Empires crumble slowly and clumsily. Who knew that this lesson from history would apply to a web series about a debauched cult leader?
Prakash Jha’s Aashram enters its third season with unresolved problems and new adversaries taking their places among the old. As busy as previous seasons and running into 10 lengthy episodes, the MX Player show remains as much in thrall to the charlatan godman Baba Nirala as his blinkered devotees.
Whosoever has been wounded by Nirala (Bobby Deol) is hard at work, most of all the wrestler Pammi (Aaditi Pohankar), whom he had raped in season two. Pammi, along with journalist Akki (Rajeev Siddhartha), managed to flee Nirala’s prison-like headquarters and is now in hiding.
Chief Minister Hukum Singh (Sachin Shroff), who owes his electoral victory to Nirala and his factotum Bhope (Chandan Roy Sanyal), is stooping to conquer. Hukum Singh lets himself be ordered about, whether it’s in the selection of ministers or the allotment of lucrative contracts, but is hoping to use image consultant Sonia (Esha Gupta) to draw rings around the crooked cult leader.
Police officer Ujagar (Darshan Kumaar), one of the few honest law enforcers in this corner of Uttar Pradesh, hasn’t given up his quest to expose Nirala. Hukum Singh’s rival Sundar Lal (Anil Rastogi), who was backstabbed by Nirala, is also in the queue. Nirala’s wife Banno (Tulika Banerjee) finally steps forward to claim her slice of Nirala’s ever-widening pie.
And yet, Nirala not only prevails but soars to even greater heights. You are a living god, Sonia tells Nirala. I am god, he declares a few episodes later. Allotted vast tracts of land to expand his business interests and with untrammelled influence, Nirala can be forgiven his confidence.
As in the previous season, the makers introduce new ideas and characters that threaten to take the show into a new direction, only to leave us hanging. Nirala’s pre-godly life as the lowly criminal Monty, which might have revealed how cults get formed in the first place, is barely explored. Women previously exploited by Nirala hang around in the background, waiting for their lines and the opportunity to be relevant.
The initial examination of how unscrupulous godmen come to exert a mesmeric hold over their flock has given way to the predictable rhythms of the crime show. Nearly everybody is on the take, which generates momentum but also ensures that the narrative spins in circles.
Among the more imaginative new ideas is Nirala’s strange obsession with Pammi, the kind a predator feels for its prey. If Nirala is moving towards delusion and might just be the one driving the bulldozer that topples his empire – perhaps we will find out in season five.
Patience is a virtue with the third edition, whose assembly-line quality is evident from the credit “Story, screenplay and dialogues by PJP [Prakash Jha Productions] team”. Salvation is delivered by Jha’s convincing building of Nirala’s kitschy-heavy world, the solidly written characters introduced in the first season from 2020, and the commitment of the actors to their roles.
Aaditi Pohankar’s Pammi and Darshan Kumaar’s Ujagar are among those who suffer from having little to do but glower and wait their turn. Chandan Roy Sanyal, as Nirala’s ruthless enforcer, is the show’s most fascinating and watchable actor. Roy Sanyal plays Bhope, who is the real power behind the throne, with just the right combination of gleeful menace and deceptive charisma.