I was quite impressed with the first two episodes of the eventually tiring 9 episode social drama Aashram. Impressed, not because of the writing or directing or acting, which per Prakash Jha's standards is lacking naturalism and wit. But impressed because of how he staged the moral and social battles.
The first episode is full of casteism, against Pammi (Aaditi Pohankar), a dalit woman wrestler (double whammy) who is cheated from receiving accolades and promotions to play at the Nationals despite having the talent. I grit my teeth, angered at the injustice I was made to feel vicariously. Then later, her cousin who is about to get married is advised to not take his baraat through the upper-caste tarmac of the village, but they do so anyway and violence ensues. Teeth grit further. All the doctors who could treat Pammi's brother, who was slammed during the altercation, are locked by the upper caste goons, and he is lying bleeding in the hospital unattended. They will only release the doctors if Pammi retracts an FIR she filed for attempt to murder. Injustice! In walks Baba-ji (Bobby Deol who feels inert in what I assume was meant to be a role of dynamism) with his throng of followers and flowers being flung at him, and all is well. It's made clear from the get-go (by way of trailer and promotions) that he's a fraud. But he is a fraud who solved this caste aberration by showing the upper-caste goons their place. You want to feel gratitude that he provided catharsis to this tense plot, but also, you hate him because he's going to be exposed as the conman-godman!
In the second episode too you have something similar where an evil-greedy corporation digging away land finds a skeleton that leads to an investigation implicating this godman. Here, you needed an ecologically destructive industry to literally unearth evidence against the Baba. It is made clear here that there is going to be no "good" in this show. When evil is trumped, it is only by those less evil. This, to me, felt quite evolved as a storytelling tactic.
But then all my hopes were dashed when enters the eternally moral divorced damsel Dr. Natasha (Anupriya Goenka), who files A Suitable Boy length report on the cadaver. She moves the corrupt-ish cop investigating the bones, Ujagar Singh (Darshan Kumaar), now smitten by her, to actually do his duty. His love-at-first-sight with the doctor realigns his moral compass, and mustache straightened, he's ready to get to work. So now we have the good-with-a-capital-g, and all that was exciting in the show is thwarted. We are back to the Good Versus Evil storytelling template, which isn't bad per-se- it does provide catharsis if done well. But when there are flashes of nuance or complexity not often seen in cinema or streaming, you cannot blame me to hold onto it with vigour and hope. Alas, we are now in the country of the cliche. (There is some tension with Ujagar Singh's views on reservation, with his superior, a dalit man, corrupt, who got his promotion through reservation, angering Singh, whose caste anxiety is palpable.)
The rest of the plot is a muddled mess. Pammi becomes a blind-without-doubt devotee of Babaji, and soon her brother follows in tow. The show begins with Pammi attacking an Ashram figurehead before the flashback of casteism and so you know she will realize the fraud of the institution. You are just waiting for the shit to hit the fan. There's a story of two politicians trying to get the godman on their side, and thus his 45 lakh followers. There are corporate heads greasing his palms. There is even a cokehead pop-star Tinka (Adhyayan Suman) whose dialogues are filled with more "chutiye" and "fucks" than points he is trying to emphasize with expletives. As you can imagine, there is a stretched quality to this show, with each 40 minute episode getting increasingly hard to get through. I kept looking at the duration timeline to see how many minutes were left. The crowded, stretched story snaps, and what remains is a promise of a second season without a fulfilling first.
Something must be said about that long disclaimer at the beginning of the show in Hindi pure enough for no one to understand sans subtitles. (I think it's time we trash the Sanskritized tone of Hindi often used in these disclaimers. The ones who actually understand it are few and far between.) It reminded me of the similarly long Padmaavat one. If you really wanted to be so careful and caring why use Hindu chants as a throbbing background score for mobs running after a girl and murdering? The background score is just at odds with the message here. In another scene you have the Baba in an incredibly long sequence towering over an obsequious audience, with a rousing devotional background score highlighting his greatness. As an audience we are already against him, his evil is established. Then what's the point of this feeble attempt at evoking devotion like 'Arziyan' or 'Khwaja Mere Khwaja'? It's not like Deol's performance is arresting enough for us to root for him despite his evil. Unless that was the point, in which case a tighter edit would have surely done the trick. For a show featuring castration, some snip-snap would helped in the edit room too.