Cast: Jackie Shroff, Rasika Dugal, Vijay Varma, Radhika Apte, Kani Kusruti
Director: Neil Pagedar, Pooja Shetty
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
What am I doing here? That is the question Goa cyber cell sleuth Saajan Kundu (Vijay Varma) asks on reaching an accident site. A man has been run over by a self-driving car. Inspector Monalisa Paul (Kani Kusruti) responds just as nonchalantly: “Mankind has been asking this question for thousands of years. Sorry, I don’t have the answer.”
Questions, both loaded and innocuous, abound in OK Computer, a new Disney+Hotstar show, but what the conflicted cop needs to resolve first and foremost is a more basic conundrum: is this suicide or homicide? The search for answers to many such purportedly existential but essentially mundane posers drives a staggeringly non-normative plot that stumbles along pathways that often lead right back to where they begin.
Yes, OK Computer is nothing if not insanely inventive. It is a provocative, mind-bending, overreaching mess that is all the more fascinating because its convolutions are fearless and befuddling. The audacious show is a full-throttle charge at generic narrative conventions. It is aptly peopled by humans and robots that have no patience for playing safe. Watch it with pre-conceived notions and chances are it will not add up to much.
Described as a “sci-fi comedy”, OK Computer has been created and directed by Pooja Gupta and Neil Pagedar, who have also produced and written the show along with Anand Gandhi. The principal cast includes Radhika Apte as a robot rights activist and Jackie Shroff as an anti-tech, eco-terrorist cult leader who romps around stark naked and revels in intoning dire warnings about mankind’s future.
OK Computer is a futuristic fable that you might be inclined to dismiss as way too facile and unwarrantedly facetious unless you are able to see value in its steadfast and frequently startling flirtation with the uncharted. The flesh-and-blood actors and the voices that speak through a multiplicity of bots address each other as much as they communicate with themselves or resort to a distancing effect by directly addressing the audience. The acting is anything but robotic. It is no mean achievement for Varma, Apte and the others not to be distracted by the baffling nature of the material that they are called upon to work with and around.
The series weaves lofty notions of politics, psychology, society, besides the environment and the economy, into a fantasy set in a near future in which the human mind is pitted against the growing influence of Artificial Intelligence and where the world is as divided as ever.
On one level, OK Computer is a political allegory, on another an ideationally fecund, surreal whodunnit in which the detective labours to nail a killer who is suspected to have hacked into the self-driving taxi’s mainframe, altered its source code, and forced it to commit a proxy crime.
Goa of 2031 isn’t exactly the sleepy tourist destination that it is today although remnants of the past continue to peep through the changes that have overrun the place. Tall skyscrapers, imposing flyovers and blinding lights dominate its skyline. Much is afoot on the ground following the first-ever ‘murder’ committed via AI, a violation of “the first law of robotics, which, as PETER (People for the Ethical Treatment of Every Robot) rep Laxmi Suri (Apte) points out, prevents a robot from harming a human.
The unprecedented incident sends everybody into a tizzy, not the least the cyber cell chief Deepa Chandra Prasad (Vibha Chibber), DCP in short, who is livid when Saajan files an FIR against ZIPLY, the $600 billion company to whose fleet of cabs the killer vehicle belongs. Instead of hurling expletives at the ACP, she spouts terms of endearment (jaanu, honey, darling, baby, shona) to keep herself from flying off the handle.
Saajan himself has severe anger management issues and has only just rejoined duty after serving a three-year suspension for an indiscretion, the details of which are revealed late in the series. The act that got him into trouble has also made him and Laxmi adversaries for life. He is a lone wolf anyways. Teamwork is overrated, he says to Monalisa. Monalisa, on her part, hopes Malayalam will one day be imposed on the entire world and fantasizes about being an intern on a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film set.
As the investigation progresses, Saajan has several suspects on his radar: Cyrus Noor Xerxes (CNX), the mysterious owner of ZIPLY who has not been sighted for two decades; Ajeeb, a robot that reneged on his/her mission to solve the world’s intractable problems and chose to become a stand-up comedian; and Pushpak Shakur (Shroff), a feral proponent of a technology-free world and the chief of Jigyasa Jagriti Manch, whose members sport multi-hued, florid versions of Ku Klux Klan-like robes.
With warped signals flying around, there are battles within battles in OK Computer and the series sways from one to the other, at times in ways that are disorienting. Apart from the slanging matches that Sajaan has with nearly everybody he deals with – one extended showdown in the very first episode sees him in a cantankerous battle of wits with Trisha Singh (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), ZIPLY’s combative law officer – he enters a VR game for bots along with Ajeeb to nab one of the rogue robot’s inventors who is stringing the world along (Rasika Dugal in a cameo).
The action takes place ten years hence but the problems that the world, the nation and the human species face haven’t gone anywhere. There is a great deal shooting in the dark. Machine learning is not an exact science, says an engineer. At another point, another voice asserts that “punarjanam is not an exact science”. Clearly, the man vs. machine dichotomy is still nowhere near being bridged because nothing is exact.
I one scene, Saajan instructs Ajeeb to take either of the two seats in the interrogation room of the cyber cell. Which of the two seats? “I don’t believe in binaries. I’m a quantum fiend,” Ajeeb says with all the playfulness at his command. But this a world overrun by binaries and it takes little time for a Messiah to turn into a pariah.
Ajeeb, as the key characters recollect, had evoked mass adulation and bhakti with the problem-solving acumen the robot derived from an algorithm into which India’s native wisdom, history, epiphanies, philosophies and breakthroughs were fed. But he went astray and fell from grace. He chose to turn to cracking jokes to keep his sanity intact when fatigue set in. AS a consequence, he became the smallest minority that there can be – of one – and was hounded out of business just as fiercely as he was once adored placed on a pedestal.
In what can be interpreted as an observation valid for all forms of individualistic expression, stand-up comic Tanmay Bhat, as himself, says: Comedy has no benefits. In another vein, Trisha Singh reminds Laxmi Suri that “duniya khatre mein hai par duniya activism se nahi private enterprise se bachegi (the world is under threat. It won’t be saved by activism but by private enterprise).”
The joke is still on us. Saajan asks Monalisa who India’s biggest enemy is at the present moment – remember the year is 2031 – China, US or… the nation that shall not be named. A nationwide survey has revealed, Monalisa replies, that FAKE NEWS is “India ka sabse bada dushman“. And, of course, Saajan is not at liberty to initiate criminal proceedings against India’s biggest entrepreneur.
What OK Computer is telling us is that smart robots may come into our lives – even take over our lives – but the minds behind them are not changing anytime soon. So, it is time for us to retreat into the comfort of jokes that, as one character says, tell little lies to reveal larger truths.
OK Computer, made up of six episodes roughly 40 minutes each, is itself an extended cathartic joke. Persuasive and pulpy in the same sweep, it thrives on contradictory pulls. Sometimes uneven but always intriguing, it is programmed to blend piffle and tongue-in-cheek punditry in an unbridled flight of fancy.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a press release)