Blinded by faith, blind to corruption: MX Player’s Gautam Talwar on ‘Ashram S2’

In August, MX Player Originals launched their web series ‘Ashram’, featuring Bobby Deol, Aaditi Pohankar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Anupriya Goenka, Darshan Kumaar, Adhyayan Suman, and Tridha Choudhury. The show was directed by Prakash Jha and produced by Prakash Jha Films, the story was written by Habib Faisal and screenplay by Kuldeep Ruhil and Sanjay Masoom.

‘Ashram’ was a spectacular success for MX Player, garnering more than 300 million streams and surpassed all platform metrics in areas of engagement, including number of views, minutes watched, regional viewers, new viewers, and dormant users becoming active.

Two days ago, Bobby Deol, who plays the charismatic ‘Baba Nirala’ in the show, announced that season 2 of ‘Ashram’ was scheduled to hit the platform on November 11, which has created a lot of excitement.

Also read:  International dubbed content finds a sizable audience on MX Player

In a candid conversation with Adgully, Gautam Talwar, Chief Content Officer, MX Player, speaks about the influence of the show and the opportunities it is creating for an AVOD platform like MX Player.

I don’t recall a film where Bobby Deol has portrayed a grey character. It was really interesting to see him play ‘Baba Nirala’ in ‘Ashram’. What compelled you to pick him?

Most of our viewers can’t believe that they get to see Bobby Deol portray a dark or grey character. We chose him because he has this serene look on his face, but when you come across the dark side of his character, you wouldn’t want to touch him with a barge pole! That’s the perception that we wanted to create of his character.

For the life of me I can’t recall a fictional story around conmen babas apart from a few docuseries. What was the journey of the story and is it a true story?

To be honest, it is not a true story. It took us two years to write this story. The writer Habib Faisal got in touch with our platform. We commissioned him to write the story, where he explored the fictional world of these conmen who portray themselves as godmen. They have nothing to do with spirituality or religion, but they know how to exploit your weak points and deliver them to you. Faith is blind and that is what makes it a power structure game.

Habib wrote a beautiful story, which we took to Kuldeep Ruhil who wrote the screenplay and dialogues for 9 episodes. Then we took it to Prakash Jha, whose body of work is amazing and who is a maestro when it comes to social commentary. This show was kind of a social commentary and not just pure entertainment. I would say it is entertainment laced with a fine line of social commentary, which most of the viewers would take away from the show.

Usually a web series is an inside out narrative from one character’s perspective. But ‘Ashram’ isn’t like that…?

‘Ashram’ is a show that explores both an outside in and inside out view on the theme ‘Astha Ki Kheti’ or mining one’s faith. The show is about how these conmen exploit your beliefs. There is enough information in the public domain about godmen who are conmen. These people are actually behind bars for their nefarious activities associated with their teachings.

In the show, the protagonist, played by Aditi Pohankar, is completely blinded by faith when ‘Baba Nirala’ helps her family out in their time of dire need. That’s how her entire family comes into the clutches of the Baba. This family is but a representation of the millions of families and the show is a case study on how these conmen develop the blind faith of their followers and then hold them ransom for the rest of their lives.

Now, Season 2 is coming out soon and you will see what happens and how people who’ve become blinded by faith are unwilling to see what is happening within the system.

With the kind of creators and talent working on the show, one is really surprised to find that this show is streaming for free…

That’s true! On social media, people have been saying ‘why don’t you put the show behind a paywall. We are ready to pay for a show like this.’ That sort of consumer response is unheard of! You know a show has made it once people have begun engaging with memes. But now people are also drawing fan art and the slogan ‘Japnaam’ is being used widely.

We see along with ‘Ashram’ and other web series, a broader trend where a lot of older actors (Bobby Deol, Sushmita Sen, Sanjay Kapoor) from an older era are re-emerging. No one expected to see them on the screen again. What’s your view on the second coming of these actors?

It’s true that with the release of ‘Ashram’, Bobby Deol’s fan following is doing ridiculously well. The fact is that they were always good actors, but the industry just hasn’t given them their due. Bollywood is a risky business and filmmakers look at RoI and Box Office collections before they bet on an actor.

Bobby himself has stated that he was typecast in roles where he had to be a hero, masculine and good, but was rarely given a chance to experiment. I recall an experiment called ‘Omkara’, which was a great success and Vishal Bharadwaj showed that Saif Ali Khan could play a villain. That’s when you know what an actor is made of.

Once you reach a particular age, I guess your image from previous films sticks with you. But Bobby Deol is a great actor and just the person we needed. He was the first choice of Prakash Jha to play ‘Baba Nirala’ and he was also keen to work him Prakash Ji.

Being a technology platform, a lot of your content choices are determined by the metrics and user data. Did you know that ‘Ashram’ would be a success?

To be honest, we did expect it to be a hit as it is a universal subject, where not only people from Tier 2 and 3, but even the Metros would like to watch a story like this. But that’s the thing with content, nobody who comes into my office with a script says this will be the next big flop! They genuinely believe it is a good show. The fact of the matter is that some shows hit the mark while others don’t. That’s the nature of the business. We did expect it to work, but we are overwhelmed with the actual response.

Would you say OTT shows work well with narratives in the realism space?

I would say authentic not realism. A lot of international shows explore themes like dystopia in their shows, which can be called larger than life. The OTT space is going to do all kinds of storytelling and so is TV for that manner. Cinema does not have the addiction that keeps bringing the user back to the platform again and again like TV and OTT.

In terms of quality, cinematography, talent, technicians are all borrowed from films, but the narrative structure resembles television. Our job is to bring users back again and again to the platform with the content. That strategy works well with an episodic format, which is borrowed from television not cinema.

We’ve seen ‘Queen’, which was syndicated to a TV channel. Are you exploring syndicating more digital content to traditional channels and what has been the response?

During the lockdown, there was a dearth of original content and ‘Queen’ was syndicated to two ZEEL channels in Telugu and Hindi. The Telugu version of the show garnered some of the highest TRPs for that channel. So, now we know that this format can work wonders on TV. Actually, in the past a lot of digital shows haven’t worked on TV, but ‘Queen’ has!

We have collaborated with Sony Pictures Networks India for a property called ‘Times of Music’, which is a one-of-a-kind non-fiction show with 20 of the biggest composers of this country coming together. It was released on the weekend simultaneously on both Sony and MX Player on June 20, 2020.


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