Between the two slogans that became popular after countries across the world announced measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – “social distancing” and “work from home” – the latter was not new to the world. For an emergency-time refrain, “work from home” comes across as too commonplace an idea to us. This was not just because there already existed a sizeable recognised sector providing soft services for the digital economy through the dispersal of labour into domains outside traditional places of work. Among the various demands that the lockdown made on us (the elites and the middle class), working from home was the easiest to adjust to, because we had long stopped feeling the distinctions between workplace and home – considered the private domain outside work (of course, in the dominant imagination). This shift is what The New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress was alluding to in his 2017 cartoon in which a man is seen as sitting at his work desk in front of his computer screen – and it is unclear if he is at his office or at home – and wondering: “I can’t remember, do I work at home or do I live at work?”
This experience seems to have emerged as a “general” condition encompassing more and more people today: the feeling of ambiguity about when one has entered the domain of work, if one has exited from work or not, and if play is indeed play or a mere continuation of work. Though this has been the experience common to most of us for a while now, we have not started seeing its representation – its translation into figurations and imageries – much in our contemporary films. However, the hacker character that the “New Gen” Malayalam actor Sreenadh Bhasi plays in the recent Malayalam film Anjaam Pathiraa (‘Fifth Midnight’, Midhun Manuel Thomas, 2020) is an exception.
Sreenath Bhasi’s Geek Persona
One of the prominent mid-level actors in contemporary Malayalam cinema, Bhasi gained popularity as a ‘new gen’ star by consistently playing characters who possess a cool millennial attitude of a youthful savoir-faire. This acquired screen persona seems to have made Bhasi the first choice for the role of the hacker in Anjaam Pathiraa. In an interview to The Cue, the film’s director Midhun Manuel Thomas said that unlike in the case of casting for other roles in the film, the makers didn’t have any confusion as to who should play the hacker. “Bhasi has a geek look; with minimum transformations, he looks exactly like a techie”, he says, but then also adding that “in real life, Bhasi is someone who is like us, [with similar tastes…].” This projection of “our” image onto that of the techie geek makes the hacker character very compelling. It makes this character more than the representation of a hacker.
The hacker in Anjaam Pathiraa has some intriguing dimensions. His ability to hack into mobile phones and computers makes him both a criminal as well as a technological genius whose exceptional skills can be turned against criminality. Our hacker is unemployed. Yet, he is the only one who knows what works. Moreover, the fact that he knows what he is capable of endows him with an enjoyable, identifiable smugness. He is euphoric all the time. For this combination of reasons, his portrayal falls outsides the classical tropes of representing educated-unemployed youth and their conditions in our films. We don’t definitely relate to him with the sympathetic identification with which we look at the unemployed existential Ravi, the protagonist in G Aravindan’s Uttharayanam (1975). Nor do we get in him a comic rendition of the same existential condition, like in Ramji Rao Speaking (Siddique-Lal, 1989). In the case of our hacker, his unemployment and his criminal status don’t translate to various avatars of the existential condition; the viewers relate to him with a hint of narcissistic adoration. With all the fragilities that Bhasi’s physique signifies, he usually plays characters who look the most sorted too. His hacker often acquires heroic dimensions in the film, though he is not elevated to the status of the hero. Like most of the other characters that Bhasi has played, the hacker in Anjaam Pathiraa begins to look like one of us. Thus, one could say, if there is one character in the film made in the image of its intended viewer – those familiar with today’s emerging new aesthetic trends, a little woke, a bit tech-savvy – it is this hacker. All other characters are unlike us. Sreenath Bhasi is our soul animal.
The cryptologist in Roja and the hacker in Anjaam Pathiraa
This makes our hacker unique: he is exceptional, and yet he is someone like us. I shall demonstrate why this is unique, by comparing him with the protagonist in Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja – since both do with computers something that we don’t understand. There are some similarities as well as crucial differences between Bhasi’s hacker and the protagonist in Roja who is presented as a “top cryptologist” working for the nation. Roja came out at a time when information technology, computers and the Internet were accessible only to a small section of the upper caste elite in India. In the film, we get only a few glimpses of the cryptologist working in front of the computer. In one of these scenes, he is working at home. In these scenes, the work that he does on the computer is mystified beyond comprehension – which also works as a fetishistic elevation of the screen, the keypad, the code, and the work that he does on the machine. Mystification and fetishistic elevation applies to the portrayal of what the hacker does in Anjaam Pathiraa too. However, there is a crucial factor in Roja that prevents the viewer from developing anxieties about the mysterious work that its protagonist does on the machine: it is the film’s assurance – among other things, through casting “the evidently modern” Aravind Swamy in the role – that whatever he is doing, he is working for the nation. Thus, though Roja was one of the first Indian films to make the computer professional its protagonist, there is a continuity between its cryptologist character and the clichéd male protagonists in Indian melodramas of the time engaged in respectable professions, like the doctor, the businessman, college professor, school master, judge, cop, and so on. In all of them, the job that they do are meant generally to elevate their status above the viewers’. Their professions make them representatives of nation-building. Roja’s protagonist also comes before us in this way: he is above us, he works on behalf of the nation, he is a hero in all ways, as he works for the status-quo to maintain normalcy.
