch of people.
As a pair of cops who have little in common barring their uniform investigates the crime, several townspeople blame the incident on a mythic leopard-man that, as the legend goes, appears on the night of a full lunar eclipse and feasts on human blood.
Behind the serene, soothing beauty of the fictional town of Sironha in Himachal Pradesh, lurk a whole lot of other dangers: drug deals, nefarious business plans, toxic political rivalries, ego clashes and cover-ups. The two cops struggle to shed their misgivings about each other as they probe the mysterious killing of a 19-year-old European girl.
Kasturi Dogra (Tandon), a mother of two, is a local woman in uniform who can at best speak only a smattering of English. Angad Mallik (Chattopadhyay), on the other hand, is a westernised city-bred police inspector who has arrived in town to temporarily serve as Sironha's station house officer.
Angad is a replacement for Kasturi, who has opted to take a year's sabbatical because her daughter Nutan (Taneesha Joshi) is preparing for her Civil Services entrance test. There is much else on the teenager's mind, not the least of which is her tourist guide-boyfriend. She is by no means the only youngster straining at the leash to break free from the confines of this constricting neck of the woods.
Kasturi is in the process of gathering her stuff from her office cupboard when a frantic, dishevelled Frenchwoman Julia Baptiste (Breshna Khan) walks into the police station to report the disappearance of her teenage daughter Aimee (Anastasiya Hamolka). Kasturi does not a believe a word of what the complainant says. She is into drugs and in cahoots with the town's underworld, the policewoman insists.
Angad, whose back story revolves around a lost son and a vicious drug kingpin, is the only one in the police station capable of communicating with Julia. He hears her out and takes charge of the case despite Kasturi's vehement protestations. Although she is now on leave, Kasturi sees is unwilling to let go of the opportunity to be a part of the probe.
Among the other key characters in Aranyak is Kasturi's father-in-law Mahadev Dogra, a retired policeman who, when we first see him, looks for his gun and bullets because he anticipates an attack by a nar tendua (leopard-man), a dreaded creature that has been dormant for nearly two decades. It is a lunar eclipse night, and Mahadev is certain that the predator will be on the prowl again.
Not soon after, the plot guides us into the world of two politicians, a state minister Jagdamba Dhumal (Meghna Malik) and former royal Kuber Manhas (Zakir Hussain), who hopes to beat the lady to a Rajya Sabha seat and clear the obstacles in the path of his plan to construct a resort in the ecologically sensitive forest.
Jagdamba has to deal with a troublesome son Kanti (Tejaswi Dev) who is serving a jail term for rape; Manhas has a daughter, Nilima (Priyanka Setia), who needs anti-depressant pills to keep her nerves in control. Sironha is teeming with people who lurch from one crisis to another, just the sort of place where mischief, real and imagined, is bound to be rife.
Jagdamba wants to keep her wayward son out of further mishaps so as not to jeopardise her own political career; Manhas is preparing for Nilima's wedding with entrepreneur Ravi Parashar (Indraneil Sengupta), whose brainchild the tourist city plan is.
Sironha has no dearth of men and women with a motive to stir things up by spreading fear and creating mayhem. So, is anybody out there who is above suspicion? No, not even Kasturi's husband Hari (Vivek Madan) who does not take kindly to his wife's rapidly improving professional partnership with Angad.
The Aranyak screenplay, mercifully, never seems to be struggling to streamline all that is happening in the story and around it. It stays on top of the murky twists and turns that the show abounds in. It factors in the sounds of the forest, the shadows in the dark, the human quirks and the goings-on in the hotels, cafes and homes where life is as mysterious as it is out in the wilderness. The cinematography and the production design do their bit to accentuate the atmosphere of fear and foreboding that pervades.
Restraint defines the acting in Aranyak. Raveena Tandon is the star of the show, playing a woman whose simple and direct policing methods are driven by native intelligence and a steely resolve. It is, however, Parambrata Chattopadhyay who has the most complex of the principal roles. The actor delivers an impressively poised performance as he captures the many moods of a cop fighting multiple battles within himself and the police force and with the world outside.
Ashutosh Rana, as a former cop determined to prove himself all over again, is splendidly low-key and yet high on impact. Zakir Hussain, Meghna Malik, Indraneil Sengupta and Breshna Khan, too, make noteworthy contributions on the acting front.
Making the most of the wonderful locales and the conventions of an old-fashioned whodunnit with its complement of red herrings, Aranyak adds up to an absorbing web series.