Disney+ Hotstar’s new sci-fi comedy series Ok Computer features Ajeeb, a robot created to solve human problems who suddenly experiences an existential crisis that ends up in him pursuing a career in standup comedy. The show’s meant to be a humorous take on the depths of despair that programmed greatness can reach. An admirable goal, but hamstrung by how seriously it takes itself and its core concept. For example, in the last episode of the six-part series, Ajeeb is treated to a monologue by a hologram, waxing poetic about the importance of comedy and comedians. “Comedian ek tarah ke detective hai jo humare hum mein, humare swabhav mein kamiyan nikalke, humein aur mazboot karte hain. Duniya ke sabse mahan log comedian the. (A comedian is a kind of detective who strengthens us by pointing out the deficiencies in our behaviour. Comedians were the greatest people in the world.)” Even Supreme Court justices don’t take themselves this seriously.
And that’s part of why OK Computer is as inert as it is radical. True to the Anand Gandhi worldview of film-making, here we don’t have characters as much as we have thought experiments; we don’t have sub-text as much as we have an easter egg dump. Some of the easter eggs, though, are quite inventive—like using the Amdavad ni gufa, constructed in 1995 by BV Doshi to exhibit MF Hussain paintings—figures of brutalism and futurism—to construct a future world. (Pooja Shetty, one of the creators and writers, is an architect, and the world-building on display here is painstakingly detailed.)
It is 2031, pineapples are extinct, and AI is perched to take over the world. A self-driving car NKHL (pronounced Nikhil without the I, perhaps because robots don’t have an “I”) hits a person who becomes mashed like pav bhaji, and hence is called pav bhaji hereon. The current-day implication isn’t far-off—in 2018, a self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Arizona. The question of whether AI can harm humans or if they can be coded by humans to harm humans is central here.
Saajan Kundu (sometimes spelt Sajaan, played by Vijay Varma) is the mercurial Assistant Commissioner of Police who resents artificial intelligence because it ‘stole’ his parents’ jobs. Laxmi Suri (Radhika Apte), on the other hand is an AI-empath, and heads a private organization for the ethical treatment of robots (PETER). She believes that AI is incapable of harming humans. Here are two people tugging at opposite ends of a string while someone is waiting to be handed the string to tie their exam papers together. It’s frustrating because the banter is not banter but an excuse to showcase ego; there is a distinct sense that when they are talking over each other, they’re not listening to one another, but only themselves. It’s the kind of chaos that is supposed to lend itself to humour. This could be milked for laughs, the way Anurag Kashyap did it in Ugly, and Vikramaditya Motwane did it in AK VS AK—these are genuinely funny, as much as they are absurd. The problem in the writing in OK Computer is that the humour is embedded in the absurdity as an assumption—as if just by being absurd, and quirky, the humour is auto-generated.
Then there is Monalisa Paul (Kani Kusruti), the Malayali cop with her melon-sleeved tops, her pineapple collar pins, her perpetual-intern-complex, and her phone cover that reads “Maseehahahahaha”—the pursuit for seer and satire melting into one. It’s kitsch, and her shrill thought-experiment of a character becomes less grating over the episodes. She is however allowed two outbursts of emotion, both of which blindside us because there is nothing leading up to nor leading down from them, and so they play out inertly, and randomly.
Jackie Shroff shines as Pushpak Shakur, the head of an anti-technology, anti-computer, anti-vaccine cult that dresses up in fashionable head-to-toe KKK cloaks (except for Pushpak, who goes au naturel). In the third episode he is seen seated opposite Ajeeb in an interrogation room, both suspects of the pav bhaji murder. Pushpak asks Ajeeb to tell him a chutkula (a joke). Ajeeb says no because he has renounced the stand-up world. So Pushpak decides to tell a joke himself, but instead spews a monologue. As he finishes, Ajeeb notes that what he said wasn’t a joke, it was vyangya, a satire. A distinction that is important, because despite both being lumped under “comedy” the end-goal of each is different—one aims to make the viewer think, and one aims merely to entertain. We can add heft to the chutkula, or entertainment to the vyangya, and that is, in some sense what Anand Gandhi’s team is trying here, using AI as the philosophical tether.
This is a great time to talk about AI—Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro just came out with a book, Klara And The Sun, where he places the AI anxiety not in humans, but in the AI. We live in a world that already has sex robots with 42 types of nipples, and automation anxiety is reaching fever-pitch. A lot of people are asking what problems does AI solve, and who will solve the problems AI creates?
OK Computer doesn’t go beyond stating, framing, and re-framing these questions. It is a monologue that is parading as a conversation. As if every morning the makers woke up with a new question and baked it into the narrative via quirk—If you have synesthesia and can’t see colour, can you be a racist? If the very silver coins you are donating to your tortoise god choke it almost-to-death, are you a believer or a sinner? If you have hardware and software, how much longer till they interact and produce consciousness? Are we living in a hologram?
The fun is in asking the question and not answering it. It’s the kind of stuff you’d enjoy bringing up casually in discussion over a toke, but not necessarily an argument you want to watch being carried out through uninspired mouthpieces. Because for all its ingenuity, OK Computer is unable to make a coherent, engaging, and entertaining story out of its quirks. It loses steam quickly, because as viewers we cannot be moved by thought experiments, we are moved by feeling, of which there is very little here.
Part of this rubs off on the performances. Saajan’s anger begins to feel so undeserved and devoid of context that his outbursts begin to chafe, and Vijay Varma can do little to make this character bearable. Ditto for Laxmi, armed with a willingness to converse with robots that is greater than her willingness to converse with humans. The emotional thrust of the series rests on her shoulders, as Ajeeb becomes embroiled as a suspect in the investigation. Laxmi is trying to save Ajeeb, while also seeking the faultlines of AI. Apte can do little to add emotion to this soporific role. Like the story, these characters are stuck relentlessly asserting their smartness, at the cost of basic plotting, or even purpose. To be revolutionary with form is great, exciting, and even necessary, but even revolutions must be rooted in something. Chaos just doesn’t become comedy, a kitsch hat-tip doesn’t create kitsch just by existing, having Kunal Karma and Tanmay Bhat as cameos doesn’t make your show funny by default, and an idea doesn’t become seeti-maar just like that.