Human Web Series Review: Shefali Shah pulls the strings in Hotstar’s over-ambitious Machiavellian drama

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Human – the new Hotstar Specials series starring Shefali Shah (Delhi Crime) and Kirti Kulhari (Four More Shots Please!) – is set in the dark world of medical malpractice and unethical drug testing. This, of course, is different during an ongoing pandemic in its third year and with a third wave sweeping the country. (In fact, Human acknowledges its existence on multiple occasions — including a pharma chief who complains about how the trials for their unapproved COVID vaccine have brought them to their knees — even though it’s being treated like a thing of the past.) The Disney + Hotstar series might be troubling for them for exactly these reasons, as being constantly in and around doctors, hospitals, sick, injections and ambulances can be triggering for many people these days.

And what’s even more disturbing, some might interpret humans as fodder for how unsafe vaccines are. I can already picture clips from the Disney+ Hotstar series circulating online: “Oh look what kind of offices doctors and pharmaceutical giants run.” Or maybe I’m not giving the audience enough money. That’s not exactly Human’s fault, but the new Hotstar Specials feel inadvertently out of place.

Human – created and directed by Shefali’s husband Vipul Amrutlal Shah (Aankhen) and Mozez Singh (Zubaan), the latter writing the Disney+ Hotstar series alongside Ishani Banerjee (Aligarh) – can’t just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it can be a lot to take . It’s a thoroughly morbid and depressing story. There is no apparent light at the end of the tunnel and no glimmer of hope in any corner. At least it’s tonally consistent, so points for that. But it also tends to be dragging – I’ve watched seven of the 10 total episodes – and relies too much on plot rather than rich character scenes.

Man’s greatest bane, however, is to think that it is an operatic drama. It pushes its narrative elements — including trauma therapy, ruthless ambition, and class commentary — to such comical levels that its characters threaten to boil over into caricatures. To be honest, the new original from Hotstar Specials tries to do too much. And in doing so, man drives himself off the cliff, although it would have been better if he had stayed within his limits.

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Set entirely in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh – but so obviously mostly filmed in Mumbai, I mean I’ve even seen my old office building – Human is primarily about the lives of three characters. Highly paid Shefali plays 45-year-old Dr. Gauri Nath, one of India’s top neurosurgeons and founder of the city’s top hospital, Manthan. Gauri is a victim, I mean a survivor, of the 1984 Bhopal disaster. And she has been surrounded by death all her life. In 1984 she lost her family. As a mother, she lost her firstborn. And her job is to stare at it. Gauri is heartbroken and dealing with trauma – despite being a doctor, she feels like a failure for not being able to save her own. However, sometimes it also feels like she benefits from being the victim and like she justifies herself for what she’s doing.

Runner-up Kirti plays 35-year-old junior heart surgeon and secret lesbian Dr. Saira Sabharwal, returning to her hometown after an eight and a half year absence. (Human never really justifies his Bhopal setting, aside from a few ties to 1984.) Every character in Human keeps remarking that they were handpicked by Gauri (which makes them special), but the funny thing is that I love the spent all the time watching On the show, I didn’t see Saira perform a single operation. Ram Kapoor (A Suitable Boy) and Indraneil Sengupta (Nimki Mukhiya) play Gauri and Saira’s respective husbands, Pratap Munjal and Neil, both of whom have unconventional marriages with their wives. Pratap is a board member at Manthan while Neil is a traveling news agency photographer.

Beyond their immediate orbit lies the good-for-nothing minion Mangu (Vishal Jethwa, from Mardaani 2), who becomes embroiled in a get-rich-quick scheme: taking in patients who don’t know any better for drug trials. Mangu doesn’t know it, but his life is intertwined with that of Gauri and Saira. The studies are being conducted with Manthan’s support and at the behest of Vayu Pharma CEO Ashok Vaidya (Aditya Srivastava, of CID), who is weeping over the failure of the COVID vaccine and the impact on his company’s revenue. This is how he justifies the rapid pursuit of a new heart drug for human trials — ignoring protocols and side effects.

This web, which transcends socioeconomic boundaries, is at the heart of the series (pun intended), while its causes, effects and ripples are what Human is so eager to explore.

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Kirti Kulhari as Dr. Saira Sabharwal in the Human Web series
Photo credit: Disney+ Hotstar

However, the most interesting part of Human is Shefali Shah’s performance. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen her do before – with a voice that’s mostly just above a whisper, Shefali plays Gauri with a mixture of extreme coldness, effortless charm and casual detachment. Her Gauri is a woman who is always unperturbed, in charge, and knows she is better than everyone else in the room. It’s a performance largely devoid of emotion and facial features – as she doesn’t let anyone or anything remotely touch her, absent the subject of her dead son – except when she uses them to manipulate others. For reasons not entirely clear, Human hides Gauri for most of the first episode just to introduce her in a dramatic, drawn-out reveal like she’s the big bad or something.

Unlike Shefali, Kirti Kulhari feels much more direct in Saira’s shoes. There’s meat on the bone here, prospectively at least, but the Disney+ Hotstar series never shows the confidence or acumen to tackle it. Human fails to properly represent or touch on her own traumatic past, and she runs through her current issues in a way that makes her authors – Singh and Banerjee, who developed it and served as lead authors – feel overwhelmed. Still, Kulhari has a way of grounding scenes and adding realism to them, even when other actors around them threaten to stray. More importantly, her Saira Human lends an air of much-needed relationality, even more so as the show ventures deeper into soapy, operatic territory.

This might seem like a tangent, but Human isn’t exactly a medical thriller — like Disney + Hotstar has marketed it — at least not in the usual sense of the term. This is rather misleading because it points to exciting events in the hospital. But Human is much closer to being a socio-political drama (with high and grandiose aims). Gauri is not just trying to run and profit from a hospital in Bhopal. She tries to run Bhopal herself, from winning awards that boost her standing in society to influencing the elections for Madhya Pradesh’s prime minister. Sometimes it feels like House of Cards but with medics. And that’s what Human really is – a Machiavellian drama about unbridled greed and ambition.

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Vishal Jethwa as Mangu in the Human Web series
Photo credit: Disney+ Hotstar

And who will be crushed in the never-ending quest for power? people like Mangu. Human’s most successful commentary – relative to the misfires elsewhere – concerns the desperation and helplessness of India’s poor. In their futile attempts to make money, but without the necessary knowledge, they are pressured from both sides. The pharma guys don’t care about their lives. And the system is set up to punish them for their status. No life, no money, no respect, no education, no awareness, India really is not a place for the poor and disadvantaged. Man paints a bleak portrait of where we are – unfortunately it is inelegant, overstretched and too full of itself to scale the heights it takes.

Human premiered on Disney+ Hotstar on Friday, January 14 at 12:00 AM IST. In the US, Human is available on Hulu.

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