Indian narratives don’t favour dystopia, be it in films or on OTT platforms. Inexplicable optimism inspire our storytellers to provide utopian solutions, unlike the western imagination where most memorable sci-fi and futuristic fantasies have a dark mood built into the narrative, even if it ends in ambivalence or ambiguity. The superheroes of the Marvel World are the exception, of course.  It is as if an invisible force imposes a sanguine conclusion even to the darkest stories or biting satires told by our filmmakers.  This is something that has always puzzled me. When so many destructive forces— religious, ethnic, economic, and political—are tearing our society apart into warring factions, what explains this optimism? Is it the optimism of the doomed? Clutching at any survival straw? The alien in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK was to an extent traumatized by his encounter with us, and we earthlings fumed at his presumption to lecture us. But he went back to his superior civilization, sadly shaking his head at our stupidity, after uniting lovers across the Indo-Pak border and helping expose religious dogmatism and fake godmen.

But things are certainly changing. Has the pandemic, brought so horrifyingly alive by the media (and our personal experience), made us see the world hurtling towards death that makes no distinction between the rich and poor, the developed and developing worlds? Now that dystopia is upon us, wrapping the world in its cold, clammy cloak of death foretold, Vipul Shah and Mozez Singh have stripped off our blinkers when it comes to the medical profession in the clutches of big pharma. The Hippocratic Oath has degenerated into hypocritical self-aggrandizement. The wretched patient is sent to a painful, premature death since all of us do die at some point.

Human (Disney+Hotstar) goes bravely into a new macabre world where the medical profession is put on trial, pronounced guilty and sentenced to death. The unconscionable proponents of the greed-is-good dictum and megalomaniac egoists are punished along with countless, almost-anonymous innocents. Mozez Singh has written and directed a series that goes on an indiscriminate killing spree. Appropriately, it makes Bhopal, still suffering from the aftermath of the Union Carbide lethal gas leak, the new killing field—and already afflicted people have become ignorant guinea pigs for the rapacious drug firms conducting illegal trials.

 

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At the centre of all this churning is the gleaming modern hospital Manthan. It is headed by the enigmatic Dr Gauri Nath (Shefali Shah) hailed by the public as a goddess from whose wide, discreetly made-up eyes shines the light of benevolence to reassure sceptics and devotees of her essential goodness.  This good Samaritan is a famous neurosurgeon who is now in the process of manufacturing a vital drug that promises to be the life-saving amrit for heart patients. From enigmatic to ambivalent to pure evil, that’s the journey Mozez and Shah undertake with rare bravado because to see doctors as anything other than healing angels is blasphemy in popular culture. We did not have equivalents of  ER or Grey’s Anatomy but we’ve seen plenty of white-coated farishtas in our films.

SHEFALI SHAH HUMAN
Shefali Shah plays Dr Gauri Nath

 

Human creates a nightmare set in a glittering glass-fronted super hospital from where avarice escapes from its sanitised cage to wreak havoc on those living in shanties and in crowded government hospital wards where people are lured into being lab rats for dangerous drug trials. A drug is banned in Europe, but its Indian manufacturer goes ahead with it, immune from peer and government scrutiny because everyone—except for a scrupulous few—is in collusion.

Politicians (of course, at the top of the list), businessmen setting up labs and factories, real estate tycoons, conscienceless doctors, agents who bring in healthy people for illegal trials outside hospital rules, the human chain of unchecked greed is established at length. The economy of narrative is the missing ingredient and drags an engrossing, even horrific story towards predictability.  The director keeps the suspense going with a surprise in every episode and is largely successful despite faltering on a few occasions.

