'Aashram' Review: One of the finest web series to have come out in the recent times

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan
Bobby Deol as Baba Nirala in a still from Aashram
Bobby Deol as Baba Nirala in a still from Aashram 
In Dadasaheb Phalkhe’s 1913 silent film Raja Harishchandra, India’s first full-length feature film, the impoverished King Harishchandra, having abdicated his crown as penance to appease the sage Vishvamitra, is ordered to be behead his wife Taramati following a trial in which she pleads guilty for the murder of the prince of Kashi. When Harishchandra raises his sword to behead Taramati as decreed, a pleased Lord Shiva appears as Vishvamitra reveals that he was merely testing Harishchandra's integrity. The sage returns the crown to him and brings his dead son Rohitashva back to life. Miracles have been used as an effective trope in films right from the early days of Indian cinema. While sometimes miracles are employed as element of shock or surprise, their continuous usage in films can best be attributed to the widespread socio-economic inequalities prevalent in our society. The weak and the poor see hope in the power of miracles in the absence of anything tangible to hold on to. The commercial Hindi films have best exploited this trope to give us some fascinating god-men figures over the years: be it Amrish Puri’s Mahaprabhu Jagatsagar Chintamani in Jaadugar (1989), Mithun Chakraborty’s Leeladhar Swamy in OMG – Oh My God (2012), Amole Gupte’s Satyaraj Chandra Baba in Singham Returns (2014), or Saurabh Shukla’s Tapasvi Maharaj in PK (2014). Bobby Deol’s Baba Nirala in the new MX Player series Aashram is a continuation of the same tradition of self-styled god-men or babas.

Aashram is produced and directed by Prakash Jha under his banner Prakash Jha Productions. The crime drama series also stars Chandan Roy Sanyal, Aaditi Pohankar, Tridha Choudhury, Darshan Kumaar, Tushar Pandey, and Anupriya Goenka in the pivotal roles. Ashram is based on a story by Habib Faisal. The screenplay is written by the team of Madhvi Bhatt, Avinash Kumar, Sanjay Masoomm, Tejpal Singh Rawat and Kuldeep Ruhil. The binge-worthy first season consisting of 9 explosive episodes of about 45 minutes each ends with a teaser of the second season that’s expected to be out very soon.

Now, there is something about the long-form storytelling that makes it highly addictive and durable. But, for it to work well, the most important ingredient, perhaps even more important than the story itself, are characters. Also, it’s important to understand that one or two good characters aren’t enough here. For, it requires a lot more than that. We are basically talking about an entire gamut of interesting characters fully capable of being developed further and further, as and when required, episode after episode, season after season. Aashram, to its credit, has all the right ingredients. Firstly, the series has a highly complex and layered central character like Baba Nirala which offers great potential for the long-from storytelling. A megalomaniac with an insatiable appetite for power, Baba Nirala is really the Kublai Khan of the world of god-men. Nirala’s lust for power is only matched by his right-hand man Bhopa, brilliantly essayed by Chandan Roy Sanyal. Bhopa and Nirala go back long way and know each other’s dark secret’s very well. They are an unshakeable pair, one soul in two bodies. While Nilara is the face of the Aashram, Bhopa is the one who does the dirty work. When they are alone, Bhopa even addresses Nirala by his original name, Monty. Perhaps, the only thing that separates the two is Nirala’s long-sightedness which Bhopa lacks owing to his intemperate nature.    

Chandan Roy Sanyal as Bhopa and Bobby Deol as Baba Nirala in Aashram
Chandan Roy Sanyal as Bhopa and Bobby Deol as Baba Nirala in Aashram
Aashram is a great return to form for Prakash Jha. Casteism is one of the biggest reasons India is still suffering as a country even though more than 70 years have passed since independence. Jha, who has tried to tackle this issue throughout his career, uses the storyline as well as the characters of Aashram to take us to the very heart of discrimination.

Darshan Kumaar plays a police officer named Ujagar Singh who at first appears to be an upper class supremacist who has nothing but contempt for those coming from the backward castes. But we gradually realize that there is more to him that meets the eyes. Kumaar easily delivers the best performance of his career here. He shares an interesting chemistry with Anupriya Goenka who plays a sympathetic doctor named Natasha.

Tridha Choudhary portrays the pivotal character of Babita who is married to Satti (essayed with conviction by Tushar Pandey of Chhichhore fame), one of the men who work at the Aashram under Baba Nirala. After her delectable cameo appearance in Bandish Bandits which ended a little abruptly, Tridha finally gets to demonstrate her full acting range in Aashram. Her complex character arc is one of the most interesting things about the show’s first season and it promises to transform further in the next season.  

Darshan Kumaar (right) as Ujagar Singh in a still from Aashram
Darshan Kumaar (right) as Ujagar Singh in a still from Aashram
Another key character Pammi (Satti’s younger sister who aspires to be a wrestler) is portrayed by Aaditi Pohankar. Pammi idolizes Baba Nirala and is the main reason why Satti takes the job at the Aashram. Coming from a backward caste, Baba Nirala is their only hope for living a life of dignity. As for Nirala, the unwavering support of the backward castes is the key to the fulfillment of his dreams.

It is worth mentioning here that Bobby Deol presently finds himself in a very interesting space. What he is able to do through a dark and menacing character like Baba Nirala (a great follow up to Dean Vijay Singh in Class of ’83) is something that no other popular face in the country can perhaps match right now. Those in their 40s can't. Those in their 50s can't. And those in their 60s definitely can't. So he has a clear field here. He is able to tread the dark spaces that none of the Deols have ever done, not even Abhay. And I really doubt if they ever will. The only reason Bobby is able to do it is because of his absolute fearlessness. Had he already not lost so much over the years he too would have been very hesitant to play a character like Baba Nirala (or even Dean Vijay Singh for that matter). But as someone who has nothing to lose, Bobby Deol is proving to be a force to reckon with. And, as someone who has grown up watching him essay those lover boy characters, I just couldn't have been happier seeing him evolve as a mature character actor. There is an air of understated menace with which he plays Baba Nirala. Like when he says, "True devotees are inevitably blind," he really makes you feel the weight of that statement.

Left: Tridha Choudhary in a still from Bandish Bandits. Right: Tridha Choudahary in a still from Aashram
Left: Tridha Choudhary in a still from Bandish Bandits. Right: Tridha Choudahary in a still from Aashram
Aashram is one of the finest series to have come out in the recent times. It’s dark, daring, and diabolical. And it’s very realistic for the most part. But it is certainly not meant for the faint-hearted. In fact, all those criticizing the series like Flesh and Aashram are those who start to squirm the moment they are exposed to the dark realities of the world we inhabit. Living in big cities with all the facilities at our disposal, we often tend to overlook the harsh realities associated with a poverty-stricken life. Aashram is a stark reminder that behind the façade of the civilized world, which we think we have built for ourselves, there is a dangerous world out there where cruelty and lawlessness still reign supreme.

There is no denying that Baba Nirala is easily one of the most menacing characters seen in the Indian entertainment space. Also, the other characters are explored really well. One needs to commend Prakash Jha, Bobby Deol, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Tridha Choudhary, Aaditi Pohankar, Darshan Kumaar, Tushar Pandey and the entire team of Aashram for delivering such a powerhouse show. While the show is very entertaining to watch, it can also give you nightmares. So, are you ready for Baba Nirala and his Shuddhi Karan (read purification)?

Rating: 8/10

A version of this article was first published in Transcontinental Times.

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