Remember those ‘pakhandi babas’ who used to be such familiar elements in masala movies? The ones who had nothing to do with religion but everything to do with sordid and outright illegal doings? Like many characters which lent colour and chaos to those films of the 70s and 80s, the so-called ‘babas’ and their exaggerated mannerisms also vanished.
The Prakash Jha directed web series Aashram gives us one such ungodly godman, and his squeaky-clean-on-the-outside-and-rotten-inside world. But because Baba Nirala (Bobby Deol) is a new age godman, he surrounds himself with mod cons: a sprawling ashram spread over what looks like many acres, fleets of shiny SUVs, tons of staff and liveried ‘sevadars’, and an ever-increasing fan following which flocks for his daily ‘darshan’.
Each of the nine episodes is nearly an hour, so there’s lots of time to expand on the several issues that Jha raises, chiefly casteism and classism and how it impacts every aspect of society. The sharpest is the way Dalit oppression is shown, especially in the beginning. A fiery young female wrestler, Pammi, is unfairly done against in a local competition. Of course, the ‘savarna’ rival is made to win, and of course, what follows is a flash-point which leads to Pammi and her brother fetching up at the police station, and in short order, at the massive, fortress-like ashram of the aforementioned Baba.
Soon we are in the thick of it. The shady goings-on in the ashram (very Dera Sacha Sauda-like), the Baba, (channelling Gurmeet Ram Rahim) and his close aide (Chandan Roy Sanyal), the discovery of a skeleton, greedy politicians, a bunch of missing girls, a matter-of-fact cop (Darshan Kumar) and his loyal colleague (Vikram Kochhar), an elegant doctor, and an increasingly pile of bodies: the reveals come a-pace, with enough squelchy detail, and we keep watching.
Deol, who sounds in bits startlingly like ‘bade bhaiyya’ Sunny, is clearly enjoying himself, even if he is shaky in parts, his smile more smarmy than menacing. Sanyal floats around playing the baba’s messenger with a nice smirk. Pammi (Aaditi Pohankar) is believable, as is her brother Satti (Tushar Pandey), and till the time the interplay stays focussed between these characters, the series stays interesting. The ultra-colourful character of Ram Rahim, and the long-drawn investigation into his dodgy activities which led to his conviction, are quite recent. What makes these charismatic hoaxes so attractive to the gullible?
But then it starts going all over the place, and the time taken to stretch one thought over 50 minutes begins weighing upon the series. A second season is in the wings: will Aashram get back its tone of sharp social comment wrapped in swift storytelling that is Jha’s forte?
Aashram is streaming on MX Player.