Creators: Pooja Shetty, Neil Pagedar
Directors: Pooja Shetty, Neil Pagedar
Writers: Pooja Shetty, Neil Pagedar, Anand Gandhi
Cast: Vijay Varma, Radhika Apte, Kani Kusruti, Jackie Shroff, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, Vibha Chhibber, Rasika Dugal
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
On one hand, OK Computer, erroneously marketed as India’s first sci-fi comedy, is an aspiring artist’s wet dream. Complete creative control. Uncompromised vision. Painstaking detail. Flexible budgets. Elaborate world-building. No corporate interference. No rules. Tonal mismash. Philosophical whataboutery. The cinematic equivalent of wide-eyed kids being asked to paint a castle full of white walls in colours of their choice. The ultimate free hand. The audacious six-episode series – based in a futuristic India where human intelligence is at odds with artificial intelligence – leaves no stone unturned to imply that storytelling is a fiercely selfish process. It’s a miracle that something of this scale and shape exists. Props to the team then, who seem to have made precisely what they want to make in a country averse to newness and individualism. No ifs, no buts, only nuts.
On the other hand, OK Computer is a cautionary tale about creative freedom. It is non-living, slow-breathing evidence of why Studio Suits are paid to restrain idealistic filmmakers with the sheer terseness of their MBA brains. From start to end, for almost 240 minutes, I have rarely seen anything so determined to look like unabashed and cursive gibberish on acid. It’s as though Charlie Kaufman were held hostage in a Versova ideation lab, memory-wiped and forced to scribble a live-action The Jetsons in pitch darkness – which, contrary to cinephile perception, is not as auteur-ish or attractive as it sounds. They say the line between genius and pretentious is a thin one, but this series turns that line into a full-blown national border constructed by filmmakers to keep audiences at bay.
The premise of OK Computer revolves around (and round and round) a police investigation into the death of an anonymous human whose body is crushed by a self-driving taxi. The setting is sly: Goa, a tourist haven often fetishized for being stuck in the past, is now in the future. (It’s 2031, and naturally self-driven vehicles are a thing at a place where locals are too laidback to drive their own). The questions facing ACP Saajan Kundu (Vijay Varma) and robot-empathist Laxmi Suri (Radhika Apte) are: Was it an accident or a murder? Was Nikhil (the car) hacked by a shady corporation, an eco-terrorist cult or just grew its own conscience? What is the larger game behind this conspiracy against robots? Why is everyone so insufferably quirky?
For reasons best attributed to stoner humour, the man whose face is liquified by the ‘accident’ is unofficially named Pav Bhaji. For the same reasons, much of the first episode – surely one of the most alienating, tedious and baffling pilots in modern television history – is located at the crime scene, where we learn of the ‘three laws of robotics’ and that Saajan and Laxmi have history, where Saajan’s Malayali sidekick (Kani Kusruti) establishes herself as the ‘comic relief,’ and where it dawns upon the viewer that OK Computer is also a mockumentary: an unfortunate fact that not only gives these characters a license to break the fourth wall and explain airy world-building technicalities but also to behave all eccentric and sitcom-ish as though they were The Office and Arrested Development rejects. At times, it’s hard to tell if they’re speaking to us or to themselves or to each other, which I suppose the makers can pass off as deliberate intellectual subterfuge or some such thing.
The rest of the series goes by like a substance-induced fever dream: An ex-saviour robot called Ajeeb (which translates to “strange,” which is an understatement) returns from the wilderness to become the prime accused, it speaks like Wall-E became a Parsi pensioner, a perpetually naked Jackie Shroff appears as a freaky cult leader, Saajan’s stern boss replaces cussing with cooing (“darling” “jaanu” “baby”) during her rants, the hologram of a talking bear (?) pops up unannounced, a mysterious billionaire named CNX is repeatedly referenced, Saajan picks up his sandwich bits from a corpse citing the 5-second rule, Rasika Dugal appears with not two but four pigtails, robot Ajeeb suffers from depression and becomes a stand-up comic, Shekhar Kapur makes the most absurd cameo in recent memory (surpassing Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s in Dear Maya), and last but not least, Saajan becomes an animal in a VR game to look for Ajeeb’s inventor. It’s like the whole series is an extensive in-joke and the viewer is the undocumented outcast. So much for its witty political metaphors. I regret to tell you that I have made none of this up. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg (that sinks the Titanic). The bridge between David Dhawan and David Lynch is so blurred that I can’t even finish this thought.
Worst of all, OK Computer is not just unwatchable but wasteful of clutter-breaking minds. I applaud the actors – especially leads like Vijay Varma and Radhika Apte – for consistently pushing the envelope, but this is possibly the worst-case scenario in terms of restless ambition. It’s almost tragic to sense their sincerity in a series whose novelty on paper might have best been restricted to the pages of a young-adult graphic novel. There is so much conviction in the incoherence on screen that I tried, I really did, to understand if it’s me or the show that’s defective. Maybe I was at fault. Maybe I’m the problem. As is evident, the entire experience felt like gaslighting. I wondered how such an affectionately conceived universe – the robots, holograms, laws, the graphics, the design – could choose to adopt the throwaway language of an internet skit. Why let all the hard work – of escaping genre traps, tradition, form, fable – amount to an unfunny, surreal, patronizing parody of a culture that’s already a satire upon itself? When did engagement become an anti-transactional chore?
When creators try to get cute with sci-fi and mess up a perfectly good platform, the irony of their journey is best encapsulated by a single image. Remember when the fish of Finding Nemo cleverly escaped the dentist’s aquarium only to land into the vast ocean in isolated plastic bags before one of them famously asks: “Now what?” Nobody thought beyond the immediacy of independence. That’s a question OK Computer poses within its first fifteen minutes. We now know the answer. It isn’t pretty. I can give marks for intent, sure, but what if these marks morph into scars of execution?