Much as it is writing a short story is quite different than penning a novel, it is quite a different game when one makes a multi-episode series for a streaming platform. Frankly, I was disappointed with Prakash Jha’s offering to MX Player. Titled Aashram, it has Bobby Deol playing a godman. His ever-so believing and naive admirers call him Baba Nirala.
In nine episodes, close to 60 minutes each, Jha’s grip over the medium appears to have wavered. They are so full of repetitions and bad scripting that one begins to wonder if this is the same director who gave us some splendid cinema in the past.
Like his earlier dramas – Aarakshan (on caste-based reservations), Apaharan (politics of kidnapping in Bihar) and Raajneeti (political corruption) – Aashram, admittedly, has social relevance. It talks about how men and women fall prey to the glib and sweet-talking godmen. But scratch Nirala’s veneer of decency and decorum, he drinks and womanises – rapes if a girl is unwilling. If an accountant in his sprawling Aashram (which has schools, hospitals etc) detects malpractices, he is castrated. So what, if the Baba had in the first place got him married to a prostitute in a mass wedding ceremony.
The put-on act of respectability is carried to an exaggerated level. There are various instances.
Nirala has cops and ministers in his pocket. We know some of our political leaders had godmen to guide and advice. But were the leaders such slaves. And look at this scene, when an IG of police investigating a crime gets a call from a woman saying that she has valuable inputs. She asks him to get to her hotel room. Our man walks in, gets drunk and is seduced. The entire act is videographed and the Baba has this senior police officer firmly under his thumb. How ridiculous.
Sometimes, I wonder why our police force does not take umbrage to show them in such poor light, almost clownish. The Indian Air Force was up in arms in recent weeks when it felt that it was misrepresented in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. But our cops seem not to care.
Jha’s Aashram has the usual suspects: young girls being buried alive by Nirala’s men, an honest forensic doctor (a la Article 15) who fights being intimidated by the goons when they force her to change an autopsy report, an honest cop who falls in love with the doctor and a wrestling champion from a lower caste who is not allowed to win and who finally takes refuge in the Ashram, where defiant women are punished with solitary confinement. There is even a secret tunnel which leads from the Baba’s private quarters. Does this ring a bell?
But to a world that includes just his close associate, Bhopa (Chandan Roy Sanyal), Baba Nirala is just Monty, and we see how the two relate to each other when they are away from the public gaze.
Unfortunately, Jha seems to have lost it in Aashram. Episode after episode howls with cliches, and finding something novel is like trying to look for a needle in a haystack. While his earlier works had sparkling narrative, Aashram lacks this and more. And, season two of Aashram is coming soon, maybe in October. Brace yourselves for another bout of boredom.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is author, commentator and movie critic)