Mumbai, 29 Aug 2020 12:14 IST
However, the web-series, starring Bobby Deol, spends too much time explaining the workings of such cults and their socio-political influences and not enough on its plot.
Aashram is Prakash Jha's first foray into the digital space and it is an ambitious one. The nine-episode web-series rests on the theme of the manufactured personality cult of Baba Nirala, played by Bobby Deol.
Baba Nirala was a small-time crook who, with the help of a well-planned marketing strategy, has transformed himself into a 'god-man'. He preys on gullible people and uses religion to exploit the common people, especially the poor and the Dalits.
The web-series does a good job of showing how such babas earn the trust of their devotees. They first identify a marginalized community like the Dalits, who have been victims of societal discrimination, and give them a helping hand. In return, they win their complete devotion.
Deol's Baba Nirala uses the same tactics. Pammi (Aditi Pohankar) is an aspiring wrestler belonging to a poor Dalit family. When her upper-caste opponent is unfairly awarded the match, she decides to give up wrestling. But her troubles don't end there. When their community takes the wedding procession of one of her friends through an 'upper-caste'-dominated locality, they get thrashed.
Pammi's brother Satti (Tushar Pandey) is seriously injured, but the doctors at the hospital refuse to operate upon him for fear of the so-called upper castes. Police inspector Ujagar Singh (Darshan Kumaar) also advises them to not file a police complaint.
Just when they are losing all hope enters Baba Nirala. He not only pays all the hospital bills, but also makes the upper-caste antagonists seek forgiveness from Pammi's family.
Pammi, who is completely in awe of Baba Nirala, decides to join his ashram. Her brother follows suit.
Baba Nirala is a god-man who helps the poor and the needy. His ashram houses a school, a college, a hospital, a sports training institute and an old-age home and finances many factories where his devotees work and earn a good living. To the outside world, the baba's ashram is like a dreamy la-la land for his devotees, but only few are aware of what is going on inside because the ashram is also a fortress where once you get in there is no way out.
But when a skeleton is discovered near the ashram, it sets off a chain of events that sprouts multiple subplots. Ujagar Singh, who bears a grudge against the Dalits because he thinks the Indian Police Service seat he deserved was snatched away by a candidate from the reservation quota, is asked to head the investigation, with a strict warning to wrap it up quickly without making it a big issue.
There is also a romance between Ujagar Singh and a forensic doctor played by Anupriya Goenka who wakes up the honest cop in him. Motivated by her honesty, Ujagar Singh starts his own secret investigation about the skeleton with the help of a loyal subordinate Sadhu (Vikram Kocchar) and a journalist Akki (Rajeev Siddhartha).
There is an ex-chief minister Hukum Singh (Sachin Shroff), who wants to use the issue for his own political gain. In the midst of all this, Baba Nirala wants to keep increasing his fan following among the youth as well as the upper-caste rich. All these different subplots overlap at multiple points and take the story forward.
From the dirty politics, caste discrimination and superstition to the nexus of police and politicians, Aashram has all the signature themes from Prakash Jha's previous works like Gangaajal (2003), Apaharan (2005) and Aarakshan (2011).
Written by Kuldeep Ruhil, Aashram is an ambitious show, both in terms of narration and themes. Sprawling over nine episodes with an average length of 45 minutes, it explores all themes in detail and presents a realistic view of the current socio-political scenario without being biased towards any one side. We see the oppression of Dalits at the hands of those higher up the social ladder and the misuse of the facility of reservation by some of the 'lower castes'. The show has also done a fantastic job of exposing how these babas spin their web around gullible people.
However, Jha and his writers spend a lot of time showing the inner workings of the ashram and its far-reaching influence on state politics, the police and the anti-narcotics department, sometimes at the cost of character development. There are a few characters in the web-series who have little or no depth and are there only to help move the plot forward.
After going through nine episodes, one feels the story is still in its first act. The show begins with a character fleeing from the ashram. Then we are transported back to 2012 and the whole first season takes place in flashback mode.
When the season ends, that first character is still in awe of the ashram and Baba Nirala, indicating that there is a lot yet to be told and much character progression yet to happen, which we may see in the second season.
This is the case not just with this one character. There are many characters who remain in the first stage of their graph. The show also ends abruptly without any conclusion, leaving all its subplots open. Generally, when there are so many subplots in a show, one expects at least a few to get wrapped up in the first season, but the writers have left them all open, because of which you don't get the sense of fulfilment you generally do after one season of a web-series.
Jha has cast some known as well as unknown faces in the show. Bobby Deol, who was recently seen in Netflix's Class Of 83, proves once again how underused he was in his career in commercial Hindi cinema.
Despite the show revolving around his Baba Nirala, Deol has limited screen time here. The baba is not your typical lecherous villain and the actor shows the various shades of his character convincingly. He hides his evil intent behind his mild-mannered, soft-spoken persona.
Chandan Roy Sanyal has done a fine job as the baba's assistant and friend. Other actors, including Darshan Kumaar, Anupriya Goenka and Tushar Pandey, have all delivered convincing performances. Aditi Pohankar, however, is unconvincing as a small-town girl. Her accent comes across as fake. She also gets pushed into the background after the initial couple of episodes once the story starts focusing more on politics and the investigation. One hopes she has more to do in the second season.
Aashram is now available on MX Player.
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