Mayank Shekhar: What happens when we die

Updated: 06 February, 2018 22:48 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Meeting the cast of Altered Carbon, the Netflix show that answers life's most existential question: What if nobody really ever died?

Altered Carbon is based on Richard K Morgan's novel of the same name
Altered Carbon is based on Richard K Morgan's novel of the same name

Mayank ShekharMost Indians may not have watched the stunning Mexican actor Martha Higareda on screen, although she's had a few popular acting credits, like Street Kings (2008), with Keanu Reeves. A lot of people might know her back in Mexico, partly because of India though, I tell her, as we meet for a round-table interview in Seoul. In 2017, Higareda starred in the Spanish version of Rajkumar Hirani's 3 Idiots (2009), titled 3 Idiotas, which, she says, cracked it at the box office in Mexico. She played Kareena Kapoor's role in the Carlos Bolado film, which happened because one of her producers, visiting India, had caught the Aamir Khan-starrer, made her watch it, and she "instantly fell in love with the coming of age movie, that talks about following your dreams — a message that needed to be passed on in Mexico."

Our interview, however, is centred on the latest Netflix series Altered Carbon, where Higareda plays the female lead — a 10-part, ultra-dark, wholly dystopian sci-fi drama, set in the 24th Century, that couldn't be more polar an opposite to the saccharine 3 Idiots, or Idiotas, as it were. Altered Carbon, in essence, imagines a world in which it is possible to transfer contents of the human brain, like any other computer software, into another body, once you're physically dead.

While the premise sounds as futuristic/far-fetched as it gets, the show's creator Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genesys) says, "We're not very far off from some version of this happening already. A great amount of time, money, and energy is being devoted right now in Silicon Valley to achieve just this: physical longevity, digitisation of consciousness, copying a person into Artificial Intelligence (AI), dead-bots (talking to the dead)…."

Kalogridis cites the example of the transgender billionaire Martine Rothbath, who's created an AI version of her partner Beena Aspen, which is sculpted in silicon, but looks exactly like Beena. Clearly, it's hard to tell future from the present anymore. Which applies just as much to popular entertainment, given how hugely Netflix has bet on Altered Carbon, looking at the sheer number of billboards dotting the skyline of Mumbai alone (prime properties that, until recently, were reserved for Bollywood blockbusters, reality TV, or desi shows on kitchen-politics). Recent data suggests Indians have emerged as the biggest binge-watchers on Netflix — they wrap up a series in three days flats, compared to four, which is the global average.

Altered Carbon, I reckon, should ideally not be binge-watched. For one, it's too densely populated, with multiple plots, and seemingly complex concepts, to be consumed in a hurry. Also, at the heart of the show is the fundamentally existential question that man, mainly through science and religion, has grappled with over centuries: What happens to us when we die. Or equally significantly, what if we don't die at all? The premise of Altered Carbon is very much in line with the Hindu belief that the human body is merely a vessel, while the soul is eternal.

What if you had a choice of never dying; would you opt for it? "It would be hard to say no," admits the show's sturdy, Swedish-American lead actor, Joe Killeman (Robocop, Suicide Squad), although he says the series maintains that the beauty of life lies in the fact that we are, at some point, going to die. The real power to harness immortality in Altered Carbon rests among the super-rich, and this gives the show — otherwise packed with action, romance, and a murder mystery — an entry point for some scathing 'social commentary', also very much based on the present: "The rich are already becoming a different species (take access to medical technology, for instance)," Killeman argues, weighing in on the writer/creator Kalogridis's point on long-term effects of the "corrosive, deeply anti-democratic nature of a widening gap between the haves and have-nots."

Altered Carbon is based on Richard K Morgan's novel of the same name, a reader of which tells me it differs slightly from the show on account of same missing subtexts. Also, as would be true for any visual adaptation, Kalogridis says, the book offers "perspective from inside the mind of a character", while a show (or a film), well, just has to show.

Morgan's novel was originally optioned for a feature film, and Kalogridis is glad she could get on Netflix instead. There would be hardly any breathing space, if she tried to "cram all the character graphs, and emotional growths into two hours." And I suspect explaining a lot of esoteric terms — Meth, Envoy, stack, re-sleeving, de-fragging, etc — as well. The Hispanic star Higareda, on the other hand, faced the opposite issue, trying to remake the Bollywood film 3 Idiots for a Mexican audience. "The trick was in figuring out ways to translate a movie that's almost three hours long, into an hour and half, with all the heart in it. That was the challenge. But it worked really well," she says.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to

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First Published: 06 February, 2018 06:25 IST



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