Rajasthan, long exoticised on screen, transcends glorified backdrop status in Sushmita Sen-starrer Aarya

Devansh Sharma
·7-min read

From the bleached war scenes of K Asif's Mughal-e-Azam to the saturated frames of numerous Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films, Rajasthan has been used by filmmakers repeatedly as a setting for grandiose sequences.

In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and Sameer (Salman Khan) conduct their secret romance away from the prying eyes of her family in Jaisalmer's Bada Bagh: her flaming orange sari and his spotless white kurta contrast rebelliously against the dull desert background, like intricate chhatri cenotaphs against the wide expanse of the sand. The scorching desert offers a stark and stunning backdrop for Sameer's desolate walk in 'Tadap Tadap', after being ousted from Nandini's home.

In Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela (2013) Leela (Deepika Padukone) and Ram (Ranveer Singh) elope and hide away in an Udaipur hotel: the location is close enough to the characters' home state of Gujarat, and also acknowledges the city's status as a luxury hotel haven, jostling with repurposed havelis and palaces. When Leela is tracked down by her family, Ram tries to swim across Lake Pichola in order to rescue her from their clutches.

And in Bajirao Mastani (2015), Mastani (Padukone) entices Bajirao (Singh) with a rendition of 'Mohe Rang Do Laal', the picturesque Amer Fort looming behind her.

Now contrast these stately exhibitions of Rajasthani heritage to the setting of Ram Madhvani's series Aarya, that was released on Disney+ Hotstar this June. The narrative is set in Jaipur, yet it doesn't spare a shot for the city's iconic monuments even though they are incorporated into its nine-episode run.

Aarya is the story of a Jaipur-based family, and since I belong to one such family, I can vouch for the fact that the city's residents are not really enamoured by these monuments; they are part and parcel of one's life for years €" just a few blocks away if one feels the urge to revisit. Unlike Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela, Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Amol Palekar's Paheli (2005), Shyam Benegal's Zubeida (2001), John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) or Shashanka Ghosh's Khoobsurat (2014), Aarya just goes about its business and waves at the monuments if it feels like doing so, rather than repeatedly doffing its hat to them.

Having said that, Aarya is not entirely dismissive of its setting. The idea behind basing the film in Rajasthan is not merely to offer a respite from the umpteen crime thrillers that crowd Central India (New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh). Madhvani and his fellow creators' treatment ensures there's little fetishisation of the state's exotica. The focus instead is on the slow-burn plot that traces a woman's journey towards taking control of the male-dominated family business.

Aarya review: Sushmita Sen holds together Ram Madhvani's show, a welcome detour from soulless fast-paced thrillers

Aarya revolves around the titular character (portrayed by Sushmita Sen) €" a mother-of-three and businessman's wife. The business in question is the illicit drug trade. The women in the show are shown to be aware of their husbands' dealings, but seldom question them as it is not "their place to intrude". They are Rajputs, part of a clan that spurns archaic practices like the purdah, but still restricts women to household roles. The women drink wine, smoke, drive €" not necessarily emblems of modernity or empowerment, yet a far cry from how Rajasthani women are usually depicted on screen.

After her husband is killed, Aarya is snared into repaying his considerable debts. She may hate the business, but will go to any extent to protect her family from blackmailers. She gains control of a business, a clan, and a state controlled by men, but without trading in her feminity or sexuality (even weaponising them on occasion by choice, when she wants to get things done).

Aarya put me in mind of Gopi Puthran's Mardaani 2 (2019), in which Rani Mukerji's ACP Shivani Shivaji Roy struggles to catch a serial rapist in Kota, while navigating the police hierarchy in a state that has traditionally seen mostly men enter the force, and in turn, call the shots. Another film that bears mentioning in this regard is Homi Adajania's Angrezi Medium (2020). Tarika Bansal (Radhika Madan), a Class 12 student, studies hard to get a scholarship that will fund her graduate degree at a London university. Her father Champak (Irrfan Khan), a loving single parent, symbolises the male bias still widely prevalent in urban Rajasthan that wants daughters to progress but within the confines of their hometown.

Progressive female characters in films set in Rajasthan are not a new phenomenon of course. In Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor (2006), the state is depicted with all its infamous aridity but protagonists Meera (Ayesha Takia) and Zeenat (Gul Panag) are never seen through the lens of historical oppression. Or take the case of Kalpana Lajmi's National Award-winning film Rudaali (1993), in which Shanichari (Dimple Kapadia) weeps at the Tahakur's funeral in the climax, as Bhupen Hazarika's flute underlines the atrocities she endured for being born into a lower caste. These women-led offerings have in common a certain intimacy: the emphasis is on the people residing in Rajasthan (beyond the royalty) rather than the monuments.

Rajasthan's tourist spots have been part of the backdrop for several Bollywood songs, from 'Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hai' in Vijay Anand's Guide (1965) €" Chittor Fort; to 'Koyal Si Teri Boli' from Indra Kumar's Beta (1992) €" Hawa Mahal; in Yash Chopra's Lamhe €" Kanak Vrindavan and Sisodiya Rani Ka Bagh. These songs project the monuments and gardens in all their glory but do not explicitly state the geographical location as it distracts one from placing the narrative.

Then there are films shot in Rajasthan masquerading as being set in another location, such as Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Delhi-6 (2009) with Jaipur shown as Old Delhi, Kabir Khan's Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) with Mandawa shown as Pakistan, and Ribhu Dasgupta's Netflix India Original Bard of Blood (2019), with Mandawa depicted as Balochistan.

In Aarya, that the narrative is completely set in Rajasthan is not explicitly established but made evident through underlying themes that run in parallel. Instead of being showcased via wide shots, the popular appear prominently in the background of the proceedings, denoting genre tropes: mystery (City Palace, Jaipur), thrill (Amer), foreboding (Aarya circling her target on a Segway at Amer), edgy romance (arguably the best use of Nahargarh after Rang De Basanti).

Prior to Aarya, films set in urban Rajasthan have not steered completely clear of clichés and prejudices. Shashank Khaitan's Dhadak (2018) may have adapted culturally to Udaipur's milieu thanks to the director's familiarity with the place, but the Dharma-fication of Rajasthan was quite visible through the ghevar-eating competition in the desert with camels as part of the audience, and the pronounced Marwari accent. In that sense, the staging of Ayan Mukerji's 2013 film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani at Bagore-Ki-Haveli, from the same production house, was more unabashed and unapologetic.

Aarya adds a tinge of Marwari to the accent of some characters but absolves those who have presumably enjoyed quality education in an English-medium school. The local and cultural nuances, however, can be spotted when Aarya refers to a rival gang's leader as "hukum" or when a police officer requests his superior to sit in the car rather than stand in the sun during a solstice ("Mere papa kehte the kuchh bhi lag jaye but kabhi khud par grahan mat lagne dena".)

The film that comes closest to a fair depiction of urban Rajasthan is Maneesh Sharma's Shuddh Desi Romance (2013). Though it was set in the Walled City, which is a concentrated area in Jaipur far removed from the more urbanised sectors, it did a great job of replicating the milieu rather than glossing over it. A film about live-in relationships and commitment phobia, it showed a progressive side of Rajasthan. In the song 'Gulaabi', the protagonists hang about like typical lovers around the famous spots of Jaipur. But all their attention is on each other, and not on what surrounds them.

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