Disney+ Hotstar has marketed ‘Human’ as a ‘gripping new medical thriller’. However, considering that the audience is in on the crimes that are taking place on the medical front from the 2nd episode itself, the story actually becomes a plot that is driven by its characters and their pasts. Though the main thread of Human is supposed to be how India’s poverty-stricken people are exploited by big pharma companies and hospitals for drug trials with the promise of generous payouts, it actually suffers from being over-saturated with sub-plots and backstories. This is one of those rare instances where the actors are doing a great job, but the writing and direction are letting them down. At the centre of this is Shefali Shah as Dr. Gauri Nath, the co-founder of the hospital ‘Manthan’ and an almost messiah-like figure who, we are initially told has been wanting to heal and help patients after the life-changing Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984.
Shah is phenomenal as the controlled and calculating Dr. Nath. She completely deviates from the shrill and on-the-nose performance that we have come to expect from darker characters in OTT shows, and actually plays Gauri with a conviction that makes it believable that the other characters are getting manipulated by her charm and persona. Her relationship with her husband seems more bound in mutual profit than any emotional kinship, and while her son starts off clearly hating his parents and rebelling against them, she works to manipulate him and bring him to her side. Along with her, we have Kirti Kulhari playing Dr. Saira Sabharwal, who has returned to Bhopal after about 8 years to work at Manthan as she is Dr Nath’s ‘best find’. Kulhari also delivers a great performance, but the material – especially when it addresses the character’s sexuality – is too performative and feels like it is catering to the heteronormative gaze. We also have Vishal Jethwa as Mangu, an ambitious morgue-worker who chances upon an opportunity to earn money by getting people from his community to participate in drug trials. He perhaps has the most believable storyline and is beyond convincing because of the organic texture that he brings to the performance. The supporting cast is great as well, with the likes of Ram Kapoor and Shruti Bapna going beyond the material that has been handed to them.
A common problem with a lot of OTT shows is the absence of censorship means that they feel a need to tick a certain kind of checklist with ‘sexual interaction that adds shock value’ written at the top in bold letters, and this show is one hundred per cent guilty of that. At one point, Saira’s photojournalist husband asks her to ‘please’ take off her top during a video call – and honestly, I wanted to barf. As if this ‘please’ was not enough, they literally show her just sitting there for his consumption- not participating, not engaging, nothing – so that he can look at her and jerk off. She is not even speaking – just smiling and staring at him do it. After he is done, they say bye and she calls him a ‘pervert’ jokingly. They do not even mention the possibility of her also wanting to masturbate. In another instance, we zoom in on a woman’s cleavage because we are following the gaze of the young man sitting next to her. I seriously wondered if there was no other way to depict this other than the camera doing this. Honestly, the entire scene located in the bar/disco served no purpose to further the plot other than to objectify women under the pretext of giving us an insight into how these characters view them – which again, added little to nothing to the plot.
I am also tired of a character’s queerness being a reveal or a plot twist, and this show sets it up exactly like that. The background score is anyway omnipresent and loud, but every time there is any queer desire on screen, we get suspense/ reveal-themed music. One of the main threads that drives the plot forward is the growing intimacy between Saira and Gauri. The problem is that while Shah and Kulhari give amazing performances individually, there is just no romantic or sexual chemistry between them. And I say this as someone who is always rooting for the possibility of a spark between two femme characters. The eventual scene in the last episode, where Saira is attempting to get her parents to acknowledge her orientation instead of living in denial, also had so much potential but it just does not work. Kulhari is clearly giving that scene her all, so are the actors playing her parents- but the dialogue sounds so out of place that it feels completely disconnected from reality. She wants her parents to get to know her and actually be interested in her life journey – which is great – but the route that she chooses to take is by tracing her sexual experiences. Not once, in this entire conversation, does she mention what her identity means to her or even what it means in terms of who she is and how she loves.
This idea of queerness being something that one ‘does’ instead of something that one ‘is’ is very heteronormative. Also equally bizarre is the decision to start this by tracing ‘sexual experiences’ from the age of ten which really did feel like it was playing into the whole trope of hyper-sexualizing queer characters [ace queers exist!]. Of course, a lot of queer people acknowledge their orientations to themselves in their pre-teen years, but that usually happens because they start having crushes and being fascinated with people – just like straight kids. Your journey of knowing yourself does not need to start with the first ‘touch’ like this dialogue made it seem, and I genuinely felt scared and concerned over this choice of words. Recently, we all saw headlines of an American republican politician’s thirteen-year-old daughter coming out as bisexual, and supporters of his party criticizing news outlets for sexualizing a child by writing a headline that claimed as such. This show felt like it would have agreed with these republicans – that a child being queer automatically implies a child being a ‘sexual’ being in the same way as an adult. I don’t think I need to spell out how dangerous this is in a country that is already so mis-informed about and unaware of queer experiences.
This is one of those OTT shows where we are supposed to get an ‘exposé-esque’ look into the world of the rich and powerful, but today this trope is so exhausted and overdone that at some point I started wondering that maybe in the name of ‘real people’ we have started getting characters who are so unredeemable that the real purpose they will end up serving is making the audience feel better about their own moral choices while looking at them. We have ministers, business people, doctors, even ‘commonfolk’ being greedy, sinister, and self-serving to the point where the story stops being believable. There are some good people, or at least people with good intentions, sprinkled here and there, but most of them either have no power or are being manipulated by those who are smarter than them. Why empathy and intelligence are put at such a crossroads in this script is anyone’s guess. Of course, it addresses this by calling one of the characters an ‘animal’ and ‘demon’ at one point implying that their lack of empathy is what stops them from being worthy of being called a ‘human’, but there just aren’t enough humans by this definition in the script who are smart or interesting enough for the concept to fly through contrast. It definitely feels like this show used ‘to err is Human’ as their guiding mantra, because they definitely got more than enough things wrong to the degree where the title can be justified in this reference.