Aashram is MX Player's most successful show. Perhaps, it is even India's most successful show, but given how sheepish streaming platforms are about data, this claim remains unverifiable. Gautam Talwar, MX Player's Chief Content Officer cites 450 million streams within the first two months of Aashram's release. "I don't think there is a bigger series in terms of numbers or number of people who have watched it," he claims.
If we look back at the year 2020, and the shows that elicited the most commentary, dissection, rants, and raves — Scam 1992, Mirzapur, Paatal Lok and Aarya — Aashram never gets a mention. But Talwar is unworried about this. He has a clear idea of who the target audience for the show is. "Largely 18-30 years of age, Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns, smaller towns like Barabanki (Uttar Pradesh) and Hoshiarpur (Punjab). Those are the places where MX distribution is large. It's mostly male because that is reflective of internet usage, which is also skewed 70-30 male-female. This could be higher because most women are logged through the email IDs of fathers, brothers or husbands. The Hindi belt is our core audience. Our content will always be slightly more skewed to them, rather than the champagne drinking intellectual people."
Aashram, directed by Prakash Jha stars Bobby Deol as Baba Nirala, the brutish but brilliant, violative and volatile godman. The sinister godman figure which we have seen since Jaadugar in 1989 is by no means new or novel. Yet Aashram does something different. The Baba, here, seems convinced of his own divinity. There is an interesting scene that brings this out. While this scene has an uneven, confusing quality, Jha looks at it as a testament to Deol's prowess and perhaps the show's success.
Baba Nirala has got one of his devotees, a Dalit wrestler whom he saved from upper caste goons, tranquilized and on his bed for him to rape. He has raped her as she was unconscious previously, and she wakes up in her own bed the following morning, bleeding and in pain, unaware as to what happened at night. This time the devotee pretends to be tranquilized, and opens her eyes when the baba is on her, to catch him red-handed. Bobby Deol's face is unfazed, showing no emotion of shock or fear. He calmly explains to her that sex with him would be an act of her devotion, and even if she tried to run out and tell everyone that he is a rapist, no one would believe her.
The baba here actually believes that having sex with him is an act of devotion, like a victim of his own propaganda. Bobby Deol, who celebrated his 25th year in the movies this year, constantly mistakes charm for charisma while playing the role of this conniving, cultish godman. Every time he is shown on screen, a devotional song plays in the background trying to establish his divinity. There's even an unintentionally comical Adhyayan Suman as a pop-star who plays bhajans to dropping beats.
Aashram released its first season in two chapters — 9 episodes in August, and 9 episodes in November. This was a huge gamble that seems to have paid off, as evidenced by the number cited by MX Player — 450 million streams in two months. Ormax Media, a media consulting firm, has noted that the Chapter 2 has been the most viewed streaming show in India since its release on November 11, racing past all the Diwali releases – Laxmii (Disney+Hotstar), Chhalaang (Amazon Prime), and Ludo (Netflix). The numbers they provided also show that in the week before the release of Chapter 2, right after its trailer was launched, there was a spike in viewership of Chapter 1. Talwar's hypothesis, that the trailer energized people to re-watch Chapter 1 in preparation is, perhaps, true. Jha also mentions that within two days of its release, Aashram Chapter 2 had been streamed for over 1 billion minutes.
The claim of Aashram being the biggest show, even if true, is not entirely surprising since MX Player is a free platform. Launched in 2011, MX Player was the Android phone's most popular video and music player, much like VLC or Windows Media Player today. In 2018 it was acquired by Times Internet for $145 million, and in 2019, the video player was relaunched as an OTT platform.
Talwar noted that Aashram's success had a variety of spill-over effects for MX Player. "Apart from bringing in new users to the platform, it has also increased the secondary watchtime- those who have watched Aashram seem to have stayed on the platform to watch Raktanchal and Bhaukaal which saw a massive uptake. But this also energized the dormant audience of MX Player mostly in Punjab and Haryana," he says. Raktanchal, set in Eastern UP begins with the hero piercing a guy's hand through a spindle and ends up becoming a badminton exchange of dead bodies, and Bhaukaal, set in Muzaffarnagar also uses real life violent incidents to propel a blood-bath narrative.
Aashram isn't nearly as gory. Its 45 minute-long episodes are propped up by drama that is pinned to violence and sex, but not excessively and exclusively. Jha is very clear that he isn't using either violence or sex to pander. Even the long stretches of shirtless Deol grinding on women in his inner chambers while odd is purposeful. "My maqsad is to show Baba getting involved- that's all." He noted how a previous film of his, Rajneeti (2010) had more "flesh-show", but even that was tasteful and necessary to the plot, "Arrey yaar, drama pakadna chahiye- drama pakdega, character pakdega, tabhi kaam chalega."