Aashram review: Bobby Deol’s show has a bark that’s worse than its bite
Director - Prakash Jha
Cast - Bobby Deol, Aaditi Pohankar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Darshan Kumaar, Anupriya Goenka
Aashram, on MX Player, is as inconsistent as Bobby Deol’s accent. While the actor struggles to shrug off his urbane aura, the series — about one of those dhongi babas that you read about in the news — never fully lives up to the potential of its premise. It isn’t as lurid as it should have been, but that doesn’t stop it from being absolutely ludicrous.
Aashram begins with a disclaimer nearly as long as this review. It’s unlike any I’ve ever seen — not simply plain text against a plainer background, but positively festooned with excesses, like Baba Nirala himself. Played by a buff Bobby Deol, the benevolent Baba is a beguiling figure, revered and feared in equal measure.
Watch the Aashram trailer here
After a young Dalit girl’s family is violently attacked by upper caste men for having dared to enter their neighbourhood, she goes to the police to register an FIR. But the cops, who are either corrupt or in cahoots with the powerful families, dissuade her from filing her complaint. She is told that more bodies will fall in retaliation. So for justice, like Amerigo Bonasera from The Godfather, she turns to the Baba. Oh, and the opening scene of Aashram, like that of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, is also set during a wedding.
These aren’t the only narrative and thematic parallels that series director Prakash Jha draws between Aashram and The Godfather. Later episodes also introduce a Johnny Fontane-esque pop-star, played by Adhyayan Suman. But to make comparisons between the two would be to insult Coppola, and to give Jha undue credit.
Fans of his high-impact brand of socio-political cinema might respond to Aashram, but for those who do not consider films such as Gangaajal and Rajneeti to be modern classics will be dissatisfied by the show’s lack of subtlety.
For instance, Aashram all but abandons some of the most compelling ideas posed in its opening episode. Perennial Prakash Jha themes such as caste and corruption are sidelined in favour of random romantic subplots and a police procedural arc that was done so much better in Sacred Games and Paatal Lok. For the second time in two weeks, after the underwhelming Class of 83, star Bobby Deol finds himself reduced to a supporting presence when he should have, logically, been given a role befitting his top-billing. There’s a frigid quality to his performance where there should have been a fluidity.
On occasion, it seems as if Jha diverted the majority of the budget to Deol’s scenes, to the point that any time that the actor isn’t on screen — which is often — there is a noticeable drop in production value. Some scenes even appear to have been filmed with DSLRs. This isn’t to say that the cameras are to blame — we’ve seen splendid films shot on iPhones — but this makes the story seem sloppily un-cinematic.
Not one, but two characters have such a drastic change of heart after that opening episode, that neither I nor the show could properly recover. Had this evolution unfolded gradually, over the course of nine episodes, I’d have had a much easier time believing it. But for a blatantly corrupt policeman in Uttar Pradesh to become a beacon of honesty in the span of a few minutes, mainly because he wants to woo a colleague, would be a tough twist to swallow for just about anyone.
Aashram is a sanitised telling of a potentially scandalous story. Never is this more apparent than in the handful of ‘sex scenes’ that the show forcefully inserts into the narrative. While the characters mysteriously forget how to kiss in one of them — they regularly miss their target, instead finding the sides of each other’s mouths, or even a nose — each of these scenes, for some bizarre reason, has been self-censored.
For viewers, this could be irritatingly underwhelming, especially since the language and the violence aren’t censored at all. Now compare this to the ‘guruji ka pyaar bhi mila’ scene from Sacred Games, or the orgy from Wild Wild Country, or the countless stories we’ve read about the goings-on in Ram Rahim Singh’s Sirsa compound.
That’s the general sense that Aashram leaves you with. It’s a show that doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. The self-censorship of sex scenes is emblematic of the trepidation with which Jha approaches the story. As it turns out, that ridiculous disclaimer was utterly unnecessary.