Digital Economy’s Workforce or a Swarm of Guerrillas?
But our hacker’s case is different. His default status is that of a criminal anarchist. His computer skills make him into someone who can sabotage the system and the status-quo. Yet, at the same time, hacking does not always symbolise anti-social criminality. It also signifies revolution today (as those who have watched the Netflix series Money Heist – an inspiration for Anchaam Pathiraa – will easily know). For this reason, his status constantly oscillates between that of an anarchist as well as a revolutionary whose skills can be put to the service of the society. What is more interesting is, the viewer does not have to be a hacker in real life to recognise this dual status as his or her own condition. After all, it is increasingly becoming the common experience for any normal netizen to feel one’s existence as constantly wavering between an ideal citizen and a militant. On the one hand, the State and corporations constantly call upon us to become ideal global citizens by going digital, and by migrating our day-to-day activities to the digital domain. At the same time, the same state and corporations can declare us as rebels against the society at any moment, by stamping our day-to-day activities online as activism against the State and society. Think of Facebook as an example: it encourages us to express ourselves by constantly asking us what is on our minds, yet we are frequently puzzled when our mundane expressions are marked as violating community standards. Or think of the State’s current policies, which, by invoking convenience and unfettered freedom, would mandate everyone to go digital for practically all purposes, including political self-expression, yet can use the same machinery to keep profiling all of us as potential dangers to society. In other words, existing simultaneously as both the ideal citizen and as a potential militant must be considered as more or less the general condition of everyone’s existence in the digital age, though this is felt most intensely by minorities and the marginalised. This is what makes Bhasi’s hacker character a representative of today’s existence in general. On the internet, we are simultaneously the workforce for today’s digital economy and the state, as well as a potential swarm of guerillas fighting against them.
Work vs Privacy
There is also another significant manner in which Bhasi’s hacker signifies the conditions of any normal Internet user. Let me explain what I mean by continuing with the comparative mode invoked earlier. Once more, think of the clichéd male protagonists in Indian melodrama: the doctor, the judge, the professor, the cop, the cryptologist… All of them have a job, they also have a private life, and certain boundaries between the two. For all of them, work is the domain related to public life; it is where one engages in labour for the employer in exchange for a wage. Privacy is the realm of leisure, of attending to oneself doing one’s own work. (As is known, there is scope for gratification and pleasure in both domains of work and leisure/privacy, yet, the majority experience is that workplaces deny any scope for their realisation.) Often, the plot would revolve around the fissures and incongruities between these two domains – of work and of one’s private life. Situations like, the judge who is torn between the protocols of work and his own ethics is one manifestation of this; the businessman who has to bear “private costs” for not compromising in the economic-public domain is another. Or the state cryptologist’s plight torn between his nation’s calling and his duty to protect his wife is yet another example. In short, we can easily say, our films generally work with the commonsensical idea that men have a public life revolving around work, and a private life outside work.
Let us now come back to our hacker. We don’t see that he has privacy/a private life. At the same time, he is jobless too. The result produces an interesting condition: he doesn’t occupy a time – a temporality – outside of his “work”, because though he is jobless, he is always “at work” on his computer. The question is not about whether this is a faithful portrayal of hackers’ lives or not. Rather, this condition – of always being at work on one’s phone and computer, without necessarily being employed – reflects the experience of a large mass of educated youth in India today. Yet, it is not the exclusive experience of the unemployed youth. Today, almost everyone is inevitably always at work on the internet, whether one is employed or not. Occupying this condition, all of us seem to have let go of whatever little boundaries that previously separated the private from the public. The public gestures of revealing our private selves on social media platforms is merely a symptom of these larger changes. Today’s mobile phones are portable computers keeping us constantly alive as links in larger networks. The Internet, our mobile phones and our computer constitute the platform where we engage in continuous work-play, by playing games, seeking knowledge, making friends, finding directions, going “live”, sharing memes… Thus, the state of being continuously engaged in pleasurable and fulfilling “work” has almost become a universal condition. Today, more and more of what used to be private is being made into the stuff of the public domain; work is increasingly becoming what one voluntarily does as one’s own calling. The fact that our hacker character doesn’t have privacy is a metaphor for this change.
In short, unemployment on the one side; and on the other, the experience of voluntarily engaging in continuous and yet enjoyable work online, thus drawing the pleasure of both non-alienating production as well as of consumption… this is the existential condition today for a large mass of people. In Anjaam Pathiraa, there is a thrill-inducing scene in which the hacker, who is working for the police under captive conditions, gets excited at one point with a sudden surge of adrenaline that makes him commit to outdoing the real villain. Here, the hacker begins to do the work that the cops are forcing him to do, as if it has now become his own; as if this is now a question of his own self-realisation. All of a sudden, his captive condition to work transforms into a path to fulfilment. His excitement mirrors our condition of being always bound to the Internet, seeking the pleasures of self-realisation that it offers us. After all, it is our desire and its fulfilment that is the stuff of digital economy, and of economy in general today.
This essay is based on some ideas in Tiziana Terranova’s 2010 essay “Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy”. To explore the themes discussed in this essay in some depth and the seriousness they actually demand, please do read the original essay available for downloading here