Human, On DisneyPlus Hotstar, Is An Ill-Timed, Ill-Conceived Medical Thriller

A fine cast is lost in the chaos
Shefali Shah and Kirti Kulhari in Human.
Shefali Shah and Kirti Kulhari in Human.

Creator: Vipul Amrutlal Shah, Mozez Singh
Writer:Mozez Singh, Ishani Banerjee
Director:Vipul Amrutlal Shah, Mozez Singh
Cast: Shefali Shah, Kirti Kulhari, Ram Kapoor, Vishal Jethwa, Atul Kumar, Indraneil Sengupta, Sandeep Kulkarni, Sushil Pandey
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

It's a malaise exclusive to the Hindi streaming space. I've seen it before. Most makers assume that telling an original 500-minute-long story means doing more. More plot. More characters. More twists. More drama. More motion. Forward, backward, sideways. It's like seeing a bungalow and concluding that the best way to optimize its space is by packing it with people and paintings and furniture. Netflix's Aranyak is a recent example, but it also had a distinct visual language. An atmosphere. A sense of winter dread. In comparison, Human has no chill. As a medical thriller set in a post-Covid world, the ten-episode series is so busy being busy that every scene is forced to do the work of both text and subtext, both mind and heart. 

So characters don't converse, they narrate. It's not enough for people to speak; they must explain their identity, intent and emotions while speaking. It's not enough for people to be poor; they must be poor enough to wonder aloud why they can't afford a packet of chips after buying bus tickets, and poor enough to dance when they get a new TV set. It's not enough to be a whistleblower; you must also be a star surgeon and closeted lesbian in a troubled marriage with a hunky photojournalist. It's not enough to be rich and sinister; you must be rich enough to have a wayward son that hates you and sinister enough to weep at the shrine of another dead son. In short, Human is anything but human. (I know, too easy). Human has 99 problems and its pitch is one. (Tougher than you think). To err is Human. (There we go). Human is…never mind. I'll quit while I'm ahead. 

Speaking of mind and heart, the premise of Human pits one against the other. The protagonist, Saira Sabharwal (Kirti Kulhari), is the new cardiac surgeon at Manthan, a leading hospital in Bhopal. The antagonist, Gauri Nath (Shefali Shah), is a famous neurosurgeon and enigmatic owner of Manthan. It's no surprise that the title of the series rhymes with "woman". The nice metaphors end here. Unbeknownst to her admirers, Gauri is an evil mastermind. She is the backbone of the corrupt pharma-politics nexus behind the rolling out of a dubious miracle drug called S93R. The strange name of this drug is seared into my head because it is mentioned once every two minutes; at one point, I could swear I heard a dog bark in alphabets and numbers. 

As illegal human trials and shady deals start to dominate the plot, it emerges that Gauri's ambition isn't to get richer. Her ulterior motive is personal – the wonder drug is just a device to appease her Italian partner firm, who are in possession of a groundbreaking "trauma erasure" drug. Gauri, a Bhopal Gas tragedy survivor and grieving mother, wants to wipe out memories of her past. Her long-time accomplice (Seema Biswas) is already injecting the drug into a slew of young nurses in a wonky A Handmaid's Tale-style setup. It beats me as to why Gauri – who gets naysayers bumped off and ministers in a tizzy – runs such an elaborate scam when she can just fly to Italy and get Eternal-Sunshine-of-a-Spotless-Mind-ed anytime. I suppose it has something to do with perfecting the composition of the drug. Saira, of course, gets sucked into Gauri's world before becoming the righteous thorn in her flesh. 

It's obvious that Human bites off more than it can chew. Even audacity has a language, but this isn't it. Most dramatic moments – including a same-sex tryst and the entire Handmaid-ish segment – exist for effect. For starters, the medical jargon is far from convincing. I don't mean the actual terminology, which is rooted in science-fiction to begin with. I mean the feel of it all. The gait. The space. The little details. Unlike Mumbai Diaries 26/11, for instance, the surgery scenes are tacky, with the close-ups of hands and gory prosthetics barely matching the action. Secondly, the exposition dumps are wild, which leads to the kind of awful dialogue-writing that makes Christopher Nolan's info-motion look subtle. The first episode opens in a trial lab, where the visiting pharma boss stops short of literally reading out a mission statement: "Now that Animal Trials Phase 0 is completed, we can move to Human Trials Phase 1, and we at Vayu Pharmaceuticals have hired the best scientists for tests so that you, Mr. Dealer, can give me the best deal". This same man, while bribing a politician later in the series, graciously informs us that "it wasn't easy burning the files and moving us from Phase 0 directly to Phase 2 but you did it," to which the politician replies, "What can I say? My daughter's demands to study abroad aren't simple". They may as well have read out horoscopes while at it. At another point, Gauri's old accomplice actually narrates Gauri's own childhood as a story to her (!) so that we – the harebrained audiences – can see and hear the flashbacks. All too thoughtful.

Then there are the three parallel narratives, which feel like two too many: Gauri, Saira, and Mangu (Vishal Jethwa), a slum-dweller who becomes an unwitting pawn in the human trials scheme. It has to be said that Mangu's arc – his ambitions, tragedies, feelings for an enslaved nurse, redemption – reeks of tokenism. He seems to be written by makers out to assuage the guilt of class privilege, especially in the way a happily ever after is force-fitted on him to subvert the victim narrative (the poor lose out – but not this time!); it's a disingenuous ending to a story that's trying to make a statement without knowing the grammar.

Even the show's aesthetic feels borrowed. Some of the score, for example, mirrors the haunting wildness of The White Lotus theme for no good reason other than the fact that there are plenty of human guinea pigs in the series. In all the intercutting, the editing becomes a huge problem. For a show that swears by exposition, crucial chunks of character growth and plot points seem to be missing. We never see Saira realize the truth about Gauri. We never see why Gauri's son decides to forgive her. We never see what prompts Saira's parents to suddenly support her, or what exactly changes her hostile boss' attitude towards her. 

Last but not least, a fine cast is lost in the chaos. Kirti Kulhari does well as Saira, particularly in the more intense scenes with her parents and husband. I thought she wasted an opportunity in Criminal Justice 2, but she is easily the only human in Human who's gotten the memo. The male actors (Vishal Jethwa, Atul Kumar, Gaurav Dwivedi, Aasif Khan) are solid, but they look like they're trying to invent fire underwater. Most of all – and I never thought I'd be writing this in my lifetime – Shefali Shah is a letdown. Her Gauri is jarring: a peculiar combination of writing, directing, briefing and old-school hamming. She starts off speaking in a weird lilting voice, like a cult leader, and even though the plot rationalizes her tonal idiosyncrasies, it's hard to imagine an actor of her caliber delivering a more overwrought performance. 

I like the idea of Shefali Shah playing a negative character, given how she tends to use her eyes as silent screams. But she flaunts those glassy glares here, turning Gauri into a typically unhinged movie villain instead of supplying her with deft shades. If the brief was Claire Underwood from House of Cards – what with Gauri's open marriage and closed soul – it's a brief that falls flat. In that sense, Human does the unthinkable: it makes a great performer look human. And I could really do with that memory erasure injection now. 

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