Why Anand Gandhi’s OK Computer is a commendable attempt at homegrown science fiction
The recently released OK Computer is an acquired taste, to be sure. In 2031, a self-driving car has seemingly killed a man, and DCP Saajan Kundu (Vijay Varma) has been tasked with solving the case. Laxmi Suri (Radhika Apte), a ‘robot rights activist’ who has history with Kundu, is also monitoring the investigation, which may or may not implicate CNX, the billionaire genius behind this brave new world’s robot revolution.
The problem is OK Computer juggles far too many disparate sets of influences, and if you are unfamiliar with most of them, the show can come across as alienating. In terms of overall tonality, it follows Douglas Adams-flavoured screwball sci-fi. The dialogues have a loose, improvisational feel to them, and the occasional non-sequiturs will remind you of experimental Indian films like Om Dar Ba Dar.
In several dramatic scenes, the farcical dialogues and ‘lo-fi’ scene-setting owe a debt to the revolutionary street plays of Badal Sircar and others. A small core group of ‘talking heads’ surrounded by an identically dressed ‘crowd’ who ‘rearrange’ themselves depending upon the requirements of the scene; this is classic street play territory, and it is what happens with the big lawyer scene in the first episode.
But the show reveals its preferred register with a cutesy animated sequence explaining the “Three Laws of Robotics”. This is a direct reference to science fiction maestro Isaac Asimov’s (1920-1992) concept, which he used across dozens of his robot stories and novels.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Isaac Asimov vs James Cameron: A pop cultural clash
The Asimovian robot is essentially the feel-good version of the robot story: a tireless friend who will do their damndest to make life easier for you, an incorrigibly benign entity whose very architecture will not allow them to harm a human being. Remember how the internet cooed over ‘Asimo’, Honda’s humanoid robot (named after Asimov, fittingly) who could play bartender and talk to kids and so on? OK Computer protagonist, a robot called Ajeeb (literally, “strange” or “weird” in Hindi), is very much in this cuddly, non-threatening mode. Ajeeb even speaks with a child’s lisp, to accentuate this effect. It is a bit like watching Vicky from Small Wonder crossed with an annoying child actor from the ’90s (one of the Culkins, one of the Olsens, take your pick, really).
The late Robin Williams memorably played an Asimovian robot in the 1999 film The Bicentennial Man, based on the Asimov novella of the same name. “Andrew”, Williams’ character in the movie, is perhaps the most representative example of this. Throughout the film, we see Andrew becoming more and more “human” with every upgrade. At one point, he ‘receives’ facial expressions that match his newfound emotions. By the end of the film, society recognises him as a human, the oldest one in existence, actually, at an even 200 years.
Why were these ‘benign’ representations trying so hard, so to speak? One of the obvious reasons was the rise of ‘evil robot’ narratives through the ’80s and ’90s, thanks to James Cameron, one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful filmmakers of the era. The breakthrough success of the Terminator films not only pushed the ‘evil robot’ narrative hard but also opened the floodgates for the next generation of special effects (SFX). It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy; one SFX-laden extravaganza begetting the next generation through its dominance of pop culture. The influence of Terminator can be felt most clearly not in the recent sequels (which are disappointing to say the least) but in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, where the story of Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) and his father Dr Silas Stone (Joe Morton), receives much more attention than it did in the earlier, theatrical version.
Dr Stone ‘rebuilds’ his son into an android of sorts but something goes wrong — the ‘new’ Victor Stone is unsure of where the human part of him ends and where the robot begins. In the fight scene with Superman for instance, he cannot stop his arm’s weapons defence system from firing a pre-emptive strike at Kal-El/Superman. This is a clear callback to the “we can’t control the machines, they control us” messaging of the Terminator films.
Plus, the biggest callback of them all is the casting of Joe Morton as Dr Silas Stone. It was Morton who played Miles Dyson in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day; Dyson was the scientist whose research leads to the development of Skynet, the world-ending artificial intelligence that controls the US’ weapons systems, including nuclear missiles.
