We are the twice born — at birth first, then, refashioned into static, filtered figures of beauty and irony on social media. Our worst and best impulses, our most charming and most provocative ideas get magnified in the digital spotlight. There is who we are, there is who we perform as, and there is no way to know where one ends and the other begins and what feeds which. Disney+ Hotstar's Escaype Live runs with this idea, sprinting over hot coals, giving us a story that is as just as flashy, flattening, and fetid as the problem it is trying to draw our attention towards — social media.
Escaype Live is an app like TikTok — Y in Escaype because "Y am I not rich?", "Y am I not successful?" — that is run by attention-fascists (Jaaved Jaaferi, Waluscha De Souza) who have a control room that has access to all accounts. This nerve center is like a dystopian Instagram where men — all men — are staring at all the videos uploaded onto the platform and the data around its spread across the digital circulatory system.
In the app you can send "diamonds" to people you follow — like the googly heart-eyed emoticons you swipe at your crush's Instagram story, but here, money actually exchanges hands, with a commission cut by the company. This twists social media into a capitalist hell-hole, because it is not just attention but also money that the social media influencers covet, like hamsters in a wheel, craving eternal growth. The app inaugurates a competition where the top performing influencers battle it out for the most number of diamonds.
As lowest-common-denominator and crowded as it sounds, the show is also a relentlessly dramatic patchwork quilt of various lives lived. At any given point, there is too much happening for you to not care about anything. Law of averages. Law of being average.
Ring lights reflect off grim faces — a stripper in Bangalore(Plabita Borthakur), a nine-year old girl who is yanked into adulthood with hormones and sexy songs in Jaisalmer (Aadyaa Sharma), a psychopath prankster who parks crabs into pants of sleeping boys in Delhi (Sumedh Mudgalkar), and a parkour enthusiast in Mumbai who performs increasingly risky dives (Ritvik Sahore). But not all is bad in d-town. There is a story that skirts the outline of the show — of a man in Banaras (Rohit Chandel) who performs as a woman and through it, expresses her identity as one, trapped in a man's body. (Yes, of course she performs to 'Inn Aankhon Ki Masti Mein', and yes, of course there is an overbearing fag hag, played by Shweta Tripathi Sharma.)
If I have to put a finger on it, I am noticing the death of the auteur — the director with a distinct, discerning, differentiable vision — on shows produced and flushed out by Disney+ Hotstar.
The show also tilts our attention towards the lives of those around the influencers — Geetika Vidya Ohlyan plays the mother to the nine-year old influencer whose hormonal injections and childish demands of fame are poisoning her mind and body, Jagjeet Sandhu plays the girl's uncle who pushes her towards this corrosive fame, and Swastika Mukherjee plays the closet lesbian who takes advantage of her employee who strips in front of the camera. By giving them substantial roles, the show recognizes the osmotic leak between violence online and offline.
Krishna Rangaswamy (Siddharth), 32 years old, O+ blood group, is in some sense, the binding protagonist of this show. He is an employee of Escaype Live who jostles with his sickly conservative yet honest ideals and the reckless, progressive agenda that he now has to submit to. Stern and stoic, he eventually turns into an apologetic god-like figure for the women around him whom he initially dismisses as sluts.
This is an interesting conceit — the difference between transformation and amplification. In this world, a character is only able to grow, transform, and emerge anew in the world offline. The online world is merely for amplification. No transformation, no leaf turning is possible here.
But something is off. Written by Jaya Misra and Siddharth Kumar Tewary, this show has the copy-paste texture of a streaming checklist. If I have to put a finger on it, I am noticing the death of the auteur — the director with a distinct, discerning, differentiable vision — on shows produced and flushed out by Disney+ Hotstar. With the exception of Aarya and OK Computer, there is such a predictable scale and framing to their shows. Be it the length of the episodes, the length of the trailer, the solemn, affect-less acting, the plot-much-ness, the sound design and background score that is both dialogue and subtitle, a crowded nothingburger that barely lingers beyond the credit scroll, and the sharp, scalding directness of exposition-heavy dialogue. There are not shows you can think about, because the show does that for you, anyway. A conveyor belt of content, whose sole purpose is to thrust you from one show to the next. Perhaps that is enough?
There is even a similar shot in both Rudra and Escaype Live — of a man on a crane over an unfinished building overlooking the city, providing the gasp of a spectacle at the cost of a flat green screen.
Escaype Live is, thus, the dull aftermath of a streaming heavy-hand trying to script an aesthetic — of compelling shows that can be background music or one among the slush of tabs or the sole container of your attention, carpet-bombed by tense interactions, girded by some hazy moral standards, but clear moral binaries. There is too much happening, too many characters, and at any given point, there is a restlessness as to which thread to take up, which to introduce, which to further knot.
Take this introduction scene. A young girl is playing hopscotch in the village, and a raunch track plays on the blaring radio and she lights up listening to it and runs off, swaying her hips that have yet to reach the sensual heights of the song she is performing to. The camera is at a distance merely tracking her movement from one point to another, the direction is uninterested in making us, the audience, throb with either the joy of the girl or the scandalized conservative pearl clutching of the villagers. We register plot points that are drummed to climaxes with tense scoring and manipulative writing.
They released only seven out of the nine episodes, with the other two releasing soon. If we want to know what happens next, we got to keep scrolling for the updated homepage and latest drops. Social media baaad! Streaming gooood!