“Please emphasise that as far as I am concerned, Aashram is the story of a criminal,” Prakash Jha lays out a disclaimer that his upcoming web series is neither based in reality, nor does it intend to hurt any religious sentiments. The trailer of the Bobby Deol-led series, which is about people’s blind faith in godmen, has already gotten audience drawing real-life references.
This, however, is not new for Jha, whose films have always raked up debates and controversies for similarities with various social-political events in the country.
As Aashram gears up to stream on MX Player from this Friday, Prakash Jha talks to indianexpress.com about making his web series debut, navigating through consistent opposition to his films and why all artistes end up becoming negotiators.
Considering this is your web series debut, how was it like to develop a nine-part series?
It took some time. I was a bit stressed initially. The story was brought to me by the platform (MX Player). I liked its concept and structure. Then I started working with the writers. It grew from there. Everybody is thinking that it’s based on this baba or that godman, but there’s nothing like that. Aashram is actually the story of people’s faith.
Because our spiritualism is so rich we usually kind of begin to believe in things. And then someone, who has nothing to do with spirituality or faith, jumps in. Basically criminals masquerading as godmen. They exploit people. So, this is not a story of any baba but a criminal. It is not about Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. It’s about people going after such things. This guy is not from any religion because religion is something, which uplifts us.
Hinduism is great. There’s a disclaimer that we respect all religions and gurus, but this story is about its aberration. Like in our villages, we have quacks who masquerade as doctors and give wrong medication to people. But people still queue up to consult them. So, this is what it is.
From the trailer, I found Bobby’s appearance similar to Osho and the aspect of exploitation of women bore a resemblance to the Asaram Bapu case. I am sure you are prepared for these comparisons.
There are no real incidents in the series. They are all conjectures. That baba says, “Mujhe apna tan, man, dhan arpan kardo.” So, he will exploit through money and other things. When he becomes more powerful, he will exploit through politics. And these aspects you will find in every leader. Whether it’s industrial, political, spiritual leader or a social reformer.
Whosoever has power to influence people, they can easily turn exploitative. Those comparisons will always be there, but I am sticking to my story, characters, people and place.
Bobby in the role of a godman is such an interesting casting. How did that come about?
You are saying this today, but I saw him in this avatar way before. He was also surprised when I called him for this role. Then he kind of started getting into this character. It has all kinds of shades. It’s a dream for any actor. He sunk his teeth into it and I am so happy that he is capable.
Your films have always spoken to the audience about their reality. Your image is of a filmmaker with social-political issues at the core of his storytelling. Have you ever felt the pressure of telling stories in a certain way to live up to that image?
There’s nothing like that, but people always look from that lens. Even if I make a love story, people will see politics and society in it. But this is not me. I only look at stories around me, a lot of realities turning into stories. But that’s a different thing. No matter what I do, people will find a political meaning to it. It’s okay. I go with it.
In today’s climate in the country, is it easy to say…
(Interrupts) Define this climate first.
People take offence at the drop of a hat. If a cinematic story doesn’t suit one’s narrative then opposition is quick and expressed in the form of boycott calls or excessive trolling of the concerned artistes. There’s a lot of nit-picking which I believe was less intense earlier.
Do you believe that such an atmosphere has been created where filmmakers are forced to self-censor?
This has existed forever in our country. Today, people have a tool using which they can say whatever they think. So, it all comes to fore through social media. Earlier, it was restricted, so people’s opinions didn’t get attention. But debates, arguments, counter-arguments and opposition have always existed. I made a film years ago, Parinati (1989), where the protagonist was a pot-maker. He starts murdering tourists. When the film released and premiered on television, a legal notice was filed against me by some pot-makers in a slum in Rajasthan alleging defamation.
Then I made Gangaajal. There was such a huge controversy around it. Same happened with Apharan, Rajneeti and Aarakshan. There was no social media at that time. So opposition is an integral part of our society. India, fortunately, is a country where society is stronger than the state. We can protest. We can say whatever we want. One small fringe group can go and stop anyone’s shooting. The system and the government sees it all, but won’t let the balance set in.
How have you navigated your way through this opposition?
I have had to fight and negotiate during every film. I have had to go to court for every film. Mayawati ji banned Aarakshan without watching it. Andhra Pradesh government did the same. People protested outside my office. What can we do? We said, “Please watch the film. You will understand.”
After watching the film, the same Ramdas Athawale ji (Dalit politician) came to me and said, “You have shown us and reservation in a positive light.” We told him, “You pelted stones and sticks at us without even watching the film. What was that?”
After Rajneeti released, did you feel it at any point that I defamed Sonia Gandhi ji? But there was a ruckus that the film degraded her. I am only telling a story. Don’t put yourself into my story. That’s wrong.
But would you agree that there’s a fine line between protesting against something you don’t like and threatening violence against it. Something that has increased over the last few years.
Yes, because first, they start speaking, then they abuse, and then they come out. This energy keeps increasing. That’s an organic process. Violence doesn’t happen suddenly. Somewhere someone would say, “Rise, he is destroying our Hindu religion.” Then someone else would say something else and so on. We will make a film on this. This social behaviour is a good subject.
How do you feel about the fact that you have to come out with a disclaimer for Aashram to avoid misconception?
Because it’s a sensitive subject. It deals with our gurus. For their benefit, we needed to do that. To assure and reassure ourselves and them that we have respect. So, in this entire series, there’s never a discussion on any religion, any God, anything related to our religions. There’s no mention of it. You will not see an idol or a photo of any God.
Ideally, shouldn’t creators have the liberty to tell stories without worrying that they would offend someone?
You are a journalist, no? Wouldn’t you be worried about writing anything about anyone?
As long as I know I am writing responsibly and have conviction in my reportage, something that all artistes will need to have.
Same is the case here. You have to use your art and communication with responsibility.
Do you feel it’s also the failure of the state to not provide its artistes a safe space to tell their stories?
Who am I to judge? I work within my given social parameters, within the realm of our law and also of my own responsibilities. Both the things exist. I won’t tolerate something that I saw and the other person won’t tolerate my intolerance. So, whose tolerance should be deemed right? Each of us is trying to say the truth and negotiate.
It’s unfortunate that we all have become negotiators.
Even in your house, do you talk in the same language with your parents, partner and staff?
We definitely don’t speak the language of fear at home. But that can’t be said for the outer world because there’s a legit fear that if one tweets something or makes a film on a subject that goes against the popular sentiment, you can be attacked or threatened.
There does exist a kind of fear. For example, when your child grows up, your behaviour changes. We all negotiate in our own ways. This is our human nature. We can say the truth we want to say. We might know that someone will be hurt if we say something, but we still can.
We told some truth in Pareeksha, no? If you have seen the film, there was the character of the principal who supported the kid’s right to education when everyone else opposed it. So, you get support from somewhere. We negotiate within this and move ahead.
Have you ever censored yourself?
I definitely think that whatever I have to say I should say it responsibly. I put myself in the place of the person I am saying something about, and think if that will hurt me, then I should not say it. If it’s being said correctly, then I should definitely put it out. Responses are there. Sometimes there are strange responses, where people would say, “Who are you to say anything?” But the point is you can’t deny truth.
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