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Anand Gandhi: 'What would Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati or Govinda do?'

The director of 'Ship of Theseus' talks about the sci-fi genre, the trolley problem and his latest creation, the series 'OK Computer'

A still from 'OK Computer'
A still from 'OK Computer'

Anand Gandhi started his career as a 19-year-old writing daily soaps. By 31, he had made the philosophical drama Ship of Theseus, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 and won the National Award for best film. He also created the award-winning period horror Tumbbad and produced the non-fiction film An Insignificant Man.

Gandhi is also a playwright, an amateur magician, a student of philosophy, a filmmaker, an incubator of talent and a co-founder of Memesys Culture Lab (a cinema and new media studio). His latest creation, OK Computer, is a science-fiction comedy set in 2031, a story that unfolds after a self-driven car kills a pedestrian. Radhika Apte, Vijay Varma and Jackie Shroff lead the cast. Extrapolating the ‘trolley problem’, the six-part series questions culpability in a futuristic world where artificial intelligence and robots co-exist with humans. Gandhi spoke to Lounge about the under-explored sci-fi genre in India, and how he and his collaborators created the show's universe. Edited excerpts:

How do you regard the sci-fi genre?

Science fiction is a method of imagining futures so that we can course-correct. It’s the best insights coming together to create a simulation of the future, filtering out aspects of the future that cause anxiety, prioritising the desirable aspects of that future and figuring out steps to make that future manifest. However in the last century sci-fi has been relegated to paranoia generating.

When you see shows like ‘Black Mirror’, for example, however well made they are, they focus a great deal on paranoia and anxiety building. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) onwards, scientists have been seen as naïve, well-intentioned, maverick, mad geniuses that invariably create the monster or dragon. In cinema, it’s the cue for presidents to give rousing speeches and GI Joes to come and shoot the monster down. This narrative couldn't be further from the truth. Solutions have come from scientists who work in dark, dingy labs, mavericks that culture sometimes misunderstands. The vaccine in response to the current pandemic is one such example.

Anand Gandhi, co-creator of 'OK Computer'
Anand Gandhi, co-creator of 'OK Computer'

What was the impetus for ‘OK Computer’?

The show’s directors, Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar, wanted to explore our relationship with scientific insight, in particular a future with AI. We are rapidly moving towards a world where much of human enterprise, not just administration, finance and logistics, but also creativity and invention, would be replaced by AI.

All three of us are humongous fans of sci-fi including the work of Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Dan Harmon, Matt Groenig, Terry Pratchett and Karel Capek. There are multiple scopes to the position we are occupying. Globally we want India to be part of the conversation around synthetic intelligence and the future. Also, within the region, this is one of the first outings where near accurate sci-fi is being handled, that too with humour. We did not want to alienate audiences so we attempted to explore the genre with simplicity and humour, in a way that is both introductory and complex, as well as fun and easy.

When it comes to the future and AI, are the main questions or areas of concern centred around ethics, culpability and legalities?

The questions have stayed the same since 1920: legal frameworks, life rights, culpability, morality and a sentient robot’s rights. The trolley problem becomes a more urgent engineering problem because how do you programme a self-driven, autonomous vehicle to make the kind of decisions posited by the trolley problem?

We are now faced with an engineering problem, because how do you code an autonomous car to make the same decision? What choice would you make if a runaway trolley could kill either five people or just one?

How would you describe the show?

Pooja, Neil and I constantly asked, in such a situation, what would Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati or Govinda do? That’s the mindset of the series which is wacky and zany. Imagine technology coming to a country like India, with its vastness and population, things take their own complex, emergent qualities. It can’t be an immaculate, Kubrick-imagined precision; neat and tidy and engineered to perfection.

Human engagement means spontaneity, sporadic behaviour and a mess. Imagine that in Mumbai, robot-making is a cottage industry in Dharavi. Put tech in India where people have their way with juggad and we won't make super sophisticated androids. We would make all kinds of robots. That's why the robots look like tin boxes. That's the kind of world we imagined.

A poster for 'OK Computer'
A poster for 'OK Computer'

What was the development process like and how did production work in terms of three co-creators and designing a futuristic world?

I love to produce films. Not just finance or execute them, but produce. I enjoy finding talent, finding visionaries, nurturing them and bringing them together. Pooja has been the head of design since Ship of Theseus. She designed the architectural landscape and historical design of Tumbbad. Her specialisation is design thinking for cinema. Neil assisted on Tumbbad and he was the crowd director. He is also a science fiction writer and humorist. They are also co-founders in Memesys.

We spent time developing the idea about an AI that has become sentient and is demanding some semblance of rights. It took four years to conceive an entire universe of sequels, prequels, gaming, feature film, animation script and episodic content with multiple seasons. Once the whole universe was perfectly crafted we took it to Hotstar. They came on board very quickly. We shot the show just before the pandemic and the post was done during the pandemic.

What is the status of your film 'Emergence', which you announced last year?

Emergence (about a group of scientists in a race to save the world from a deadly pandemic) is still a couple of years away. Right now there are several pandemic scripts out there, so I am actually more interested in the second part of ‘Emergence’ which is about human consciousness, human behaviour and relationships with other beings on the planet.

I will soon begin shooting a show about a three-decade long saga between two friends. We are also producing a non-fiction film directed by Vinay Shukla and the board game Shasn will retail in a couple of months. A sequel to Shasn is also being launched later this year and we will make a foray into global digital gaming.

'OK Computer' will be on Disney+ Hotstar from 26 March.

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