A green pill that propels users out of their miserable orbits and into a realm of bliss – could this be the “maal” that has enthused the Narcotics Control Bureau and boosted the ratings of television channels?

Not exactly. The key ingredient in the web series High is a substance that rejuvenates brain cells rather than frying them. This fantastical compound is the mother of weed and speed. It liberates consumers from addiction.

The drug that isn’t quite one provides all the highs in Nikhil Rao’s absorbing web series for MX Player. The medical marvel is a saviour as well as a scourge, banding together an addict, a trio of doctors, a pharmaceutical company owner and her enforcer, a drug trafficker and a journalist.

The unlikely hero of the wish fulfillment fantasy is Shiv (Akshay Oberoi), a dead-eyed pusher who is robotically moving from one fix to the next. An overdose lands Shiv in a secretive facility where Roy (Prakash Belawadi) and his juniors Shweta (Shweta Basu Prasad) and Nakul (Nakul Bhalla) have perfected an unapproved compound that will blow Shiv’s mind in the best possible way.

Akshay Oberoi in High (2020). Courtesy Jamic Films/MX Player.

The scientists aren’t quite in the league of the seasoned traffickers from Breaking Bad and Narcos, but that is what they nearly end up becoming. In order to release Roy from a crippling debt, Shiv proposes that they sell the pill that comes to be known as Magic in the open market.

It means crashing a well-established network and more money than the do-gooders can handle. It means annoying the dangerous drug lord Munna (Kunal Naik), who likes BDSM and inflicts equal plain on his rivals. It means getting the attention of a silver-haired shady pharmaceutical company owner (Padmavati Rao), who sets her homicidal henchman Lakda (Ranvir Shorey) on the trail of this new concoction with untold benefits.

The disruption also attracts Aashima (Mrinmayee Godbole), the star anchor of a sensationalist television channel. Desperate to pursue meaningful reportage, Aashima sets out to investigate what she believes will be the story of her career.

Mrinmayee Godbole in High (2020). Courtesy Jamic Films/MX Player.

The series is set mostly in Mumbai, portrayed as one of the most attractively grungy places on the planet. Each of the nine episodes begins with a flashback to the discovery of the plant that is the basis of Magic.

The present is fraught with danger, as Shiv and his collaborators quickly realise. As the stakes gets escalated, writers Nikhil Rao, Emil Thomas and Nishant Goyal keep the twists coming and move smoothly between parallel storylines. Even when the holes in the plot become apparent and predictability sets in, the richly etched characters, pitch-perfect performances, slick production values and gorgeous cinematography by KU Mohanan and John J Payyapalli help High maintain the promise of the earlier episodes.

Director Rao’s skillful world building results in richly atmospheric locations and an impressive collection of minor characters. Mantra Mugdh memorably plays a DJ who is Shiv’s first supplier and his gateway to the narcotics trade. Madhur Mittal is delightful as Jimmy, Munna’s hip hop-loving nephew and wannabe cocaine king.

Munna’s extended family turns out to be more interesting than this textbook villain, who comes with his own signature background music and behaves as floridly as his shirts. Another of Munna’s relatives, the drug-addled Pakya (Kumar Saurabh), is a good example of casting director Mathew Varkey’s eye for great faces and unusual body types.

Kunal Naik in High (2020). Courtesy Jamic Films/MX Player.

The principal cast is equally solid, with performances that provide a welcome distraction from their often banal actions. The usually quick-witted Lakda’s questionable delay in locating the source of Magic lets the actor playing him to show off his range. Ranvir Shorey is outstanding as the remorseless assassin with a tragic past and the most satisfying plot twist.

Aashima’s underwhelming track is similarly salvaged by Mrinmayee Godbole’s unerring performance. Aashima is keen on proving her reporting smarts, but her methods won’t get her past the door of any self-respecting newsroom. Perhaps we have to wait for the next season for Aashima to grow into relevance and justify her presence in the series.

Akshay Oberoi is the right fit as Shiv, the junkie whose polish and college education help him graduate from fix hunter to lucre gatherer. Nakul and Shweta, initially depicted as nervy nerds, find that they too have a bit of Escobar in them after all.

Ranvir Shorey in High (2020). Courtesy Jamic Films/MX Player.

The descent into conspiracy thriller cliches in later episodes can be attributed to the decision to let events play out in a political and social vacuum. Although the series occasionally refers to real events, High could be set at any point in Mumbai’s history of drug-taking – a choice that is less judicious than expedient.

The world within the bubble is admirably constructed by Rao and his team, but its limitations become apparent as we get closer to its core. One of the biggest short-cuts is to erase the law enforcement machinery from the picture. The city’s famously corrupt but equally all-knowing police force mostly takes a vacation as Munna and Lakda work towards maiming or erasing the populace.

No police sirens or nosy constables hinder Magic’s meteoric rise, no informer whispers into the phone with a tip-off about the hot new product in town, and nobody complains when bodies start turning up in odd places.

In this conveniently depopulated megapolis, the unnamed pharma company queen rolls out carnage from the comfort of her boardroom and a bunch of upstarts fight fire with fire. Since the first season’s strengths outweigh its drawbacks, there are enough opportunities to add shades and layers to a one-note idea in the next round.

Among the welcome rewrites to the narcotics saga genre is the absence of facile moralising. Addicts are not criminals and should be rehabilitated rather than jailed, observes Shweta Basu Prasad’s character – a message that tethers the series to the headlines that it tries so hard to avoid.

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High (2020).