The very disturbing opening scene of the Disney+ Hotstar series Escapye Live quickly establishes the blurred lines between online reality and performance. A tech company announces a mega contest on the interactive app Escaype Live. Contestants have 32 days to amass diamonds awarded by viewers. The person with the most diamonds will win three crore rupees.

Writer-director Siddharth Kumar Tewary creates composite characters. A girl from Jaisalmer is egged on by her ambitious mother and uncle to perform raunchy dance numbers. A young woman (Plabita Borthakur), trapped by circumstance and a twisted boss, plays up to sexual fetishes. A parkour enthusiast (Ritvik Sahore) wants to break out of his Mumbai slum. They must all compete with the leading contestant, the obnoxious and unhinged prankster Darkie (Sumedh Mudgalkar).

Seven of nine episodes are being streamed, with the final two episodes out on March 27.

Escapye Live starts on a solid footing, capturing the zeitgeist defined by Insta Reels and Tik Tok videos, influencers without antecedents and instant fame. Anyone with a smartphone is a potential star. But the series starts unravelling after the third episode, and the patterns of the principal contestants’ behaviour gets repetitive.

The performances are being monitored from a control centre in Bengaluru. A new recruit with a shifting moral compass threatens to blow up the whole thing. Krishna (Siddharth), a software engineer with a conservative and middle-class upbringing, is the virus that the company’s software cannot handle. Why the management keeps him employed in spite of his actions remains unexplained.

Siddharth in Escaype Live. Courtesy One Life Studios/Disney+ Hotstar.

This is Black Mirror territory, with a dash of The Hunger Games and Squid Game. A great effort is made to check the most salient social issues in India, from gender discrimination to sexuality and the class divide.

However, unlike the motivations of the participants in Squid Game, what drives the contestants on Escaype Live is not convincing enough, nor is the show dystopian and futuristic enough to justify a complete suspension of disbelief. Why would a wealthy family allow a deranged man to be a long-term houseguest? How can a mother pranked into believing that her son is dead condone the friendship between her son and an influencer? Why does a woman with so many choices believe playing up to male fantasies is her best option?

Tiwary’s universe is confused, flipping between the app’s futuristic headquarters to the ground reality of users whose online personas and actions earn both the consumer and the company revenue. The stubbornness of Rani (Aadyaa Sharma), the girl from Jaisalmer, and her erasure of innocence and manipulation by her guardians is the most frightening. The most problematic representation is of transgender Rajkumar/Meena (Rohit Chandel), who finds expression as a drag queen.

The performances are tonally imbalanced, especially among the supporting cast. As Escaype’s top management, Walushca D’Souza’s Gia and Jaaved Jaaferi’s Ravi (both costumed in structured power suits) show little or no compassion. Driven largely by profit, they see users as commodities and seek the validation of their Chinese bosses.

Sidharth, Mugdalkar and Chandel are the most watchable, inhabiting their characters completely from confusion to chaos, duty to desire, vulnerability to madness. Borthakur’s Hina needs the same kind of chutzpah as her online avatar of Fetish Girl who she plays with spirit.

Although the strong set-up and social commentary are lost along the way, the show scores in its passionate storytelling, building tension (including through background music) and production values. Escaype Live also succeeds in capturing the contrast between the world you see within a 13-inch screen and the universe outside of it, highlighting the downside of social media, instant celebrity, aspiration and measures of success.

Escaype Live (2022).