Aashram review: Prakash Jha returns to the UP badlands in an insightful show with Bobby Deol as a scheming godman
Once you get past the excess, Aashram is a window into the wild world that straddles new-age communities and the underlying depravity.
Director Prakash Jha’s series for MXPlayer starts off guns blazing. It sets a tone for the twisted tale of a godman, who is more a conman, and the machinations within his expansive ashram.
Almost immediately we cut to a flashback: It is 2012, and the narrative is now following Pammi’s (Aditi Pohankar) story. The setting is Uttar Pradesh, where a lower caste family has tolerated years of abuse and prejudice. Pammi is an aspiring wrestler. Talented but stubborn, she is furious when a less talented contender from a higher caste unfairly bags a national berth.
Pammi is the entry point into the story of Baba Nirala (Bobby Deol), also known as Babaji of Kashipur, Messiah of the poor, he is the soft-spoken leader of a cult that focuses on upliftment of the downtrodden. Along the way, he has amassed legions of followers, swept by his bargain-basement sermons, and blinded by the veneer of philanthropy. In fact, the cult’s modus operandi is far from pious. It is replete with evil, manipulation, avarice, and desire.
Pammi and her family, especially her absurdly naïve brother Satti (Tushar Pandey), are emblematic of the exploitation and faux enchantment that entrances the under-privileged, desperate for a protector.
As much as Nirala is the magnet, his astute right-hand, Bhope (Chandan Roy Sanyal), plays fixer. In most of Deol’s scenes with Sanyal, the actors make for a well-tuned team — the former placid and inert, the latter menacing and conniving. But just as Sanyal nails the part of the unsparing manager of a burgeoning sect, Deol glides along in this fitted robes, as if he has had one too many of the magic laddoos produced at his ashram.
The Babaji, aka Monty Singh’s enigma is in danger of collapsing when the subject of his nightmares is unearthed as a skeleton. With a zealous investigating officer Ujagar (Darshan Kumaar), a news reporter (Rajeev Siddhartha), a postmortem doctor (Anupriya Goenka), and a junior policeman (Vikram Kochhar) at one end, a messy fight for the chief minister’s seat in the centre and an empire built on a fragile philosophy at the extreme end, the stage is set for this crime-drama series. Off the occasional cast, look out for Sachin Shroff as Hukum Singh and Tridha Choudhury as Babita.
Jha’s nine-part season, written by Habib Faisal (story) and Kuldeep Ruhil (screenplay), sticks to his favoured themes of the caste system, caste politics, power play, and oppression.
The first season desperately misses out on Babaji’s origin story. Even after nine episodes, the first scene in the first episode is unresolved. We remain in an extended flashback, with these reveals most likely reserved for the next season.
The screenplay is also repetitive. Bhope’s praxis of entrapment is used repeatedly, and becomes as tiresome as watching numerous sweeping shots of uniformed devotees chanting and praising their guru. A stubborn and aggressive teenager has a sudden change of heart and becomes submissive and docile. The murder investigation shows no sense of urgency, and we are subjected to a number of clumsy and unaesthetic scenes of coupling. How does one un-see those!
Parallels with real life godmen exposed as fakes and criminals are undeniable. The symbiotic relationship between godmen, politicians, and law enforcers is sharply portrayed. It is fascinating to imagine the process of indoctrination, the brainwashing, the systematic spread of a cult, co-opting of wealth and assets, and the illegalities that occur, often in cahoots with authorities. These ideas are papered over in this uneven series but once you get past its excess, Aashram is a window into the wild world that straddles new-age communities and the underlying depravity.
Aashram is streaming on MXPlayer.
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