Artificial Intelligence grows as a ripe theme in Indian cinema: From OK Computer, Anukul to Enthiran, Andorid Kunjapan
Artificial Intelligence has grown in leaps and bounds but it was not represented in Indian cinema until Enthiran in 2010. And then, Anukul, Andorid Kunjapan, and OK Computer followed.
Human civilisation is currently witnessing an astronomical rupture in the status quo of society, owing to the introduction of Artificial Intelligence. While development of AI has been represented in cinema at the global level, the same remains negligible in India.
But the negligibility does not amount to absolute absence of representation. There have been movies which have tried to attract popular attention towards the sector. The earliest cinematic work in Indian themed on AI was the 2010 Tamil movie Ethiran or Robot. The movie gained fame in popular culture and was a blockbuster. The reasons were obvious as both the protagonist (Dr Vasikaran) and antagonist (Chitti the Humanoid) were essayed by Tamil superstar Rajinikanth. Apart from the stardom of Rajinikanth, it had Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai Bacchan playing the role of the protagonist's girlfriend. The movie also had the right blend of action, comedy, and special effects, with the robot changing shapes, fighting with helicopters, and all that which could make the viewer experience hyper-reality.
The movie had an amazing message, which of course was ahead of its time, and has not been discussed much in popular discourse. The very name of the humanoid was Chitti, which means consciousness in Indian languages. The movie very subtly talks about a problem which was gaining prominence at that time throughout the world regarding the growth of AI. Those machines are intelligent, and can learn, adapt, and respond to the changes around them and act accordingly, thus bringing them closer to humans and blurring the distinction between humans and machines. The movie personified this dilemma, through Chitti falling in love with a human. The movie also displayed the dystopian elements related to technology, when Chitti is reconstructed by Danny Denzongpa's character, tends to avenge Dr Vasi, and goes beyond human control.
In 2017, seven years after Robot, another film which reflected AI and its social as well as politico-economic implications was a short film based on Satyajit Ray’s story Anukul, directed by Sujoy Ghosh. It featured Saurabh Shukla as a learned school teacher, who lives alone and gets an Android robot named Anukul to take care of his household chores. The short film raises various questions pertaining to the technological shift. It portrays the problem of the changing nature of work when intelligent machines displace human labour through the character of Ratan, the younger brother of Nikunj. His frustration towards Anukul when he first meets him is evident. As the movie unfolds, it opens up the doors for viewers to contemplate the ethical and decision-making side of the AI. The climax sees the machine kill Ratan with a low voltage electric shock. The movie urges one to mull over the possibilities of AI's coexistence with humans.
The next movie that depicts the imagination around AI is the 2019 Malayalam flick Android Kunjapan version 5.25. The movie starts with a quote from scientist Stephen Hawking, “Artificial Intelligence will destroy human civilisation," thus setting the ball rolling for the question: How much technology is enough technology? The protagonist is Subramaniam, an engineer living with his father Bhaskaran in his village. Subramaniam gets a job offer in Russia and moves there, leaving his father alone in the village. As the story moves forward, Subramaniam gets a robot to take care of his father from Russia. Initially, Bhaskaran, who is strictly old school towards the use of technology or any aspect of modern way of life, is reluctant to adapt with the robot. But eventually, he gets so immersed into the machine that he starts treating him like his son, gets clothes stitched for the machine, and even gets its horoscope checked!
The movie captures the ability of the machine to adapt as per requirements to humans, understanding delicate desires, emotions, and behavioural aspects of human construct, which even other humans do not. Maybe we, as humans, cannot adapt as easily since each of us is not one but many. We all exist as trans-individuals in the multitude that we share with our surroundings. This trans-individual nature of humans often restricts us to our biases, preferences, and emotions. On the other hand, the machine tends to be one with the person, matches the wavelength of the multitude within which that person exists.
The movie ends when Subramaniam has to return the robot to the company as it was on trial period but the father is reluctant to do that and runs away with the robot. Eventually, the robot withdraws itself, making Bhaskaran realise that it is just a machine programmed to help humans.
The most recent cinematic representation of AI in India is the Disney+ Hotstar VIP show OK Computer by Anand Gandhi. The socio-politcial satire takes into account various perspectives towards technology as we enter into the India of 2031. These include tech conservationism and environmentalism, fronted by Jackie Shroff as Pushpak Shakur, the chief of an organisation named Jigyasu Jagriti Manch, which suspects technological development as a takeover of the human society we live in. We witness different perspectives of tech accelerationists, in the form of optimists like Radhika Apte's character as well as the the perils of tech capitalism in the series.
Revolving around a murder mystery, the series also takes a philosophical dig at the societies of tomorrow, which would be dominated by AI. The series personifies different levels of consciousness in the artificial intelligent robots. Some are conscious on the level of demand and supply of work they are assigned, some are products of self-conscious artificial intelligence, and then there is the protagonist Ajeeb, who is both politically and philosophically conscious. The series also portrays the existential and absurdist nature of the post-human societies, which could exist in the future if we take the behavioural aspects of the present characters.
As we witness the unfolding of AI and its implications in society, there will be more aspects which would tempt the human imagination to ponder upon, from the ideas of surveillance and control societies to the ideas of human-machine singularities, and other speculations which could take us beyond that. As technology progresses, the domain of AI shall remain a ripe ground for human mind to explore and represent in the form of art and cinema in order to connect with the popular culture.
Anshuman is a research scholar at Delhi University, working on Algorithms and their sociological and politico-economic implications.
All images from YouTube.
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