Ok Computer review: Disney+ Hotstar VIP show is a sci-fi comic whodunnit that dials up the whimsy
Ok Computer is homegrown sci-fi encased in a shell of post-comedy, pulled off by a crackling ensemble cast
There’s no other way to put it – Ok Computer is a mood. The new Disney+ Hotstar special, created by Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar, produced by Anand Gandhi, is homegrown sci-fi encased in a shell of post-comedy, pulled off by a crackling ensemble cast. The show isn’t always coherent, but it doesn’t pretend to be so either.
Goa, 2031. It is the future, so the land where legends such as Jaykant Shikre and Vijay Salgaonkar battled the police becomes the setting for a case where, this time round, the cops may have to deal with a killer robot instead. A self-driving car is implicated in the death of an unknown and unidentifiable man after it runs him over. (John Doe is dubbed ‘pav bhaji’ for the remainder of the case, because of the state of his corpse.)
Investigating this case is Saajan Kundu (Vijay Varma), a cop from the IT cell. You’ll have to wait a few episodes to know the tragicomic backstory behind it, but Saajan clearly has a bias against robots and Artificial Intelligence. He is sure that this isn’t an accident, but murder. In the other corner, there’s the firebrand Laxmi Suri (Radhika Apte) representing PETER (People for the Ethical Treatment of Every Robot), to remind him that according to the laws of robotics, robots can’t kill humans.
Around these two characters are a bunch more – humans and otherwise – each exceeding the other’s eccentricity. Wait till you meet, for instance, Pushpak Shakur (Jackie Shroff) – the elusive buck-naked leader of a technology-hating cult called Jigyasu Jagriti Manch. Or Ajeeb, a peak AI robot-turned popular messiah-turned stand-up comic. (Probably just me, but I swear I saw hints of Modi ji in him/her/it.) Or my personal favourite, the verbose Malayali junior cop Monalisa Paul, played to perfection by Kani Kusruti.
There are plenty of oddballs the show serves up, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one character that isn’t on their own trip.
That also defines much of the humour on the show – every scene is loaded with punchlines, Easter eggs or messages within, often with no relation to the situation at hand or the larger plot in question. From high-brow references to binary and quantum states to low-hanging fruit like Jackie Shroff’s holy poker, there’s truly something to satisfy everyone.
I won’t claim to fully understand all of the comedy on the show, or indeed many of the creative choices it takes, but there really is much to appreciate in Ok Computer. The production design is thoughtful and clever, with a delightfully tactile feel despite frequent overlays of VFX. You can tell that the production budget was tight, but they’ve maximised what they could through sheer intricacy of detailing. The show gets a measure of scale primarily due to the kind of spaces the characters inhabit. The world isn’t completely unrecognisable, but it is convincingly futuristic. (The police station with its bare concrete walls reminded me of Pankaj Kapur’s cop casa in Aditya Bhattacharya’s Raakh – a film that was also set in the future, when it was made.)
The robots have a more clunky, mechanical style to them, and they look and sound like they’re all designed for children. Still, it seems to fit with the overall tone of the series (surely humans don’t get it, if you don’t spoon-feed them like kids). The show’s visual design, along with its futuristic yet appropriately dissonant sound, makes it one of the most original works in Indian streaming content so far.
Then, of course, there’s that cast of actors. Radhika Apte seems to buy into the premise of the show the most - think of an Indian Greta Thunberg who grows up to take on the mantle of perpetually outraged activism for robotkind, and you get her Laxmi. Apte has already proven her versatility, but her sheer enthusiasm for this role really makes it one of her better ones. Vijay Varma, another actor who has already displayed range, pushes his limits with Saajan. He has a lot to do, and the actor does a lot, though his performance doesn’t always have the finesse of some of the other actors. (There were times I wondered how Nawazuddin Siddiqui or even Pankaj Tripathi would’ve done certain scenes where Saajan goes off the rails.)
Ratnabali Bhattacharjee and Vibha Chibber are two of the other fine talents among the cast, who should be on our screens so much more. Jackie Shroff is a hoot as well, though he’s largely channelling his inner and outer Jaggu for the most, until he goes on his surprisingly articulate anti-technology rants.
It is when the show pushes its gumption and luck too hard is where it reveals its cracks. A large corporation wanting to sponsor the next surgical strike is funny, sure, but it is too direct. There are many such punchlines and anti-something (or pro-something) monologues that stick out for being just too obvious, when the rest of creative and technical effort is so committed to the make-believe loony dystopia that the show otherwise wonderfully creates.
Even the mockumentary style it suddenly adopts – when characters break the fourth wall for video diaries (think Modern Family) – is a bizarre choice, because it isn’t consistent enough to become a theme for the show, nor does it add anything to the story apart from just one other way of being offbeat. I can’t imagine the show being any less effective even if the entire mockumentary angle had been dropped altogether. In any case, the six episodes of the show seem a lot longer than they actually are (around 40 minutes each), because the plot is pulled in all sorts of directions as it thickens, with relentless clever and anti-clever comedy to boot.
Despite these hiccups, Ok Computer is still immensely gripping, because you just never know what to expect. Some of the punchlines are so good yet so subtle, they’ll fly past you before you notice they were there. It also means that it is the kind of show that might be best appreciated with repeat viewings; because you’re absolutely missing a ton of stuff the first time around, so rapid are its mood swings.
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