In the MX Player web series Aashram, Bobby Deol plays Baba Nirala, who is “not a godman” but a “conman”, as someone proclaims in the trailer. Nirala is shown to a popular and wealthy guru, until corpses pop up in the vicinity of his sprawling headquarters.

Someone wonders how Nirala finds “so many women”. Another observes that Nirala is “doing politics”. A third ominously claims, “Once you come to the ashram, you can never go back.” Nirala appears to resemble Dera Sacha Sauda cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was convicted for rape and murder.

The trailer has predictably been criticised for “denigrating Hinduism”. But the show isn’t about a particular religion or any godman, Prakash Jha told “Aashram is looking at how certain people misuse religion for their personal needs and tarnish its image,” he said. “The protagonist here is a small-time criminal, but he uses religion to exploit common people, the poor, the Dalits. There is no discussion of Hinduism, Hindu gods, or Hindu rituals in the show.” Aashram will be streamed from August 28.

Aashram (2020).

This is hardly the first time Jha has faced controversy before the release of his productions. His 2011 film Aarakshan, which examined social tensions surrounding caste-based reservations in public-sector jobs and educational institutes, faced strong opposition from Dalits and was banned in a few states before release. “What’s happening with Aashram isn’t new to me,” Jha said. “Once people see the show, they will realise they have nothing to worry about.”

Bobby Deol was cast in the lead role since Jha said he was looking for “someone whom people wouldn’t expect in such a role, as well as someone who’s a good actor, and has some presence on screen”. The supporting cast includes Aaditi Pohankar, Anupriya Goenka, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Adhyayan Suman, Darshan Kumaar, Tridha Choudhury and Rajeev Siddhartha.

The last time Jha directed an episodic series was for the Hindi television serial Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne. Starring Raghubir Yadav in the lead, the serial was broadcast on Doordarshan between 1989 and 1990.

“Those were 25-minute episodes, and here with 50-minute episodes, I got more time to develop each subplot, character, incident, and subtext,” Jha said. “This medium allowed me to enhance what I thought were the plus points of the show.”

Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne.

Over a nearly four-decade career, Jha has worked across mediums, genres, and budgets: from documentaries and low-budget dramas to big-ticket productions with A-list stars. For Jha, “the story is the most important, and it is that which guides what the correct medium or form of storytelling should be”.

He cited the example of his recently released Zee5 film Pareeksha, which follows a rickshaw driver who strives hard to enroll his son into a private English medium school.

“Because of the nature of the story, I had to make it a slice-of-life drama,” Jha said. “With Aashram, since everything is about creating perception, the world of the protagonist needed to be mounted in a certain way, where it’s full of people and opulence and noise.”

The majority of Jha’s productions consistently examine the social and economic issues being faced by small towns and villages. Mrityudand (1997) dealt with gender violence. Vigilantism in the police force was the focus of Gangaajal (2003). Apaharan (2005) looked at the kidnapping mafia in Bihar.

While Jha was among the few mainstream filmmakers taking up difficult subjects a decade ago, contemporary directors , including Anubhav Sinha, Abhishek Chaubey and Anurag Kashyap, have made such topics trendy.

“Whoever is making such films are doing so with conviction, and that’s great, and I feel no competition from them,” Jha said. “I am only interested in telling new stories. And I don’t make films on issues. I tell stories first, through which the issue is communicated. Unless I connect the issue [of education] with the rickshaw wallah [in Pareeksha], people won’t listen.”

Prakash Jha in Jai Gangaajal (2016). Courtesy Prakash Jha Productions.

Jha has also moved into acting. He played the villain in his own film Jai Gangaajal (2016), and then Saand Ki Aankh (2019) last year. “I picked up acting since I was looking for a new medium to express myself,” Jha said. “It could have been something else too, like music.” A production with him in the lead role will be out this year.

Despite being born in Bihar, and setting multiple films there, Jha has never made a film in Bhojpuri or Maithili.

“I still don’t know why I haven’t done that, and it’s not that I would never make a film in Bhojpuri,” Jha said. “But language is not important, is it? Our films are enjoyed all over the world, but the world doesn’t know Hindi. My films are enjoyed by Bhojpuri speakers, as well as those in Bengal or Punjab. I make Hindi films because it’s easy for me to do so.”