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MX Player’s web show Ashram starring Bobby Deol.
MX Player’s web show Ashram starring Bobby Deol.

OTT services bring stories on Godmen, religion

  • The trope of villainous Godmen goes back a long way, be it Rohit Shetty’s Singham Returns (2014) or satirical comedies such as OMG- Oh My God! (2012) and PK (2014). Non-Hindi local language cinema too has experimented with the genre

NEW DELHI: Cashing in on the age-old obsession with religion and the relatively free medium of the web, a number of streaming services are dabbling with subjects that deal with Godmen or the radicalisation of religion and faith. Two releases last Friday, MX Player’s web show Ashram starring Bobby Deol and Mahesh Bhatt’s Sadak 2 on Disney+ Hotstar, were stories of such people in power, who often exploit their followers.

These two follow Netflix originals Sacred Games, Ghoul and Leila last year, with the last two set in a dystopian world where extremist views had taken over.

To be sure, the Bollywood trope of villainous Godmen goes back a long way, be it Rohit Shetty’s Singham Returns (2014) or satirical comedies such as OMG- Oh My God! (2012) and PK (2014). Non-Hindi local language cinema too has experimented with the genre with Fahadh Faasil’s recent Malayalam language drama Trance (2020). Clearly, content creators see value in such narratives.

“As Indians, we’ve grown up listening to tales of varied sects, philosophies, cultures and traditions and these are a large part of our heritage. This lends itself to society’s fascination with Godmen or gurus and there are so many different reasons why people follow them. There is enough evidence in the public domain that shows that there are people in power who exploit faith for their own material gains," Gautam Talwar, chief content officer at MX Player said.

Talwar added that Ashram is a fictional story that brings to light the kind of ecosystem that is built when people fall prey to pitfalls of blind faith.

As is inevitable with such subjects, the Ashram trailer did battle its share of controversies with netizens calling it out for being a blatant attempt to hurt Hindu sentiments by showing its religious leaders in a bad light. MX Player and director Prakash Jha soon put out a disclaimer saying the story is completely fictional.

This June, ZEE5 had suspended a Tamil original called Godman after severe backlash from religious organisations. Director Rohit Shetty too had to face the wrath of right-wing Hindu organisations that had demanded a ban on Singham Returns in 2014. But more often than not, the going has been easier for the web.

Controversies have always existed, Talwar said, adding that "OTT is a fantastic playground for all kinds of topics, including this one. It gives you the leeway or freedom to explore a variety of genres or narratives, especially when you have wide penetration and reach."

In an earlier interview with Mint, Sameer Nair, chief executive of content studio Applause Entertainment, had said the economics of the OTT medium allow for different stories. "Some of the stories tend to either play out as dystopian futures, or address what would be defined as more uncomfortable issues. It is based on more individualistic viewership, it’s not a one-size-fits-all family television slot, and it’s not rating-dependent."

Controversies are inevitable as political and religious organisations take offence very easily in India, agreed Shailesh Kapoor, founder and chief executive officer of media consulting firm Ormax.

“When a big film like PK explores this topic, the controversy levels tend to be high, as there is great mileage to be had by attacking a big film. Compared to that, a web series or a small film exploring such a topic may not face too many controversies, as the instigators are well aware that it will not become a huge media issue," Kapoor added.

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