OK Computers Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar on Creating Home-Grown Indian Sci-Fi
Making its European debut in International Film Festival Rotterdam’s new talent category Bright Future is “OK Computer,” a six-part Hindi sci-fi comedy set 10 years in the future.
Featuring an AI-driven “New India” of towering smart holograms and drone superhighways, the Disney Plus Hotstar series stars Vijay Varma (“A Suitable Boy”), Radhika Apte (“Sacred Games”) and Jackie Shroff (“Criminal Justice”), and follows the capers of a hard-boiled detective (Varma) who is called out of retirement when a self-driving car gets hacked, killing a random pedestrian.
The series was produced through Mumbai-based Memesys Culture Lab and created by two of the company’s Goa-based stakeholders: first-time directors Pooja Shetty, a former production designer and architect, and Neil Pagedar, a writer and documentary filmmaker.
Fellow Memesys cofounder Anand Gandhi (“Ship of Theseus”) – an IFFR alumni – also co-wrote the script.
The directorial duo spoke to Variety about the challenge of futuristic world-building in a culture that has no template for sci-fi. Excerpts from the conversation.
What was the starting point for this project?
Pagedar: We grew up reading and watching a lot of science fiction but there wasn’t much coming out of the Indian subcontinent. There was “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner” and films from other parts of the world, but never our own. We wanted to re-orientate the genre toward India and for it to comment on our culture and our 50-odd years of independence. We pictured a world of advancement but also one that is still steeped in tradition.
How long did the series spend in development?
Shetty: We’d been writing a version of this story for five or six years and it has gone through various incarnations: an animated series, a graphic novel… and it was supposed to be set a hundred years on from Indian Independence in 2047 – but because India doesn’t really have that lineage for sci-fi – we set it 10 years in the future. It was a challenging process for us to get this off the ground.
Pagedar: Many executives didn’t really understand the sci-fi premise, thinking anything fantastic must borrow from mythology or fantasy not technology. We’ve been in rooms where people will say to us “So the car’s possessed by ghosts?” because they can’t make sense of it in any other way. It’s easier for them to believe a “Christine” type premise than it is to conceive of a hacked, self-driving car.
The turning point came when one of our investors, the filmmaker Anand Gandhi, invested his faith and resources into the project, which enabled us to continue writing.
While the series is set in the future, it has a uniquely Indian feel to it – what were your ambitions for the look of the show?
Shetty: The series is a coming-of-age story of the robots and we wanted them to have their own characters and a history and to also reference our own pop culture. There were these metallic wardrobes, for instance, common in India when we were growing up, and we used that material and that aesthetic to create some of the bots. There’s also a penguin bot that provides wi-fi to villages, which is based on these dustbins with animal fiberglass sculptures that you see in a lot of our amusement parks.
For the locations we blended Goa in with the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, which is the architectural capital of India – famed for its modernist buildings commissioned by Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier – who designed whole villages in the state. B.V. Doshi, who won the Pritzker Prize last year, also lent us his spaces for the series.
The series is packed full of puns, surreal moments and deadpan humor – what was your inspiration for the comedy?
Shetty: It intrigued us that of all the U.S. medical dramas out there “Scrubs” is reported to be the most accurate show – which was interesting because it’s a comedy. We liked this idea of using comedy and still exploring hard science including [sci fi writer] Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The idea was to communicate sophisticated scientific ideas and pass them into a language that viewers would understand and be entertained by.
Pagedar: We grew up watching a lot of U.S. sitcoms and admire the economy of humor – there’s one big laugh every minute. So in terms of structure we designed scenes that were packed full of jokes.
Other influences were Jacques Tati classics such as “Playtime” and the films of Roy Andersson because these filmmakers are masters of finding absurdity in human interactions.
Just in terms of the writing and the dialogue and the jokes, “Fawlty Towers” and Monty Python had a great impact on us growing up, and everything that Douglas Adams has ever written and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” became our guide for the show.
At what stage did Disney Plus Hotstar come on board?
Shetty: Four years into the project in 2019 – we were at the stage where we were attempting to make it ourselves as a film – however Disney agreed to come on board and help to fund it provided that we make it into a six-part series. Other than specify the format they left us in complete creative control.
The show dropped in March in India – what kind response have you had?
Pagedar: The data hasn’t been shared with us yet, but younger age groups have reacted really positively. We’ve had messages from eight-year-old kids, who have watched it multiple times, want to talk about the idea of consciousness and technology.
What other plans do you have for the unique universe that you’ve created?
Pagedar: We don’t know if there’s going to be a second season but there are a lot of exciting ideas that we are keen to pursue. We envisioned this first season as a bit of a conversation starter; testing the waters of sci-fi in India – and now we want to start a conversation with rest of the world.
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