OK Computer is a masterpiece. It is a remarkably prescient treatise on time and technology, a uniquely impressionistic mood piece. How startlingly it begins, the atmosphere it creates, the way its words mislead and course-correct, and how you’re left dazed and spent and forever changed. I can’t forget the first time I heard it. It was Radiohead’s third album, immediately separating those English rockers from all contemporaries. I could gratefully write an entire column on that devastatingly beautiful song No Surprises, about suicide and “a heart that’s full up like a landfill”. Exquisite.
I am, alas, not doing that here, as OK Computer also happens to be the name for a new Indian web-series, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. Created and directed by Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar, this ambitious attempt at homegrown science-fiction takes India a decade into the future to serve up a satirical murder-mystery featuring gender-neutral robots, giant holographic policewomen, and a merrily naked Jackie Shroff. It’s the kind of show we’ve never seen.
We may not have been missing much.
The series starts with a corpse. In the year 2031, a human has been killed by a self-driving taxicab, but automated cars — like all artificial intelligence — are programmed not to harm or disobey humans, so who is the murderer? The body is mangled beyond recognition, so who is the victim? Answers are sought by a short-tempered AI-hating cop paired with his ex, a robot-loving activist from an organisation called PETER (People for the Ethical Treatment of Every Robot). He believes these damned machines will be the death of us. She believes machines are incapable of malice.
The show has a great cast, and a handful of potentially meaty ideas, like a robot meant to save humanity choosing to perform stand-up comedy, and the member of a cult making her teenage daughter sign a nondisclosure agreement. What the series does not have is any tonal awareness, with each moment turned into something nonsensical, a street-play approach to a science-fiction series. Add to this an unpleasant visual aesthetic and an agonisingly shrill talking robot, and you have six 40-minute episodes which feel specifically designed to torture the viewer.
The principal plot of investigating a murder committed by a self-driving car feels suspiciously close to Amazon Prime series Upload, and OK Computer concocts a childish mystery with — literally — two suspects. It feels less like a whodunnit and more like a spoof of a film that doesn’t exist.
Absurdist comedy can be wondrous. While this oddball series most closely resembles Pankaj Parashar’s anything-goes stoner comedies of the 1980s — Peechha Karo and Ab Aayega Mazaa, where spies and lovers ran literal circles around each other — those films unabashedly celebrated silliness. This series desperately wants us to believe it is smart. That makes it tedious. Each episode stretches endlessly, a disappointingly banal plot embellished by too many quirks, too many winks to the audience, and, most crucially, too little genuine wit.
Visually, it needed style. It’s a clever (and budget-friendly) move to develop a scruffy sci-fi aesthetic for India, a non-streamlined future in keeping with our technologically backward government offices. The intentional shoddiness of future tech is not the problem, but besides a couple of flourishes — a cop with a police-car style flasher on his shoulder, a Video Game Commission building with a Super Mario type question-mark hologram over its doorway — the show looks mostly unimaginative. It’s too dull to be memorable.
Vijay Varma is flat-out fantastic as Saajan Kundu, the clueless officer skeptical about technology, moving with the awkwardness of a nerdy child poured into a tall man’s body, seemingly unsure how humans work. He lives inside a fur-lined van, gets smacked in the face by toast, and eats a pineapple with wild gusto. Radhika Apte is a riot as the robot-sympathising Lakshmi Suri, with a Thunberg-ian backstory. “Do you like water?”, she coos lovingly to a robot, and later kisses another — shaped like a large teddy bear — in an intimate, decidedly non-platonic way. It is liberating to see the actress, cast so often in tormented roles, here embracing the lunacy.
The third protagonist is a robot called Ajeeb, one who was meant to save us all — one who turned manure into water during a drought, and back into manure during a manure shortage — and s/he sounds like a broken wind-up doll doing babytalk. This is so infuriating that I actually changed the show’s language to Bengali for scenes where Ajeeb talked a lot, merely to escape that godawful voice. Note to creators: There is a reason Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (an obvious influence here) is narrated by The Book, and not by Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Kani Kusruti shines as Monalisa Paul, an enthused policewoman caught between Laxmi’s ideology and Saajan’s seniority, an intern even in her own fantasies. Jackie Shroff laughs that booming laugh as “anti-vaxxer, anti-robot” cult leader Pushpak Shakur, but despite his magnetism (and constant nakedness), the actor tragically gets only a dozen minutes of screentime. These actors deserved better.
Good on Disney+ Hotstar, though. This show is made for such a small and specific venn-diagram — stoners curious about science-fiction who may know Hitchhiker’s Guide, but haven’t read Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick, or watched genuine sci-fi — that it feels weirdly thrilling OK Computer even exists. It opens a door even if it may not know where to go.
By the time I made it to the last episode, like a hallucinating long-distance runner, OK Computer suddenly seemed real. As characters started feeling things, and the barrage of one-liners halted to let in consequences, the show whirred to life. Briefly. Then a filmmaker showed up to lecture us about mankind. More than anything, OK Computer is guilty of the only unforgivable science-fiction sin: it offers no new perspective, insight or question. No Surprises.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.