Aranyak or ‘one who lives in the jungle’ is a murder mystery set in a small hill station in northern India which mixes a police procedural with elements of the supernatural.

Directed by newcomer Vinay Waikul, the story revolves on two police officers with contrasting personalities - the rough and tough Dogra, played by comeback queen Raveena Tandon and Angad who is by the book, played by Bengali actor Parambroto Chattopaddhyay - who come together to solve the mystery of a brutal murder.

A young French girl has been raped and murdered and hung from a tree in the deep jungle beside their nondescript small town in one of north India’s mountainous states. Their little town though is plagued by more than rapists and murderers. There are also drug peddlers, superstitions of a serial raping and murdering ‘Ner Tendua’ or half man-half panther monster, and worst of all – politicians.

Honestly though Aranyak seems more like a ‘project’ than a series. A Netflix project, it seems to sincerely believe that a posh and dark color scheme and moody background music are enough to make a thriller tense and riveting. And while working hard to get their trademark treatment right, the suits over at Netflix seem to have forgotten some key elements: the script, performances, and direction.

Let’s begin with the faces the audience sees. This dark thriller is being hailed as dhak-dhak Raveena Tandon’s comeback vehicle. And though it seems to be a smart decision on her part given the way of trends, all this project does is make clear the fact that Raveena’s style of acting is a total misfit in today’s day and age.

She tries hard, really hard. Her choice of role - as a rugged, barely educated woman from small town India who is struggling between juggling the biggest case life has thrown at her and her overbearing family - is a smart and brave decision, but not once does Raveena seem like she has really gotten inside the character’s skin. Her casting is a mistake, and despite her best efforts one cannot help but cringe at a 90s diva’s attempts at trying to play a rustic and layered character.

Acting wise, it is Parambroto Chattopadhyay who is the saving grace in this piece. But looking back on Chattopadhyay’s illustrious career, it is easy to see this is not one of his most inspired performances. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he is disinterested and sleepwalking through the role - only the man is such a naturally talented actor that he cannot help but turn in an at least decent performance.

Unfortunately, he is not helped very much by the supporting cast which boasts of some pretty serious names like Ashutosh Rana and Zakir Hussain. Their characters and lines are lazily written and the same lack of motivation reflects on the faces of the actors when they perform. To gain and waste such talents should be recorded as a crime on the part of the makers.

Coming to the heads behind the camera. Aranyak has to be one of the most lazily written shows Netflix has produced. It uses every trope in the book: the case connecting with one of the protagonists’ troubled pasts, the supernatural element thrown in through the superstitious beliefs of villagers in a small Indian town, the red herring, the rape and murder of an innocent girl… the list goes on.

What’s worse is that some of the most critical points in Aranyak’s plot happen just by chance or by hand of God. In what is supposed to be a smart and puzzling thriller, this is just amateurish. Like in one sequence Officer Angad discovers one of the suspects who had previously claimed her café did not have any CCTV taking out a hidden camera from a plant pot which is on the main road right in front of her café - that too whilst he is on a night time jog! In another unfolding, one of the prime suspects who had so far been lying in police custody suddenly decides to come out with the truth and tell them everything - for no apparent reason!

And in another scene, a prime example of the directorial skills of Vinay Waikul, a prime suspect is murdered in broad daylight while surrounded by media and police, inside a police station, by what is supposed to be a half man half panther and no one supposedly gets a good enough look at the killer to know who it really was. I mean, really?

All right, I am being mean. Aranyak does have its redeeming qualities. But they are of the same kind as its flaws. The show manages to tick off certain boxes that are the staple of Indian web series these days. A mildly engaging subplot. A non-flat relationship between the two protagonists which goes from professional rivalry to personal acceptance and admiration. A dash of social commentary. The suits have made sure to check off all the boxes of their initial presentations during the scripting of this show. In fact, Aranyak reeks mainly of a show created by studio suits rather than a creative team of filmmakers.

Credit where it’s due, Aranyak does keep one engaged enough to watch it through till the end - but that is more because of what it is than how good it is. A murder mystery thriller set in small town India - just the kind of content that has caught our fancy these days. It is a smart project, but not great content - and there is a difference. Watch it if you have nothing better on your list and keep your expectations moderate.