Bobby Deol on Aashram: I couldn’t believe I was approached for this role by Prakash Jha ji
Aashram lead actor Bobby Deol and director Prakash Jha discuss their MX Player web series including the controversies around it
Film critic Roger Ebert once said about the internet that it has provided an enormous boost to film criticism by giving people an opportunity to self-publish. While that is true, criticism on social media has mutated into an entirely different beast too—one with the power to get content banned. Aashram, a web series that aims to be a commentary on conmen who proclaim themselves as godmen, has been at the receiving end of social media vitriol.
“Social media has provided people with the opportunity to protest and express their stand on issues,” says Aashram director Prakash Jha, who is making his directorial debut in the digital medium with this series. "Sometimes, these expressions are sponsored. However, this culture is here to stay; we can't do away with it." Bobby Deol, who plays the protagonist/antagonist Baba Nirala in this series, agrees, but has a comparatively dispassionate take on it. "Anyone can write anything. If I dwelled on such opinions, I can’t move forward.”
Even when calls for a ban on the series got loud, Prakash remained unfazed. "I faced this around the releases of Gangajal, Apaharan, Aarakshan and Raajneeti. Many States had banned the release of Aarakshan. However, after the film released, there was no problem," says the director, adding that Aashram is a series meant to question those who follow self-styled godmen. This is not, he clarifies, an attack on the spiritual history of the country. “That is why there is no mention of any religion, god or ritual. The story is about a criminal masquerading as a baba... The series is more about the responsibility of people who make godmen out of such people. It is about how these people get trapped, and how once they are inside the circle, there can’t get out."
How do they respond to the criticism that Hindus and India's spiritual history is often attacked by films and web series? “Our country is a major spiritual power, with babas and ashrams that are respected. We even have a disclaimer about that,” explains Prakash. “I am a devout Hindu who performs puja everyday. My mother taught me mantras. Chanting hymns gives me peace. All we are saying is that there are people who take advantage of such faith. Also, be it Ram Rahim or Asaram Bapu or Nithyananda, is there anything about them that is not already in the public domain? What new revelations am I saying about them?"
The casting of Bobby Deol as Baba Nirala grabbed eyeballs as it was against the grain of what the actor has done so far. "In my films, the casting always falls in place,” says the director. “In Pareeksha, we got Adil Hussain as our first choice. Similarly, Bobby was the first actor we went to." Bobby had concerns at the beginning. "I was happy about being approached for this role and getting an opportunity to work with Prakash ji. I couldn’t believe that I was approached for this role. I kept asking him if he was sure he wanted me," says Bobby, laughing, for whom this is a second coming of sorts, what with Class of 83 (Netflix) and Aashram (MX Player) releasing in consecutive weeks. "The variety in OTT content excites me, and I think it offers great scope for actors. In the film industry, you often get stuck with an image. Here, I had the opportunity to break away and do roles that break away from such an image. I promise that you will see a lot more of me.”
With this October marking the completion of 25 years for the actor in the industry, he remains excited as ever by the changes happening. "The actors and the filmmakers of today have changed the outlook of cinema. The audience is open-minded and wants to see different stories. Earlier, people tried to replicate the successful formula, but now, we can see them striving for variety." However, Prakash remains skeptical about the actual reach of OTT content in a theatre-going country like India. "The real picture will emerge only when cinema and OTT are both allowed to co-exist once again. I am not judging any platform; I’m just saying that a clear picture will emerge only when the restrictions get lifted.”