A distinct line can be drawn between Hindi cinema and Hindi streaming shows, and her name is Raveena Tandon. Look, if you dare, to the recent Sooryavanshi (available on Netflix) where leading man Akshay Kumar dances to the song Tip Tip Barsa Paani from the 1994 film Mohra (available on Zee5). That original song, featuring two rain-drenched young people — Tandon wearing unforgettably bright yellow and Kumar looking as thunderstruck as the audience — is a classic that looks sensational to this day. The insipid remix in the new film plays right after Kumar’s character claims to have gotten too old… which is presumably why he dances to his own song with Katrina Kaif, an actress sixteen years his junior.
Meanwhile in the compelling new Netflix series Aranyak, Tandon plays a gruff, no-nonsense SHO of a small Himachal Pradesh town. She’s a slaphappy police officer who knows the lay of the land and refuses to let sleeping cases lie, and a large part of the atmospheric, intricately plotted show’s appeal can be attributed to Tandon’s simmering screen-presence as Kasturi Dogra, who is accused by her husband of foolishly trying to be everything at once: “super-cop/masterchef/Sunny Leone.” She may be none of those things. What Dogra definitely is, however, is a mature leading lady, of a kind we don’t get to see in mainstream Hindi cinema.
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On the other hand, streaming platforms appear to be full of them. From Sushmita Sen in Aarya (Disney+ Hotstar) to Shefali Shah in Delhi Crime (Netflix), actresses are finding brooding roles and breathing time in these new shows, shows which do not showcase their glamour but instead allow them pause alongside a meaty part to sink their teeth into — something neither Sen or Tandon may have found enough of back in the mostly frivolous films of the 90s.
This is obviously a welcome change, but what is making it happen? Why don’t our streaming shows hold women to the same unrealistic young and made-up standards?
It is partly about differentiation. Streaming shows want to look and feel like international shows, to set themselves apart from the Indian daily soaps where self-righteous wives and scheming mothers-in-law wake from bed kohl’d and coiffed and clad in garish Sabyasachi knock-offs. Positioning themselves as premium services, streaming platforms are forced to come up with something that feels more real, more fresh, better than what we are routinely used to. And when it comes to making the Indian TV serial better than the Indians do, we don’t have to look far.
The Pakistani drama shows have always been immediately, strikingly different from our own, ones where grown-ups speak like grown-ups without endless reaction shots, where women have their own careers and motivations, where there is room for subtlety and for reading between the lines. We used to watch Pakistani shows like Dhoop Kinare on rented VHS cassettes, and now we watch them on Zee5 and Netflix, but the song remains the same: their shows are mostly mature while ours infantilise. Set in worlds like ours, they are a solid role model for TV drama.
The other reason is that of familiarity. Many an actor considered past their sell-by date in the movies are finding a new lease of life on streaming services — Sanjay Kapoor headlined The Last Hour on Amazon Prime earlier this year — and this is because in this sea of unknown new faces, audiences are intrigued to see actors they know doing things they haven’t seen them do. This is why we get to see a menopausal Pooja Bhatt shine in Bombay Begums (Netflix) and Bobby Deol revel in the part of a wicked godman in Ashram (MX Player).
Whatever the commercial and pragmatic motivations may be, we should be glad for the scenario. These are seasoned performers who deserved better, meatier chances, and streaming platforms are offering up that meat. It’s wonderful to see these actors diving in and taking chances — chances, to be fair, that the performers themselves might have recoiled from back in their day. Sen is an absolute force in the first season of Aarya, and while Aranyak is held in place by Parambrata Chatterjee’s city cop Angad Malik, Tandon burns up the screen whenever she takes charge.
This is no surprise. Tandon has always been a compelling performer — she was powerful in Satta and Shool, and I loved her in Aks — and more recently, she was the best part of Bombay Velvet, playing the kind of outsized diva our films now feel too small to contain. Created by Rohan Sippy and written by Charudutt Acharya, Aranyak smartly borrows from the atmospheric mystery playbooks of Broadchurch and Mare Of Easttown, and Tandon does the genre justice. She investigates, she unravels, she makes mistakes and she backs herself. All of this sounds a dashed bit more interesting for a performer than dancing the same old steps under a rain machine. Leave the Tip-Tipping to the boys.
Streaming tip of the week:
Carnage A Trois, the France-themed Grand Tour special (Amazon Prime) features Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond & James May in vintage form as they speak of croissants, Citroens and the bizarrest French laws, like a fantastic one that prohibits work emails on the weekend. Sacré bleu, the episode is (almost) educational!
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Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.