‘Aarya’ Highlights the Impossible Choices Women Are Forced to Make
Midway through Aarya, the titular protagonist (played by Sushmita Sen) attempts to quietly pay off a small debt her husband incurs. Her father’s confidant, who accompanies her for her safety, tells her to pull out her claws again. She says she would if she didn’t have three children to care for. He retorts, “Lionesses are the most dangerous when they are mothers.”
Motherhood is pivotal to Aarya’s story, as it highlights the hoax of ‘choices’ in a woman’s life. Growing up in a family entrenched in the drug trade, she refuses to further engage with it, citing her family’s safety. When she is pushed back into the trade, her priority still remains to protect her family. However, we do not see any men in her family, with the exception of her partner, who struggle with the notion of how their trade and crimes affect their family. For the man in crime, the notion of collateral damage is acceptable.
For men engaged in crime and truancy, women are often collateral damage. A well-known trope, seen in pulp fiction to pornography to cinema, is that of a woman paying off the debts incurred by the men in her family. In Penoza (2010), the Dutch drama that Aarya is an adaptation of, a housewife takes over a crime business. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), a woman commits forgery to secure money for her sick husband’s treatment. And in Widows (2018), a group of women steal millions to repay a crime boss their husbands stole from. None of these women choose this enthusiastically — they are pushed into a crisis by the incompetence of the men they love.
Similarly, in Aarya, women suffer the slow terror of danger and financial uncertainty — daughters grieve their fathers’ absence, wives suffer their husbands’ misdeeds, and sisters pay for their brothers’ crimes.
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Stories of crime, honor, and familial violence often expect women to bear the brunt of male violence — either via sexual violence, or intimidation, and death. A similar, sinister theme plays out in Amazon Prime’s new offering Paatal Lok, where a village woman pays for her son’s crimes. Aarya attempts to subvert this by showcasing a powerful female lead taking charge of a crime syndicate — but also makes sure that the audience knows that she was born to do this. Her father and her brother both ran a drug empire, making Aarya proficient in the ways of the business. Her choice to avoid it rests on the well-being of her family, but when circumstances force her to return to it, she is relatively well-protected by her father’s influence and henchmen.
Yet, she is alone. In a scene from the show, Aarya meets a destitute single mother to pick up her husband’s hidden money. While the single mother fetches the stash, Aarya holds her wailing, colicky child, and later advises her to create a poultice of carom seeds to help soothe the child. When asked why, she reveals that she, too, knows what it’s like to mother children through troubled times with barely any help.
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Film and television stories now lean towards lionizing the strong, put-together, dependable woman — a trope born as a foil to that of the grieving, helpless housewife. The women in Aarya try their hardest to remain strong through adversity — be it infidelity or murder. But the show’s story, however, is as dependent upon their vulnerability, as it is on their strength. Aarya, thankfully, is not woman empowerment porn — the women in the show do mess up in unendearing ways, and face the consequences for it. Even though the show, by virtue of its genre, is supposed to be a fast-paced thriller, it still manages to devote ample time to flesh out the turmoil, reluctance, satisfaction, and regrets of women forced to choose between two evils — that of giving up, and that of crime.
Aarya is an enjoyable watch, satisfying for both its pace, and its surprising dedication to showcasing familial warmth — whether during gatherings of the protagonist’s family, or when a cop investigating Aarya meets his same-sex partner for lunch in the office. But it would do us well to remember that though avenging family and loved ones is a romantic prospect, it is not a choice, but a patriarchal tool of torture — born out of seeing women as collateral, vulnerable and easy to intimidate. For every strong heroine who can fight back and pay off a man’s debt, there are multiple who succumb to the devastating consequences, with no fault of their own.
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