Mumbai Diaries 26/11
Creator – Nikkhil Advani
Cast – Mohit Raina, Konkona Sensharma, Tina Desai, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Natasha Bharadwaj, Satyajeet Dubey, Mrunmayee Deshpande, Prakash Belawadi
A ground-level look at a national tragedy, Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is perhaps the best thing that c Nikkhil Advani has ever done. This isn’t to say that he’d set a high bar for himself — we are, after all, talking about the man who directed Delhi Safari and Katti Batti, and created The Empire — but Mumbai Diaries is a solid show by any standards, primarily Indian.
It’s no secret that in a rush to fill some sort of creative (and marketplace) vacuum during the pandemic era, streamers in India have seemingly green-lit every semi-formed idea that has been slipped under their doors, sacrificing storytelling at the altar of commerce without a second thought.
Watch the Mumbai Diaries 26/11 trailer:
Mumbai Diaries’ sensibilities, as with all of Advani’s work, are staunchly mainstream, but there’s an air of sophistication to the filmmaking that we don’t often see in homegrown streaming projects. Barring a few, of course. Essentially a One Long Day story set during the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11, the eight-episode drama feels expansive in scope, but is largely restricted to the fictional Bombay General Hospital’s emergency room, led by the brash doctor Kaushik Oberoi (Mohit Raina).
The terrific pilot episode also introduces a trio of freshers on their first day at work, a passionate social worker named Chitra Das (Konkona Sensharma, phenomenal, as usual), miscellaneous policemen (both bent and honest), a harried boss who must maintain order at a time of crisis, and scores of patients in need of medical attention. Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the Taj hotel (they’ve named it something else here), Dr Oberoi’s wife Ananya is caught in the middle of a siege.
Easily the show’s biggest achievement is how well it fleshes out not just Dr Oberoi and Chitra Das — it helps that Raina and Sensharma deliver deeply felt performances — but also minor supporting characters like the security guard Vasu, and Samarth, a hospital handyman whose simmering bigotry boils to the surface in the aftermath of the attacks.
After suffering a grave personal loss, Samarth lashes out against the wet-behind-the-ears resident doctor Ahaan Mirza, entirely because he’s a Muslim. Their increasingly intense confrontations over the course of the turbulent night come to a head in a scene so laughably over-the-top that you’ll wonder if you should admire the audacity of the storytelling or roll your eyes at Advani and co-director Nikhil Gonsalves’ simplistic take on a decades-long conflict.
In a move that could either be described as bold or breathtakingly foolish (you decide), Mumbai Diaries, towards its latter half, decides to deviate from documented facts, and swagger into a Tarantino-esque revisionist history zone. Why it chooses to make a swing this wild is unclear, especially because it was landing all its punches already. The show wastes around two episodes on this make-believe nonsense, and concludes with a 35-minute episode that functions as little more than a pointless postscript.
There is, however, a lot to admire here. Despite falling for the ‘Good Muslim Trope’ and routinely hurling a grenade in subtlety’s face, Mumbai Diaries has its heart in the right place. Sure, it settles for a decidedly preachy tone towards the end, but when the sermon is so rooted in humanism, certain concessions can be made.
It’s remarkable how Amazon Prime, in the same year that it was dragged through the mud (but not for the right reasons) for making Tandav, has gone ahead and produced something that will surely attract the ire of the IT cells. It’s one thing to release films such as Malik and Kuruthi, both of which fortunately slipped under the radar of the wrong sort of people, but Mumbai Diaries is in Hindi, and about an event in our recent history that affected the entire nation. I expect fireworks.
Politics that would please Kabir Khan aside, stylistically, Mumbai Diaries might remind you of another Malayalam movie: Aashiq Abu’s Virus, about how multiple government agencies worked in tandem during the 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala. But while that film was essentially Contagion in Kozhikode, Mumbai Diaries has the soul of a social justice warrior. Not only is it a call for unity, it also briefly flirts with themes such as mental health and domestic violence, although neither of those are examined to their full potential.
But like Virus, it’s an ensemble in the truest sense of the word. Mohit Raina yells a lot, but on several occasions, he is required to convey more complicated emotions through silence, and he rises to the occasion. That can’t be said for Shreya Dhanwanthary, though. The same actor who was so brilliant in Scam 1992 returns to play a journalist here. But her character, Mansi, makes Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler look like Ravish Kumar; she’s pure venom, and regardless of how hard the show tries to redeem her, it’s just not happening.
To its credit, however, Mumbai Diaries isn’t entirely plot-driven. It’s willing to take its foot off the gas at crucial junctures, which gives the story and the characters some necessary breathing room. It is in moments such as this that the show explores Dr Oberoi’s troubled marriage, and how clinically he is able to detach from his personal troubles and focus on his high-pressure job. He’s an addict, and a part of him knows this.
And as much as he’d like to believe that he’s following the Hippocratic oath when he insists on treating one of the terrorists despite the police’s protests, he’s really doing it because he’s a good guy.
I don’t know about you, but it’s very refreshing to watch a show so enchanted by the idea of decency that it is willing to, for a brief moment, risk everything and humanise even the Ajmal Kasab stand-in. But that’s what Mumbai Diaries is all about; and even though it’s never as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, it shares the same indomitable spirit as the city it so lovingly honours.