Director: Prakash Jha
Writer: Habib Faisal, Kuldeep Ruhil, Sanjay Masoom
Cast: Bobby Deol, Aaditi Pohankar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Anupriya Goenka, Darshan Kumaar, Adhyayan Suman, Tridha Choudhury, Rajeev Siddhartha
Streaming Platform: MX Player
I had forgotten what an untenable mess the first season of Aashram was. Perhaps, it was a case of distance making the heart fonder, with the first season of Aashram dropping in August three months ago- a sizable time, given time’s distortive tendency this year.
It only took the first fifteen minutes of the second season (or second chapter of the first season as it is being publicized) to slap it back into my conscience- there is a hoax guru, Baba Nirala (Bobby Deol) running a drug racket and a rape-ring, a videographer (Rajeev Siddhartha), a doctor (Anupriya Goenka), and a police officer (Darshan Kumaar) trying to uncover this. Then there is a pop-star-turned-bhajan-afficionado (Adhyayan Suman) who sings rock-paens for the phony godman, opposing politicians clawing for both- the baba’s approval and thus, by extension, an election win- and for fuck’s sake, there is even a fierce fashion moment where they discuss the guruji’s wardrobe, to give it a “bairagi vala feel”- it’s mostly silk angrakahas, Nehru jackets buttoned only at the top, and paisley patterned pashmina shawls.
9 episodes, 40 minutes each, this is an equally long, equally questionable descendant of its first season, and by the incompleteness of this season’s climax, it looks like we will have a third season too. (Though I must note that the Sanskritized Hindi disclaimer of the first season has been swapped for a curt-er English one)
There is something fascinating about the hubris of this idea- the first season starts off with Pammi (Aditi Sudhir Pohankar) pummelling some corrupt heads of the aashram. This murder goes unexplained through the first season, only to be shown in the climax of the second season- after a gap of 18 episodes! But then, the murderous revenge is incomplete here too, giving us the promise of a third season. The desire for more seasons is built into the writing itself, before the show is even deemed a success. (Which Aashram, at least the first season, seems to be, given how it consistently shows up in the weekly Ormax list of most watched shows in India.) There is such arrogance in this plotting, I can’t help but be in awe of it.
The rest however, is a strained, shrill mess. The plotting is bizarre, like the doctor trying to get into the aashram wearing a wig in what was meant to be a South African accent, or the videographer stitching on a beard and turban and becoming the aashram’s electrician, or the policeman taking drugs to be admitted into the aashram’s rehab. Some of these flourishes are so perfunctory, when they show up on screen I have to remind myself that these are actually principal characters, and not side-stories meant to get lost in the chaos.
But the thing about chaos is you rarely have the time to question it, and here too, after a point, it’s just easier to not ask questions, and be swept up with the bizarre. Some fun is to be had in surrender, but you are constantly reminded of the subsidized fun that this show is.
Aditi Pohankar as Pammi really holds her own in the midst of this rabble-babble. Her rabid belief that morphs into her undammed pursuit of revenge is quite nice. She’s a Dalit wrestler- her Dalitness examined in the first season, and her wrestler-ness examined here. I wish such a clear division wasn’t necessary in her characterization. But it makes sense given how the Aashram while vile, and violent, is also a caste-free space, where caste is not acknowledged or even deemed worth of acknowledging- it’s a class-based, not caste-based rhetoric used to praise the Baba. It’s a stretch, but not more than most other things happening in the show. There’s also a terrific Chandan Roy Sanyal as the Baba’s Machiavellian sidekick. Deol’s limp act however cascades from the first season. I can’t buy into his gruff-stiffness being mistaken for charisma, but then again, this might come from my rabid skepticism of the godman-industrial-complex.
Shot in Ayodhya, Faizabad, and Gonda, there is little sense of a world beyond this town. There are passing references to French scarves and Belgian injections, but the setting feels insular, lawless, and without recourse. Law is a thing of convenience, and values and convictions as malleable as desire. As if this is a world with only victors and victims, and the only path from victimhood to victorhood, is a bloody 18 episode trail of pain.