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

Human – the new Hotstar Specials series, starring Shefali Shah (Delhi Crime) and Kirti Kulhari (Four More Shots Please!) in the lead – is set in the murky world of medical malpractice and unethical drug trials. Naturally, this strikes differently during an ongoing pandemic in its third year now and with a third wave sweeping the country. (In fact, Human acknowledges its existence multiple times — including a pharma boss complaining about how trials for their unapproved COVID vaccine brought them to their knees — though that’s being treated as a thing of the past.) Disney+ Hotstar series could be distressing for those for many reasons, as constantly being in and around doctors, hospitals, the sick, injections, and ambulances can be disappointing for a lot of people these days.

And even more troubling, some might interpret the man as fodder for how dangerous vaccines are. I can already imagine excerpts from the Disney+ Hotstar series circulating online: “Oh, look at what practices the doctors and the pharmaceutical giants are indulging in.” Or maybe I’m not giving enough audience. It’s not exactly Human’s fault, but the new Hotstar Specials seem inadvertently ill-timed.

As well as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, 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 be a lot to take. It’s a morbid and depressing story through and through. There is no apparent light at the end of the tunnel nor sparks of hope in any corner. At least it’s tonally consistent, so points for that. But it also tends to drag – I’ve seen seven of the 10 episodes in total – and relies too heavily on plot instead of rich character scenes.

Man’s greatest loss, however, is thinking it’s a lyrical drama. He pushes his narrative elements – trauma therapy, reckless ambition, and class commentary among others – to such a comedic degree that his characters threaten to turn into caricature. The new original Hotstar Specials tries to tackle too many things, honestly. And in doing so, Human pulls himself off the cliff in the process, when it would have been better to stay within his bounds.

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Set entirely in Madhya Pradesh’s capital, Bhopal – but so obviously shot largely in Mumbai, I mean I even saw my old office building – Human primarily revolves around the lives of three characters. The main character of 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 Bhopal disaster in 1984. And she has been surrounded by death all her life. She lost her family in 1984. As a mother, she lost her firstborn. And his job is to watch it. Gauri is broken and dealing with trauma – despite being a doctor, she feels like a failure that she can’t save hers. Although at times, it also feels like she thrives on being the victim and how she justifies herself for what she does.

The second Kirti plays Dr. Saira Sabharwal, a 35-year-old junior heart surgeon and hidden lesbian, who returns to her hometown after eight and a half years away. (Human never really justifies her setting in Bhopal, except for a few ties to 1984.) Every character in Human keeps remarking that she’s been handpicked by Gauri (which makes her special) but the most funny is that during all the time I spent watching the show, I did not 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, who both share an unconventional marriage with their wives. Pratap is a board member of Manthan, while Neil is a photographer for a traveling news agency.

Beyond their immediate orbit is good-for-nobody diener Mangu (Vishal Jethwa, of Mardaani 2) who is drawn into a get-rich-quick scheme: enrolling patients who don’t know any better in drug trials. Mangu doesn’t know it but his life is intimately linked to that of Gauri and Saira. The trials are being conducted with Manthan’s support and at the behest of Vayu Pharma chief Ashok Vaidya (Aditya Srivastava, of CID), who is mourning the COVID vaccine failures 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 that crosses socio-economic boundaries is central to the series (pun intended), while its causes, effects and repercussions are what Human is so eager to explore.

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

The most interesting part of Human, however, is Shefali Shah’s performance. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen her do before – with her voice slightly above a whisper most of the time, Shefali plays Gauri with a mix of extreme coldness, effortless charm and flippant detachment. . Her Gauri is a woman who is always unflappable, in control and knows she is better than everyone in the room. It’s a performance largely devoid of emotion and facial cues – as she doesn’t let anyone or anything touch her from a distance, without the subject of her dead son – except when she deploys them to manipulate others. For reasons not entirely clear though, Human hides Gauri for most of the first episode, only to present her in a dramatic, extended reveal as if she’s the big bad or something.

Opposite Shefali, Kirti Kulhari feels much simpler in Saira’s shoes. There’s meat on the bone here, at least in perspective, but the Disney+ Hotstar series never displays the confidence or insight to deal with it. Human doesn’t properly introduce or address its own traumatic past, and it navigates through its current issues in a way that makes its writers – Singh and Banerjee developed it and served as editors – feel like out of their depth. Yet Kulhari has a way of grounding the scenes and infusing them with realism, even when other actors around her threaten to go off the rails. More importantly, her Saira adds a much-needed veneer of relatability to Human, especially as the show delves deeper into soapy, lyrical territory.

It might seem like a tangent, but Human isn’t exactly a medical thriller – as Disney+ Hotstar marketed it – at least not in the standard sense. On the contrary, it is misleading as it suggests exciting happenings inside the hospital. But Human is much closer to a sociopolitical drama (with noble and grandiose aims). Gauri is not just trying to run a hospital in Bhopal and profit from it. She tries to rule Bhopal herself, which ranges from winning awards that boost her stature in society to influencing Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister elections. Sometimes it feels like House of Cards but with medical professionals. And that’s what Human really is – a Machiavellian drama about greed and unfettered ambition.

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

And who gets crushed in the endless quest for power? The likes of Mangu. Human’s most successful commentary — relatively speaking, given the misfires elsewhere — is about how desperate and helpless India’s poor are. In their vain attempts to make money but without the required knowledge, they end up being stuck on both sides. Pharmaceutical 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 is really no place for the poor and underprivileged. The man paints a dire picture of where we stand – though, sadly, he’s inelegant, too stretched and too full of himself to scale the heights he needs to.

Human premiered Friday, January 14 at 12 p.m. IST on Disney+ Hotstar. In the United States, Human is available on Hulu.

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