When I think of strong, relatable, female leads, the Hindi entertainment industry has a fair number of examples. But, the second I introduce the filter of crime fiction, the number of strong female characters takes a deep dive.
And the handful of strong, empowering female characters that crime fiction web series and movies have served us, are unidimensional to the point of being unrelatable.
But that was not the case with Aarya Sareen, played by Sushmita Sen in Aarya.
Let me start off by saying that no, I don't believe that a crimelord, irrespective of gender, is an icon for anyone to look up to. Having said that, I'd be lying if I said that my list of favourite fictional characters doesn't have any criminals on it.
However, the question here isn't of how good a criminal Aarya Sareen becomes. But rather, of how different was her character from most crime dramas with female leads.
Most action thrillers, murder mysteries, and crime dramas, in general, either hypersexualize their female leads. Or completely strip them of their sexuality, making them act like men in a male-dominated industry, which crime often seems to be.
Think back to Mardaani, Haseena Parkar, or the latest, Flesh. In these cases, it wasn't a question of the actors' competence but rather, of the way the character was developed. And then we had Aarya Sareen.
She wasn't perfect but she was very real. She was heartbroken at the loss of her husband, scared at the thought of her child being kidnapped, shocked to discover her father and brother's real intentions, and wasn't a criminal mastermind from the second she entered a world of crime.
And yet, despite displaying these very human emotions, at no point did we, as the audience, think of Aarya as anything other than brave, courageous, or ruthless - indispensable qualities in the world of crime.
That is what you get when you marry great character development with a phenomenal performance. And Sushmita really delivered the ultimate comeback in Aarya.
But, Aarya Sareen also showcased that you don't have to let go of your femininity or your core identity, to become a part of a 'boys club'.
Across different crime dramas, creators often fail to grasp the subtlety required in developing their female leads because they attempt to box them.
Why is it, that women who 'like' or deal with violence are supposed to have either suffered a tragedy or display characteristics that make them distinctively different from the women of our lives? Even as our on-screen criminals continue to not just be 'glamorous', but rather, would fit right into our world.
That is not to say that swearing, or lifting weights, or violence, in any form, is reserved solely for men. But, it should feel natural to the character, irrespective of gender. Like Nagma Khatoon in Gangs of Wasseypur.
But characters like Nagma Khatoon, Vartika Chaturvedi (Delhi Crime) or Aarya Sareen--who incidentally would appear nothing alike at first glance--are few and far between, in the world of criminals and cops.
It's almost as if creators can only give us relatable female, feminist icons in a universe supposedly not dominated by men (Piku, Queen, Little Things).
But, isn't every universe male-dominated in a patriarchal society? So, what is then stopping creators from giving us women we relate to, from worlds the average audience member does not necessarily belong to?
After all, if I can understand and even relate to Faizal's rage, Hathiram's need for justice, or Kaleen Bhaiya's ruthlessness without either belonging to their world, or their gender, then I sure as hell have the capability to relate, or at the very least, understand a woman whose world may be far removed from mine.
But only if the creators actually put in efforts to develop these characters, and not merely make them female versions of male characters, who were mediocre in the first place itself. Simply put, as an audience, I am not looking for 'female Singhams', but rather, an original Aarya Sareen.
The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author alone.