Nirala is given to gnomic statements. It goes with the territory. The leader of a religious cult with lakhs of followers, Nirala has mastered the formula of converting pablum into Kool-Aid. His inanities send his followers into raptures. His popularity has translated into significant wealth and authority. He has the power to corrupt the higher levels of government and decide the fate of an upcoming election.
It’s in his private moments that the elegantly dressed man previously known as Monty Singh lets his mask slip. The age belongs not to kings but saints, Nirala says. The ideal devotee is the one who is blind, he observes – a claim that filmmaker Prakash Jha fruitfully mines for the absorbing web series Aashram.
The first season of the MX player show, comprising nine episodes, focuses on the cult guru’s shenanigans. Pious on the outside but rotten to the core, Nirala is less godman than conman, as a character observes. His chief enforcer Bhope (Chandan Roy Sanyal) does all the dirty work while Nirala sleeps on silken sheets from which he occasionally wakes up drenched in sweat. He is haunted by the murder of a female devotee. Her skeleton has refused to lie peacefully under the earth and has inconveniently surfaced.
Police officer Ujagar (Darshan Kumaar) and his subordinate Sadhu (Vikram Kocchar) are the only ones interested in exhuming the truth. Helped by glamorous government doctor Natasha (Anupriya Goenka), Ujagar tries to connect the corpse to Nirala, but the religious leader’s influence runs deep.
The story is by Habib Faisal, and the main screenplay is by Kuldeep Ruhil. Although Aashram is set in Uttar Pradesh, events mirror real-life incidents in Haryana, the headquarters of the Dera Sacha Sauda cult run by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. While Nirali Baba appears to be a composite of several real-life godmen, Singh contributes the most material. Singh is in currently in prison on charges that include murder, rape and castration – crimes that Nirala also commits in his quest to control his flock.
No expose of a crooked godman is complete without sexual shenanigans, so of course Aashram has quite a few of those. Keen on extending their reach, Nirala and Bhope toy with politicians and flaunt their ability to decide the fate of a key election. Among their victims is a seasoned police official whose bedroom antics with a honeytrap threaten to destroy his career.
Some of the plot strands are predictable and bloat the series, such as the budding romance between Ujagar and Natasha. A layered understanding of the reasons for Nirala’s rise is missing from a series that flirts with sociology but is more concerned with criminology. Nirala is shown to be an expert manipulator of caste tensions. Dalit wrestler Pammi (Aaditi Pohankar) and her brother Satti (Tushar Pandey) are the most recent converts to Nirala’s sedulous sermonising. Nirala promises his mostly low-caste followers freedom from the horrors of a severely stratified society. Yet, the concern over the manipulation of Dalit oppression is cancelled out by potshots at caste-based reservations.
Aashram is best suited as a crime thriller in which a handful of decent people, including Rajeev Siddhartha’s investigative reporter, try to bring Nirala to his knees. The makers deftly lay out the cynical nexus that allows godmen to thrive and consider themselves to be a law unto themselves. Nirala’s past and path to god-like status are only hinted at and will presumably be explored in the second season, as will be the inevitable fall to earth.
Amoral and sinister but never outlandish, Nirala is a wholly plausible figure. Bobby Deol is cleverly cast as an enigmatic and charismatic cult leader who leaves the heavy lifting to his minions. Chandan Roy Sanyal is in excellent form as Bhope, who unblinkingly strikes shady deals and commits murders in order to keep business flowing. Among the members of the ensemble cast who leave a mark are Aaditi Pohankar as the blindly devout wrestler and Darshan Kumaar and Vikram Kochhar as the only honest policemen left in the neighbourhood.