‘Human' review: Shefalee Shah and Kirti Kulhari give supercharged performances

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Shefalee Shah’s Gauri has a Hitchcockian combination in her ability to be scared and scary at the same time.

One of the off-kilter but inspired tracks of Human, a Disney+Hotstar special created by Mozez Singh and directed by seasoned Bollywood producer-director Vipul Amrutlal Shah as well as Singh, burgeons ominously inside a smoggy, bulb-lit house in Bhopal. Nine young girls, nurses at a government hospital and victims of childhood trauma, are  incarcerated and subjected to clinical surveillance and an experimental treatment by the home’s guard and maitre d’, Roma Ma (Seema Biswas). A neurological clinical trial is in progress that will potentially free the brains of the girls of all pain and trauma—the savage search for a trauma-eraser magic pill.

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This is also the track that best represents the limitations of this acid satire of a series on big pharma greed and medical malpractice—despite its ambitions, the 10-episode series doesn’t fly, just as despite its best intentions, the incarcerations track—which reveals how hostility towards women has thrived because the cruelest oppressors are women who subjugate other women to preserve some semblance of their own power— simply exists as a layer to the character of one of its two lead protagonists, the sinister sociopath Dr Gauri Nath (Shefalee Shah).

Human is uneven but propulsive. There’s a terrific pulse of energy throughout, a voltage which drives it over 10 episodes. It is not just an intricate, despairing meditation on the shabby compromises involved in human clinical trials exploiting vulnerable sections of society—in this case, many who are still grappling with medical repercussions of the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal 28 years ago.

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There is real anger here, and a real sense that it is worthwhile striking back against wrongdoing. The storytelling has a lot of gusto. But its rigour and imagination, visually as well as the way scenes are shot and performed, are focused mostly on the world around its two protagonists. The disempowered and the poor—who are the victims of the clinical trials envisioned and executed by Gauri in cahoots with local politicians and a pharmaceutical giant—do not have agency or depth as characters. The poor are just that: poor. They are always breaking their heads against impossible situations and brutality, always speaking in the same desperate tones of voice, their characters never rising above their circumstances to be fully human—just how we have have seen them in Hindi movies for decades and decades. The classic Bollywood-style histrionics are theirs to channel. These are the most contrived and overheated parts of the series, never really coalescing with the fascinating and horrifying world of the oppressors and messiahs.

At Manthan, a hospital that Gauri, a neurosurgeon, and her husband Pratap (Ram Kapoor) own, Dr Shindey (Atul Kumar, as usual, efficiently carrying off the role) is a long-time associate as cardiac surgeon. Saira (Kirti Kulhari) joins as another cardiac surgeon, while a massive clinical trial is underway. Without ethical practices and transparency, the town’s poorest sections are vulnerable as subjects. Nath shrewdly runs a cabal of doctors, pharmaceutical companies, politicians for profit and ambition—an ambition, we soon realise, fuelled by Gauri’s harrowing childhood and consequently, adulthood, when she lost one of her sons. There comes a point when the two women at the centre, united by the zeal to “save lives” as well as sharing their personal suffering, have to choose whose side they are on, leading to a big-bang, destructive climax.

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All the main characters inside the safe walls of Manthan and Vayu, the hospital and the pharmaceutical, respectively, are specious and self-possessed, credibly human and flawed, but also greedy and vain. Doctors are terrifyingly powerful. The directors and writers (Ishani Banerjee has created and written it along with Singh) manage to build the dystopia slowly and assuredly—like an intravenous drip, almost. The haunting background score by Saurabh Bhalerao, Suyash Kelkar and Nupoora Niphadkar effectively ratchets up the suspense and terror of Gauri’s grand designs. The cinematography by Sirsha Ray adds to the build-up of atmospheric effect.

#Disney+Hotstar, #human, #Kirti Kulhari, #medical drama, #review, #Series review, #Shefali Shah
Kirti Kulhari in ‘Human’.

Despite its unequivocal moral lens, Human, however, is memorable more for its two supercharged performances. The two lead characters are spectacles of rational control. Gauri is Machiavellian, and firmly entrenched in her past trauma; Saira is an idealist in her professional life and the way she related to other human beings, but uses deceit to cover up her personal demons. Shah’s Gauri has a Hitchcockian combination in her ability to be scared and scary at the same time, evoking fear as well as fascination. She moves from torpid melancholy and agonised self-reproach to the kind of steely terror that results when grief is transformed in a human being into something charged with not just vindication but absolute, helpless evil.  This is Shah’s most challenging role and her acting skills are notches above the high-wattage actor that we have seen her as before.

As Saira, Kulhari is perfect for bringing out Gauri’s neurosis. Kulhari handles the pressure of the personal-professional dissonance in her character with ease—without any acting tricks showing up. While Gauri becomes more and more distant from us, transforming into a figure whose fascination is in her Otherness, Kulhari’s Saira becomes increasingly relatable. Both actors form the emotional kernel of the show and pull it off with tremendous maturity and prowess.

Hardly has villainy been so riveting and so steeped in abuse, pain and unchannelled grief. Gauri is an unforgettable character in that sense. And hopefully in the OTT universe, we will see more such characters.

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