Slightly choppy but consistently worthwhile ‘trip’ of a show
Rhea Srivastava -
It might be completely coincidental that a hot topic for the country at the moment happens to be ‘much ado about drugs.’ But MX Player’s latest offering ‘High’ is centred around the invention of a magic pill that can be used both as a substitute but mostly as an antidote to such addictive substances. On a foundational level, the show is extremely topical. And beyond that, the world that the show is immersed in has the conviction that substance abuse is not a crime in itself even if one does find a cure for the condition. In addition to being a consistently-paced thriller, High also manages to take some time and explore the collateral damage of abuse. Adding that to the solid performances by the ensemble cast, and you have yourself a winner.
What is the story about?
The peddling ecosystem is far and over-reaching across the nooks and crannies of regular users, small-time suppliers, and powerful members of politics, business, entertainment, and the mafia. We begin with Shiv, a promising young man who falls into the deep end post a personal trauma. He lands up in an obscure rehabilitation centre run by a group of people who feel strongly for the greater good of mankind - Prakash Belawadi, Nakul Bhalla, and Shweta Basu Prasad. In an effort to find a cure for Alzheimer’s for many decades, Dr Roy (Belawadi) has inadvertently created a potent powder from a medicinal plant… one which may just have the ability to strip Shiv and other druggies of their addiction completely. On the other side of the spectrum are some key players - Ranvir Shorey as Laakda, a henchman sent in by a pharma company to stop the antidote, Mrinmayee Godbole as Ashima, an ambitious but frustrated reporter who wants to use her journalism for the greater good, and Munna Bhai (Kunal Naik) an obnoxious senior member of the drug mafia. There are few ‘regular people’ thrown into the mix to ensure that we remain seated in the comfort of the normalcy of our metropolis.
What goes up in ‘High,’ well… apart from the regular intake of cocaine and then the ‘Magic’ powder, is that director Nikhil Rao has a great sense of the world he is establishing for the series. There are two timelines although not evenly divided. One is set in the 70s when a bunch of young researchers discover a magical plant with medicinal properties and thus begin their journey of a scientific breakthrough. These are shot in black-and-white and used to establish the convictions of the people involved in the ‘Magic’ cycle in the present-day. Cut to 2020 when the show builds an atmosphere of the seedy underbelly of this dark abusive world - a dilapidated hospital, dimly lit rooms where addicts find their potion, filthy bars and rave parties where suppliers make their moolah, heavily accessorized villain dens where they indulge in raunchy sex and roleplay, and finally (thankfully), a bright and happening news studio where the entire circus-ry actually gains momentum.
Sure, these tropes seem a bit dated but High has been written with a lot of suspense, intrigue, and addictive chase-pace that you want to know which player is being targeted next and how. Just like it happened in the earlier timeline, the discovery of ‘Magic’ triggers off a bloodbath. The people involved seem to be genuinely good-hearted, whether that is Shiv or Dr. Roy and his team or Ashima. ‘Magic’ is being supplied and distributed for good purpose but they are part of a dangerous game, which helps feel for the characters.
There are, of course, downfalls to such an addiction. There are glaring plot holes and lazy loops that stagger the pace in the second half of the season. As the show begins, all the key characters are established in their own specific space. As an intelligent viewer, we know that they are all related to the main story and it does come together rather well in the end. However, it does take some time to figure out why so much time is being taken to dwell on minuscule details in the plot and that may stagger the pace while watching. ‘High’ also, to a certain extent, exists in a lawless bubble. Once the sale of ‘Magic’ begins, it works on a word-of-mouth basis. Shiv uses his old connections to begin testing the pill on his acquaintances and friends. It is so immensely popular and at such a quick pace that it is within weeks that the powder has a value in the upper thousands and we have the most powerful men in the business looking for it. To assume that a drug, which is sought by the highest to the lowest people in the chain, is alien to the police or legal system is not just myopic but also misleading.
High is bolstered by a strong ensemble cast, featuring a smatter of big and small characters. Akshay Oberoi as Shiv is the unlikely hero who is introduced to us amidst tragedy and debt. His upmarket upbringing makes him the perfect fulcrum for this ecosystem, where he is smart and experienced enough to understand how to make ‘Magic’ popular, connected enough to sell it to the right people, and tenacious and brave enough to face the consequences. Ranvir Shorey is a brutal assassin who gets maximum room to have fun and be terrifying. He also gets the best plot twist. Mrinmayee Godbole, Shweta Basu Prasad, Mantra Mugdh and Kunal Naik are other actors who give consistent and restrained performances, with Mrinmayee even having a bad-ass rant scene which is a personal fist-bump to any female member of the media. The only character which is extremely uneven is Naik’s with Munna Bhai. I’m not sure if I see him as a character as much as I see him as a plot device.
Music & Other Departments
High is co-written by Rao with Emil Thomas and Nishant Goyal and a strong base plot does help in ensuring that the show remains tight and relevant throughout. The lighting and cinematography are extremely effective to set the tone, mood and emotion. The score goes with the overall look and feel of the show.
There are two ironies looming around ‘High’ which work in its favour - one, that it is about drugs at a time when that’s literally anything anyone can think about, and two, it’s about people who indulge in illegal activity to eradicate what is constantly on the fence of legalities. The show has strong performances from every single cast-member, it has an intriguing screenplay, a gritty look and competent pacing.
The treatment of the show is consistent but a bit dated, with the way certain characters are constructed and designed, and also with all those expletives and scenes of violence thrown around. Ashima’s arc is pained and realistic but one-dimensional in the way ‘fake news’ and commodifying TRPs are used to get the point across. There is some insight into how big pharma companies may be holding off cures for profit but the need of the hour is to sensitize people of abusive conditions, which is very fleetingly mentioned here. There are ample opportunity to give Shiv, Nakul, Ashima, Shweta more wholesome characters in the next season so take this less as a drawback and more as room for improvement. There are some plot inconsistencies and unnecessary deviations, and towards the final few hours, the show becomes a little predictable, convenient and repetitive. The finale could have been a bit better.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes. It was really easy to binge-through. I look forward to another season.
Do I recommend it?
Also yes. ‘High’ is high on content and performances. Deserves a watch.