Prakash Jha’s first OTT venture, Aashram, has gained immense praise from critics and audience alike. It is the tale of a cunning, self-proclaimed God Man, Baba Nirala (played by Bobby Deol, in a landmark role of his career) and his trusting followers, told in a grand scale. Deol is accompanied by a splendid list of supporting star cast and the series also boasts proficient writing, cinematography, screenplay and dialogues, along with Prakash Jha’s accomplished direction.
At its face value, the series narrates how gullible people get entrapped in Baba Nirala’s fraudulent but comprehensive network and how he makes use of them to satisfy his narcissistic motivations. The premise of this series might remind of religious cults but Jha has cleverly kept religion out of it. Yet, it promptly addresses the accounts of abuse and deception that we keep reading in the news, not only from India but from several corners of the world, of various religious establishments. It sheds light on what may seem to be the “unbelievable” shadowy side of cults, where conmen have found a way to make use of people’s faith against them. The narrative explores in depth how misuse of faith occurs in intricate layers of social issues and human behaviour.
For example, characters like Pammi (Aaditi Pohankar) and her brother Satti (Tushar Pandey), are poor and from a lower strata of society due to their “caste” tags. They look towards Aashram in search of a respectful and better life. Aashram is full of such people, who actually form a micro society within. There are leaders within these people, the so called “commanders” among “sevadars”, who are given a sense of authority by Baba Nirala to control the rest, more so to carry out his dirty jobs. They are indoctrinated to the extent where they have lost their sense of judgement and are enablers and witnesses to everyday injustice and crime that happens in front of their eyes. Or perhaps, they have tried and failed to do the right thing and eventually settled to the evil.
Then, there are people like Babita (Tridha Chaudhry), who are victims of Baba Nirala’s lust against their will, but are trying to find some sense of power in their grim plight, by making use of Baba’s carnal interest in them. Sadhvi Mata (Parineeta Seth), the abused veteran, seems to have developed ‘Stockholm syndrome’ with her abuser Baba, completely believing in his mission, even enabling him to find his new victims. One can’t even blame these women for their part in this trail of abuse, but can sympathize with them for their one last effort to find some comfort in their hopeless, captive lives. Leading these folks is Baba’s right-hand man, Bhopa Swami (Chandan Roy Sanyal) who has mastered every trick to trap people from rock stars to politicians. He is sensible and meticulous but has issues when Baba goes outrageous in his evil deeds. But his issues are only of how good and bad the “evil strategies” are, but not of good and evil, defining how far Aashram is truly away from good and God.
Also exists, the outsiders, the politicians, businessmen and government officials who are well aware of what goes in Aashram, but are so corrupt that they do nothing to avert it. What they really do is to see how they can benefit in terms of their career, money or power by using Baba Nirala’s control over people.
Sits above all these people, the tyrannical Baba Nirala, who is a juggernaut at what he does. He has found powers within himself to be charming and skilled at influencing people and earning their trust, getting them to do what he wants. He is so sorted out in his vice that he can rape a woman and give her a spiritual explanation to defend the crime, and he can
castrate a man and make him believe that’s the best thing to happen to him. If we draw parallels between a food chain and Aashram, Baba is the top predator; the shrewdest of them all, the nastiest of them all, feeding on everyone’s adversities. Below him is everyone else, trying to control the ones that are less powerful than them and who have more misfortunes than them. The series offers one basic human behaviour explanation here; it’s all about power play and the lack of values! A person’s character gets tested when they have power and a lot of them come up with their worst when in power. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” after all.
The most heart-breaking part when you watch this series is the deliberation that real people would have gone through this. We have read such horror tales from corners of the world, and Aashram puts them in context making sense of how this happens.
But then, Aashram isn’t all gloomy and gory. It also has a few characters that still haven’t lost their soul, a few that still have the courage to fight the monster. Like Pammi, who lost the most but has dared to escape, like the doctor (Anupriya Goenka) who has raised above her duty and taken it on herself to stop the injustice or the cops (Darshan Kumar and Vikram Kochar) who are risking their lives to bring the truth out. It is to be seen in the next chapter if Jha tries to go the poetic justice way by bringing Baba down or makes it more realistic by still having Baba find way outs, if and when he gets trapped, given his power and political connections. Overall, Aashram is an effort that commands standing ovation for its attempt to explore the evils of the current society intertwined with layers of human behaviour, presenting a hard-hitting concept in an entertaining manner. And hence this engrossing series is socially relevant for its dealings of realistic issues that we know is true, but find it hard to believe, because it’s hidden in the mask of faith that people like Baba Nirala wear.
Tia Rao is an academic by profession, lives in the United States, and writes for Bollywood Hungama occasionally