Review: Human, Powered by Shefali Shah, Is an Overambitious Machiavellian Drama

Human — the new Hotstar Specials series, with 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 hits different during an ongoing pandemic in its third year now and with a third wave sweeping across the country. (In fact, Human acknowledges its existence multiple times — including a pharma boss complaining how the trials for their unapproved COVID vaccine brought them to their knees — though it’s treated like a thing of the past.) The Disney+ Hotstar series might be distressing for those very reasons, as constantly being in and around doctors, hospitals, the sick, injections, and ambulances can be triggering for a lot of people these days.

And more troublingly, some might construe Human as fodder for how vaccines are unsafe. I can already imagine clips of the Disney+ Hotstar series circulating online: “Oh, look at what practices doctors and pharma giants engage in.” Or maybe I’m not giving audiences enough due. This isn’t exactly Human’s fault, but the new Hotstar Specials does feel inadvertently ill-timed.

On top of 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), with the latter writing the Disney+ Hotstar series alongside Ishani Banerjee (Aligarh) — can be a lot to take. It’s a morbid and depressing tale through and through. There’s no seeming light at the end of the tunnel nor any 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 total 10 episodes — and is over-reliant on plot in lieu of rich character scenes.

Human’s biggest undoing though is in thinking that it’s an operatic drama. It pushes its narrative elements — trauma therapy, heedless ambition, and class commentary among others — to such a comical degree that its characters threaten to boil over into caricature. The new Hotstar Specials original tries to tackle too much, honestly. And in doing so, Human drives itself off the cliff in the process, when it would have been better off staying in its limits.

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Set entirely in the Madhya Pradesh capital of 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 top-billed Shefali plays the 45-year-old Dr. Gauri Nath, one of India’s top neurosurgeons and the founder of the city’s top hospital Manthan. Gauri is a victim, I mean survivor, of the 1984 Bhopal disaster. And she’s been surrounded by death all her life. She lost her family in 1984. As a mother, she lost her first-born. And her profession involves staring at it. Gauri is broken and grappling with trauma — despite being a doctor, she feels like a failure for not being able to save her own. Though at times, it also feels like she thrives on being the victim, and how she justifies to herself what she does.

The second-billed Kirti plays the 35-year-old junior cardiac surgeon and closet lesbian Dr. Saira Sabharwal, who returns to her hometown after eight-and-a-half years away. (Human never really justifies its Bhopal setting, save for a couple of connections to 1984.) Every character in Human keeps remarking how she’s been handpicked by Gauri (that makes her special) but the funny thing is that in all the time I spent watching 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 share an unconventional marriage with their wives. Pratap is a board member at Manthan, while Neil is a travelling news agency photographer.

Beyond their immediate orbit lies the good-for-nobody diener Mangu (Vishal Jethwa, from Mardaani 2) who gets pulled into a get-rich-quick scheme: enrolling patients who don’t know any better into drug trials. Mangu doesn’t know it but his life is intertwined with Gauri and Saira’s. The trials are being conducted with Manthan’s support, and at the behest of Vayu Pharma chief Ashok Vaidya (Aditya Srivastava, from CID) who is the one crying about their COVID vaccine failures and the impact to their business’ revenue. It’s how he justifies fast tracking a new heart drug for human trials — ignoring protocols and side effects.

This web that cuts across socioeconomic boundaries is at the heart of the series (pun intended), while its causes, effects, and ripples are what Human so eagerly wishes to explore.

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

The most interesting part of Human, though, is Shefali Shah’s performance. It’s unlike anything I have seen her do before — with her voice slightly above a whisper at most time, Shefali plays Gauri with a mix of extreme coldness, effortless charm, and off-handed detachment. Her Gauri is a woman who is always unruffled, in command, and knows that she’s better than everyone else in the room. It’s a performance largely devoid of emotions and facial cues — as she doesn’t let anyone or anything touch her remotely, sans the topic of her dead son — except when she’s deploying them to manipulate others. For reasons not entirely clear though, Human hides Gauri for most of the first episode, only to introduce her in a dramatic drawn-out reveal like she’s the big bad or something.

Opposite Shefali, Kirti Kulhari feels a lot more straightforward in Saira’s shoes. There is meat on the bone here, at least in prospect, but the Disney+ Hotstar series never displays the confidence or acumen to tackle it. Human doesn’t properly introduce or touch upon her own traumatic past, and it runs through her present troubles in a manner that gives off the feeling that its writers — Singh and Banerjee developed it and served as head writers — are out of their depth. Still, Kulhari has a way of grounding scenes and infusing realism into them, even when other actors around her are threatening to go off the rails. Even more importantly, her Saira adds a veneer of much-needed relatability to Human, more so when the show the pushes deeper into soapy, operatic territory.

This might seem like a tangent, but Human is not exactly a medical thriller — as Disney+ Hotstar has been marketing it — at least not in the standard meaning of the term. If anything, that’s misleading because it suggests thrilling events inside the hospital. But Human is much closer to being a sociopolitical drama (with lofty and grandiose aims). Gauri isn’t just trying to run a Bhopal hospital and profit off of it. She’s trying to run Bhopal itself, which extends from winning awards that boost her stature in society to influencing the elections of Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister. At times, it feels like House of Cards but with medical professionals. And that’s what Human really is — a Machiavellian drama about unfettered greed and ambition.

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Vishal Jethwa as Mangu in Human web series
Photo Credit: Disney+ Hotstar

And who gets crushed in the never-ending quest for power? The likes of Mangu. Human’s most successful commentary — speaking relatively, given the misfires elsewhere — is on how desperate and helpless India’s poor are. In their vain attempts to make a buck but lacking the requisite knowledge, they end up being squeezed from both sides. The pharma guys don’t care about their lives. And the system is set up in a way that punishes them for their status. No life, no money, no respect, no education, no awareness, India really is no place for the poor and unprivileged. Human paints a dire portrait of where we are — though sadly, it’s inelegant, overstretched, and too full of itself to scale the heights it needs to.

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

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