It is in this context that the Asimovian robot made its pop cultural pushback against the idea of the evil robot. And just like OK Computer begins with a murder, allegedly committed by an Asimovian robot bound by the three laws, the last big-budget Hollywood Asimov adaptation, too, started with a murder investigation. This was the 2004 Will Smith movie I, Robot where Smith plays Del Spooner, the cop who is assigned the case. Like Radhika Apte’s Laxmi Suri becomes the advocate for robot rights in OK Computer, I, Robot features Bridget Moynahan playing ‘robopsychologist’ Dr Susan Calvin, a recurring character from Asimov’s robot stories.
In Asimov’s books, Calvin was a kind of “bridge” character between robots and humans (she is a human who is depicted as somewhat cold and mechanical in her habits, plus she prefers robots to human company), which is why characters like her and Laxmi Suri are of paramount importance for modern-day creators. We are, after all, increasingly moving towards human-robot hybrid characters like Victor Stone/Cyborg — or to name a recent comedic example, the virtual assistant Janet from the comedy series The Good Place.
It is in this context, especially, that I feel OK Computer missed a trick. Radhika Apte does a fine job as usual but the writing and characterisation for this all-important Laxmi Suri character needed to be much stronger than it is. How did she start developing her innate empathy towards robots? What are her views on the abuse of robotic technology? What would she say to workers who have been laid off en masse due to the latest robot making them obsolete overnight? Suri’s answers to these questions would have been fascinating, I reckon, but OK Computer does not really give us a chance to find out. The intriguing epilogue to the final episode — the one that sets up a potential second season — does make her more of a major player, though, and hopefully OK Computer will develop this plot strand better the next time around.
Eco-terrorism and the anti-robot faction: On missed opportunities
Another worthy failure on the part of the show is Jackie Shroff’s character, cult leader and self-described eco-terrorist called ‘Pushpak Shakur’: first name communicating nature (‘pushp’ means flower in Sankskrit/Hindi), second name communicating revolution (the late rapper Tupac Shakur, whose family included several members of the revolutionary Black Panther party). Reactionary eco-terrorists are making a comeback as villains: in recent years, both Elementary and The Blacklist, two of the more popular shows on primetime TV, have featured really interesting and multi-faceted eco-terrorist villains.
Alas, Pushpak Shakur does nothing of the sort. He seems more of a sketch comedy construct (which is to say, designed to hold your interest for a few minutes and no more) than a multi-season character with meaningful story arcs. There is so much they could have done with a society dedicated to bring humanity back into hippie-era Utopian ideals: no robots, no AI, just fresh produce, free love, and that commune life. Instead, we have Shroff performing what is an essentially a doped-out version of his infamous ‘Pulse Polio ad bloopers’ reel (yes, the “mausichi g***d one). In one moment, where he bursts into a sing-song bit of dialogue (“tumhaare bacche sad ke marenge”), I seriously thought he had forgotten the actual line mid-way and improvised (not very well).
Having said that, I confess I am thrilled to see an OK Computer getting the green light by a mainstream platform like Disney+ Hotstar VIP, simply because there is not much we have when it comes to homegrown science fiction (we are talking about onscreen stuff here, not books). A powerful reminder of this gaping pop cultural void is the last episode, where we finally come face-to-face with the elusive, all-powerful CNX, who we learn is called Cyrus Xerxes Noor (this is a show with outlandish names, so why not?). CNX is played, in a charming little cameo, by veteran director Shekhar Kapur, whose own Mr India (1987) was Bollywood’s original lo-fi science fiction caper.
When I was watching Kapur, the initial surprise gave way to a familiar sadness — I realised that I haven’t really enjoyed a single desi science fiction film or TV show since Mr India, which for all its campiness understood how to have fun at the movies. The Krishh (or is it Krriiiishhh? KKKKrihhhsh?) films are all uniformly awful, although impersonating Jadoo the alien is a bankable party trick (press your index finger upon your larynx until you feel a moderate amount of pain; say ‘Om’ until someone begs you to stop). Other standalone efforts like Rudraksh or Ra.One are candidates for the so-bad-it’s-good zone.
Over three decades, and we have nothing to show for our efforts — OK Computer has delivered a worthy failure, at least, one that is intermittently enjoyable. Who knows what it could achieve with a better writing team?