The Making of Mumbai Diaries
A barked “Apply silver sulfadiazine cream, I’ll start debridement.” Slicing open a chest to reveal the beating heart underneath. Brain surgeries and leg amputations, tracheostomies, burns and gun-shot wounds, it’s all happening in Mumbai Diaries.
In the weeks since its release on Amazon Prime Video, Mumbai Diaries Season 2 has consistently topped the most-viewed lists in the Indian streaming space. The show, whose successful first season followed the trajectory of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, returned with a tribute to the frontline workers who stepped up to the plate when the city struggled to stay afloat during the 2005 floods. Set in the fictional Bombay General Hospital, the show draws from real-life tragedy and trauma to make a compelling medical drama (or an “emotional medical thriller”, as lead actor Konkona Sen Sharma called it), which has been a popular genre in the world of American television, thanks to shows like ER and House. For Indian entertainment, it’s still a novel concept. “We knew that we were sitting on something quite special,” said series creator Nikkhil Advani in a conversation with Film Companion. “But the minute the season one reviews came out, we were like, ‘Oh, wow, okay.’ And while as a storyteller, you die to get those kinds of reviews, there’s also a sense of apprehension about whether we’ll be able to match up to it.”
Inside the world of Mumbai Diaries Season 2
There was a great deal of meticulous research behind the show’s copious medical jargon and hyper-realistic surgery scenes. Advani credits Dr. Shaikh, who was present at (the real) Bombay Hospital on the night of 26/11 for his on-set consultations. “He really is like a child in a toy shop,” observed Advani. “So when we tell him that we want to do an amputation, he says, ‘Great, we have to do it like this.’ Tell him brain surgery. ‘Okay, whose brain surgery? An eight-year-old child? Oh, wonderful!’ Even if I want to make it more complicated, he’s like, ‘It can be done.’” The actors on the show who need to show medical prowess, whether they were playing doctors, nurses or ward boys, participated in a two-week medical workshop (which ended with a test conducted by Dr. Shaikh). For the complicated delivery scene in the second season, his wife Dr. Fariza Sheikh, an OB-GYN specialist, was called upon to get each detail of the birth right.
For actor Mohit Raina, who plays superstar surgeon Dr. Kaushik Oberoi, Mumbai Diaries has been a breakout role, but also one that came with its share of challenges. “My character in Mumbai Diaries had a lot of layers,” he said in an interview with the website SpotboyE. “It could have sounded very irritating, or he could have come across as egoistic, rude or shrewd but I think there was a thin line that we have been able to maintain.”
Kaushik is a shell of his former self in the second season, with both his personal and professional life in shambles. While he struggles with all that is thrown at him, we see Social Services Director Chitra Das (Sen Sharma) finally confront her traumatic past, which was only hinted at in the previous season. “This is the first web-series I've ever done, and a sequel at that, so I'm actually very pleased because I've never had this experience before, of returning to a character,” said Sen Sharma. “This season is also a little more emotional because now we are able to get into the characters a little more.”
As the heavens pour down on Mumbai, an equally devastating set of storms rage within the characters of Mumbai Diaries in the second season. This time round, the mood of the show is more introspective. “You know, people thought that Season 1 and Season 2 would be very, very different,” said Advani. “Different characters, different people, different doctors, another hospital maybe, or another setting altogether. But we were very clear that we are making a medical drama. It's about this hospital.” The cast of the second season includes Riddhi Dogra, who is likely to remain on the show for subsequent seasons, and Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who plays Chitra’s ex-husband.
Packing More of a Personal Punch
Chitra coming face-to-face with her abusive husband, the otherwise charismatic and competent Dr. Saurav Chandra (Chattopadhyay), is a major thread in the second season and one that felt incredibly important to Sen Sharma. “There are so many intelligent, empowered women who find themselves in toxic relationships,” the actor told Film Companion, while discussing Chitra’s role in season two. “It may not become physical abuse, it could even be emotional abuse. A lot of women I know have been in terrible domestic violence situations, and it's very, very difficult to get out of.” Chitra’s quiet courage is what drew Sen Sharma to the character. “The thing I like about Chitra is that she's not a person who's a typical woman of substance, very strong and go-getter. And I can really relate to that, because I don't think I'm like that either.” Her vulnerability is her strength, something Sen Sharma resonates with as well. “Chitra is not a typically strong character,” she said. “But she always comes through in the end, and I love that about her.”
An increased focus on the personal was a calculated risk that paid off for Mumbai Diaries Season 2, which Advani believes was tougher than 26/11. “We took a big chance with the floods,” he recalled. “But when we thought about it, there are three criteria that need to satisfy Mumbai Diaries as a narrative and a story. One, it has to be about an event that brings the city to its knees. Two, it needs to be within 24 to 36 hours. And three, it needs to have medical drama. So how can we involve the hospital in that? It was some very tough choices that we took with regards to how to tell the second season. But I'm glad it's worked out. I'm glad that people have liked it.”
Creating that gripping sense of tension and chaos on screen was not without its challenges. “The most difficult thing for me was all that underwater action,” laughed Sen Sharma. “I don't swim and I'm a little scared of the water. We did some training and they were very good, it was all very professional, very hygienic.” Rehearsals for the underwater scenes were done in a swimming pool, but the final shoot was in a large pool structure constructed in Film City. “There you are in full costume,” said Sen Sharma. “You're wearing maybe hair extensions, your dupatta, your heels, walking around in that churidar in the water. You, your co-actors, all the camera people, the crew, everybody is in the water with you. Beds, desks, furniture floating around you. And on the other side of the pool, there are cars because they've recreated some of those floods. And then to go underwater and have water gushing at you, I found very challenging and slightly scary. I hope never again!”
Raina, who became a father earlier this year, was candid about his initial trepidation bringing to life Kaushik’s issues with marriage and parenthood on the show. “Usually, how I function or act is that at times when there's an emotion that you don't know how to tap, you go back into a memory lane and subconscious mind and try to get those moments that you cherished or lived. But this was something that I hadn't faced,” the actor told the website OTTPlay. “So there was a dilemma inside me for some time. But thankfully, I was able to handle it.”
Advani is cautiously optimistic about future seasons. “In order to make this show long-tale — if we are doing a Season 3 and a Season 4 and a Season 5 — we can't just keep depending on the city coming to its knees, right?” he said. For him, it has always been about the people. Indeed, when Advani first pitched the show, it was called Bombay General Hospital. “My idea was to always make a medical drama in a government hospital with doctors, frontline workers, nurses, medical staff in the trenches.”
“Somebody told me that the two most hopeless places in the country are hospitals and police stations,” remarked Advani. “And I said, that's the reason we should make this show. Suppose there is a place which is just hopeless, but its people are just wired to provide hope, then it's a great concept for a story, right?” When asked about why Indian medical dramas haven’t really taken off when shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House are popular globally, Advani said, “The whole medical aspect of Mumbai Diaries is a big attraction to why people are watching the show and enjoying it so much. But I am hoping that it's also because the characters are wonderfully written.”
The log line of Mumbai Diaries is: Sometimes those who are meant to heal are the most broken. And Advani cannot resist broken characters. “I think that whether that is in a medical drama, whether that is in an airport, whether that is in a rom-com, the more you break a character, the more interesting I think the journey will be,” he said. “Somewhere or the other, we are all broken. None of us are perfect. So as long as I can get the audience to say, ‘Hey, man, this person is going through the same thing I’m going through,’ I think that we have a winner.”