‘Human’, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, aims to expose the nexus between pharmaceutical companies, large private hospitals and government officials who exploit the poor in human trials for new drugs.

Shefali Shah in Disney+Hotstar web series HumanScreengrab | Disney+Hotstar
Flix Web Series Saturday, January 15, 2022 - 19:09

Over a period of time I have realised that there are two kinds of series streaming on OTT platforms. There are the shows that draw you in immediately with well-written characters, an intriguing premise and complete confidence in the writing. Then there are others where the writer and director seem acutely aware of the fact that they are creating a web series and try adding a spin or two on every element of the show. So the characters dress to be noticed with retro dark glasses, yards of chiffon and large diamond rings. There are weird coloured contact lenses given to villains, characters use medical terminology in casual conversation to show their expertise, and there is lots of smoking and drinking because that’s what wicked wealthy people do while swearing at least twice in a conversation.

Human, now streaming on Disney+Hotstar, falls into the second category. The show is ambitious in its intent and manages to build a fairly vast canvas of characters, all related in some way or the other to the dark underbelly of the medical world. The show aims to expose the nexus between pharmaceutical companies, large private hospitals and government officials who repeatedly exploit the poor and needy in human trials for new drugs.

Mangu (Vishal Jethwa) is tempted by an agent into including his parents in a drug trial. He will be paid a sizable amount of money for each round of the trial for each parent, and if he brings in more subjects he stands to earn. The young man is thrilled, unaware that S93R, the drug being tested, is actually banned in Europe and has killed others who didn’t know that they were part of a medical trial.

In a parallel universe, Dr Gauri Nath (Shefali Shah) is an acclaimed neurologist who runs Manthan, her own hospital, and is ably supported by her businessman spouse, Pratap Munjal (Ram Kapoor). Can I just say that I was a tiny bit pleased to see Pratap tell someone, “I’m Gauri’s husband Pratap Munjal, but you can call me Mr Nath”. Gauri and Pratap are a wealthy, influential couple and she is revered by the medical community for her service to humanity.

One of the many who worship her is Dr Saira Sabarwal (Kirti Kulhari), a cardiac surgeon who joins Manthan’s cardiology department. She is starry-eyed and idealistic but also capable and talented, the perfect combination for Gauri to mentor and manipulate. Saira too has a complicated personal life. She is also in the closet about her sexuality and a pathological liar when it comes to matters of the heart. It’s great to see a flawed, real character, but unfortunately it’s not clear how this contributes in any way to the larger narrative.

As we learn soon enough, all is not well with Dr Gauri. We learn she lost her family in the Bhopal gas tragedy and her son to meningitis. She repeatedly speaks of a traumatic childhood and is looking to open a new neurological research centre and hospital to, and I quote, “free people from their pain and trauma”.

So, a cardiologist battling problems of the heart and a neurologist with mental health issues (which in itself is an interesting idea) get together to ‘create a medical revolution’ and rule the fraternity ‘like the Begums of Bhopal’. The latter is a desperate reference to justify why the show was set in Bhopal, as is the subplot about the gas tragedy victims who become a device to eliminate a supporting character. This loss then very conveniently turns Saira into a whistle-blower who takes the show to its hurried conclusion.

Creators and directors Mozez Singh and Vipul Amrutlal Shah seem to have all the right intentions, but their execution looks far too self-conscious and theatrical. The only part where you actually feel for the characters is the subplot involving Mangu and his desperate attempts to get justice. Vishal does a great job as Mangu and his scenes with a young trapped nurse have genuine tenderness. The trapped young nurse is part of a Stepford Wives like project supervised by Roma Ma (Seema Biswas) who has a past connection to Gauri. This is perhaps the most unrealistic and farfetched part of the show, a personal experiment for Gauri who hopes to do an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on herself. Wish viewers could do the same after watching the poorly created prosthetic body parts and unconvincing surgical procedures.

If your head is reeling trying to join all the dots here, imagine what watching almost 500 minutes of this feels like. The most unfortunate part is that in spite of having a fabulous cast of talented actors, Vipul and Mozez can’t get us, or at least me, to really connect with any of the characters. Also, can we please stop creating female characters whose success and wealth is always undermined by bad marriages, bad attitudes or feelings of loneliness? We need to encourage women to be ambitious, not create cautionary tales out of ambitious women.

Shefali’s Shah’s strength lies in embodying the emotional core of a character. Her performances are effortless but here when she is forced to whisper her lines and ‘act’ like a combination of Claire Underwood and Miranda Priestly, she just can’t bring the same magic to the part. There are flashes of vintage Shefali, in moments when she gets angry or screams noiselessly, and it made me miss the actor I love. Kirti Kulhari fares better because she is allowed to speak and behave more naturally, and she makes the most of this freedom.

Human could have been a gripping thriller about those who create and prescribe the medicines we consume. A lack of realism and an ironic refusal to let its characters be more ‘human’ is what lets this medical drama down. Pop a chill pill – of the slang kind, not the recreational kind – and stay away.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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