Aashram Chapter 2: The Dark SideDirector – Prakash JhaCast – Bobby Deol, Aaditi Pohankar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Darshan Kumaar, Anupriya Goenka
Prakash Jha thinks you’re stupid. The sheer contempt that his debut web series, Aashram, has for its viewers can only be rivalled by the condescension with which its anti-hero protagonist Baba Nirala treats his ‘bhakts’. It’s fitting that a show about an abusive, arrogant and obnoxious man be just as patronising to the people that watch it.
In the grand scheme of things, however, Aashram isn’t entirely useless. Shows such as this fulfil a purpose in the entertainment ecosystem — their utter incompetence puts things in perspective.
Watch the Aashram Chapter 2: The Dark Side trailer here
The existence of nine new episodes, which constitute a ‘chapter two’, points to a far greater conspiracy than anything that unfolds in the actual series. Why, for instance, did ‘chapter one’ end as abruptly as it did — not on a cliffhanger, as creator Jha perhaps thought (or hoped), but almost mid-sentence? Why are the episodes shorter this time around? And what prompted MX Player to splice the series in half?
You ought to know that none of these questions are answered in the Aashram Chapter 2: The Dark Side. If anything, Jha’s tall claim that chapter one was watched by over 400 million people only raises more doubts.
Here’s a theory, though: Faced with a dwindling bank of ‘content’ because of the pandemic, and with probably around ten episodes of 50 minutes each ready to go, MX Player decided, at the cost of quality, to force Jha to divide Aashram into two parts, and pad it up with filler material lying on the cutting room floor. The end result is as baffling as it is shocking — a story so poorly told, and a show so badly made that you almost want to stage a ‘dharna’ against Jha for outraging the modesty of a beloved art-form.
In a year that has given us Breathe: Into the Shadows, Mrs Serial Killer and Laxmii, Aashram somehow lowers the bar even further. That the torture was stretched over three months only makes it worse.
The entirety of chapter two could have been condensed into a couple of episodes. The plot is deliberately stretched to a breaking point, with interminable scenes of unrelenting repetitiveness. Over and over again, we’re shown glimpses of Baba Nirala’s misdeeds, but his motivations remain as murky as ever. Is he in it for the political power? Or is he simply a man with a particularly acute god complex?
We never find out. At no point does the show pause for breath and take us inside the mind of Baba Nirala. There’s no evidence to suggest that he even buys into his own myth. The Baba, it would seem, is merely a common goon playing dress up, trapped in a con that has gone on longer than he’d anticipated. And he’s pretty bad at being a criminal as well.
But the walls are closing in. A couple of rogue cops have infiltrated the aashram in an attempt to uncover the truth. The chief minister, meanwhile, is engaged in a game of thrones with him. But what really gets the ball rolling is the Baba’s own hubris. While his history of sexual abuse had always been implied, in chapter two we see the predator on the prowl. He drugs and rapes Pammi, the wrestling champion who was brainwashed into joining the cult in chapter one, but unlike the scores of women who’ve found themselves in a similar position before her, she decides to put an end to the Baba’s misconduct.
I could get into the show’s problematic handling of these scenes, but honestly, it feels like going on a fool’s errand. I object, and I hope others do too. This story isn’t entirely fictional, as we know, but instead of capturing the very real sadness of such tales, Aashram revels in the sleaze.
And it does so in a comically amateurish manner. The sound mix is so poor that actors’ mouths routinely move independently of the words that we’re hearing. On other occasions, the voices of characters in the same scene are mixed unevenly, making it sound as if one of them is in a cavern, and the other in an open field. I’ve seen YouTube vlogs with better production values.
I struggle to understand whom this show is catering to. It clearly wants to be counted among the more mainstream OTT hits India has produced in the last couple of years, but its sensibilities are stuck in the early 2000s, when Ekta Kapoor was ruling the roost. Some of Jha’s techniques are bizarre enough to feel right at home in a K-serial — clunky flashbacks scored to clanging music, freeze-frames, and uniformly wooden performances by a cast that is clearly struggling to make the most of what it has been given.
We must, therefore, also re-examine the Bobby Deol gravy train. In a star-obsessed country such as India, it is possible for actors to coast by on the strength of goodwill alone — what else can explain the Bobbysance? But with his post-comeback resume dominated by projects such as Race 3, Housefull 4 and Class of 83, the actor will have to recognise the difference between short-term success and long-term respect. He knows better than most how fleeting fame can be.
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