Prakash Jha’s Aashram is back with the mantra of more – further shenanigans by the godman around whom the web series is centred, greater despair among his victims, higher stakes for his hunters.
In the process, we gain some extra knowledge about the man who was born Monty Singh and now goes by the grand title Kashipura Wale Baba Nirala, but not too much. The team behind the MX Player show is having too much fun providing fresh evidence of Nirala’s debauchery in the present to delve into his shady past. There are stirrings of rebellion against the self-styled spiritual leader and his empire of piety, but his dethronement is reserved for subsequent seasons.
Based on a story by Habib Faisal, Aashram stars Bobby Deol in a career-defining role as the magnetic and opaque Nirala. At the end of the first season, Nirala and his chief enforcer Bhopa (Chandan Roy Sanyal) had prevailed over their opponents. Nirala and Bhopa had the chief minister and his political rival on tenterhooks ahead of a crucial election. Nirala had persuaded a brainwashed devotee to undergo castration as an act of purification and then raped his wife Babita (Tridha Choudhury).
The quartet trying to expose the charlatan had made little headway. In the new chapter, police officials Ujagar (Darshan Kumar) and Sadhu (Vikram Kochhar), government doctor Natasha (Anupriya Goenka) and journalist Akki (Rajeev Siddhartha) come up with a plan to gather prosecutable evidence against Nirala.
Meanwhile, the wily guru woos the youth by patronising a popular pop singer (Adhyayan Suman). Nirala’s quest for cool is complemented by his version of Kool-aid – sweets laced with addictive drugs.
The godman’s attempts to expand his sphere of influence causes tensions among his confidantes, including Bhopa, among the few familiar with Nirala’s antecedents, and the sadhvi (Parinita Seth), who controls the flow of women to Nirala’s blue-toned boudoir. Pushback comes from another direction in the form of Babita, Nirala’s latest bedroom companion. Pretending to be a willing recipient of Nirala’s “blessings”, Babita plots revenge while keeping an eye on her sister-in-law Pammi (Aaditi Pohankar).
Pammi, the Dalit wrestler who was seduced by Nirala’s claimed intolerance of casteist practices, has a brutal awakening that results in her being added to the list of Nirala hunters. These include Kavita (Anurita Jha), the widow who has been bullied into becoming a long-staying member at the ashram.
The rise of the women against Nirala and Bhopa is among the new edition’s most satisfying developments. Tridha Choudhury, Aaditi Pohankar and Anurita Jha make the most of the focus on their respective narratives. The smooth buddy-cop rhythm between Darshan Kumar and Vikram Kocchar results in several satisfying scenes. Rajeev Siddhartha, who had less play in the first season, also has more to prove this time round.
Screenwriter Kuldip Ruhil Ujagar skilfully brings out Nirala’s talent for euphemism and aphorism as well as straight talk and psychological acuity. This hoodlum in designer threads has an unerring ability to tell his followers exactly what they want to hear. He is equally adept at manipulating politicians keen on winning elections at any cost – a fictional scenario that has echoes in the real world too. Nirala’s criminal enterprise is a microcosm of an uncaring and cynical state – a point made by director Prakash Jha the first time round and fruitfully expanded upon in the new season.
The nine-episode edition is unable to shed avoidable flab, especially in the early portions. Several scenes run longer than they should and give the impression that the makers are treading water. The show vastly improves in later episodes, adding layers to its compelling portrait of perversity.
The dismantling of Nirala’s kingdom promises to be long-drawn out and bruising for his opponents. Cults are not built in a day, it is suggested. Aashram Chapter 2 moves forward in important ways, but the more interesting journey will be in reverse, from Kashipura Wale Baba Nirala to Monty Singh. We are given a few glimpses of Nirala’s rise in chapter two. We can only hope that the makers resist the temptation to thrown in yet another bedroom scene or a shady political deal and turn the clock back to Monty Singh’s first, big hustle.