The disrupter of this well-oiled machine set on its nefarious business is the new cardiac surgeon Saira Sabharwal (Kirti Kulhari), a star in the making. A Bhopal native banished to Mumbai by her parents, she has made a triumphant return home. We soon learn that she hero-worships Gauri Nath, has a forbidden history of exploring her lesbian tendency as an adolescent, and now, is in a troubled marriage with Neil (Indraneil Sengupta), a photo-journalist.  He is an unwelcome guest as she is settling into her new job, wanting to make a long-distance iffy marriage into a real one with a child. He becomes collateral damage as the crime unravels. This only adds to Saira’s increasing suspicion that something is rotten in the city that was ruled by its formidable Begums. Gauri wants to be the new Begum with Saira as consort. Saira stumbles upon the racket of unaccounted deaths and unrecorded trials. She befriends Mangu (Vishal Jethwa) who is driven to despair because his mother died when he enrolled her on the drug trial.

KRITI KULHARI HUMAN
Kirti Kulhari takes on the role of cardiac surgeon Saira Sabharwal.

To add an eerie touch (questionable if it deserves so much screen time) is a group of smiling nursing aides, under the strict supervision of Roma Ma (Smriti Biswas). They are guarded like prisoners, smiling foolishly at everything like young girls morphed into zombies. One of them rebels and gives important evidence to Mangu. The graphic cruelty unleashed on her is hard to sit through. They are all traumatized victims of abuse—sexual by inference—and are lulled into passive robots by drugs. Seema Biswas has a serpentine stare that subdues the girls at once.

Eyes play a crucial role in the narrative. Gauri, sitting at the dressing table, enacts an elaborate make-up ritual that fascinates her husband Pratap Munjal (Ram Kapoor), a real estate tycoon and powerbroker with the politicians. A platonic marriage sizzles with remembered sensuality. Mozez Singh showcases this marriage of convenience, where Gauri and Pratap each have their own lovers and present a united front as the power couple of Bhopal. Their house is a hybrid of a haveli and a modern mansion. The only living beings Gauri dotes upon are her pack of ferocious dogs that fawn over her. Their surviving son is a brat, boorishly contemptuous of his parents.

All in all, there is no happiness anywhere until Gauri and Kirti initiate a sexual relationship. You don’t know whether Gauri is bisexual or encourages this relationship to enslave Saira who is beginning to ask inconvenient questions.  Gauri is a survivor of the gas leak tragedy, adopted by the powerful medical clan of the Naths but has never been considered part of the family. She justifies her medical massacre of the city’s poor as her revenge on the family.  She is now a raging psychopath and no murder is beyond her.

Saira eventually turns whistle-blower, with full disclosure of her relationship with Gauri. She is finally able to make her parents accept her for what she is. But of course, she pays the price.

The casting is near impeccable and performances are uniformly good. Of course, Shefali Shah has the meaty role of benevolence gradually peeling away under her psychotic self—a rich irony that a neurosurgeon is a psychopath and does nothing to cure herself. ‘Physicians, heal thyself’ apparently doesn’t apply to surgeons. She plays Gauri like a malevolent spider, patiently biding her time to ensnare and then swallow each hurdle on the way. To mix metaphors, the hidden spider turns into a purring carnivore. Kirti Kulhari is strong, vulnerable, and determined, playing the woman forced into confronting evil even at the cost of her brilliant career.

Human plays on our new fascination for lesbian women. Mozez Singh doesn’t let her sexual orientation take over the character to the detriment of everything else. That’s a minor plus point. But other series like the insufferable, incompetent Call My Agent, Bollywood (an implausible copy of the French original, all Gallic wit and matter-of-fact sex without the wink-wink voyeurism our filmmakers are guilty of) just flaunt the lesbian relationship of the lead female character. Bombay Begums lost me after three episodes. The young intern at the bank begins to explore her attraction to a hot nightclub singer and I couldn’t care less if the two young women were on the way to full-blown relationship. It was a waste of time when there are so many other series clamouring for time. Lesbianism as a garnish to spice up a series is getting inanely predictable. It’s as if our writers have had a collective Eureka moment and discovered lesbian women. The way they portray it is sans understanding, depth and sensitivity.

 

Image courtesy: @shefalishahofficial; @iamkirtikulhari; Disney+ Hotstar