I went into Mumbai Diaries with immense caution and an open mind. Attempts at recreating the horrors of 26/11 on screen have ranged from middling to downright awful. But Mumbai Diaries is an anomaly. Directors Nikkhil Advani and Nikhil Gonsalves create their world with sych precision that it's hard not to be mesmerised.
Over here, Bombay General Hospital is as much of a character as the people inside it. The walls are coated with dirt, the toilets are repugnant and the proceedings, chaotic. Despite being thrown into the action almost instantly, the atmospherics steadily transport you into the show's world. This is enabled by the impeccable production design by Priya Suhas. The makers capture the routine mayhem but also the unmistakable humanity and kindness. No one is prepared, and Mumbai Diaries acknowledges that.
Everyone is fallible, everyone suffers, nobody wins. What could have been treated in shades of black and white is handled delicately instead. As the attacks persist, you see the hopelessness — if only fleetingly — settle into the faces of the people stuck inside. Three resident doctors who are on their first day are challenged with the most pressing difficulties one could imagine, and the show handles the emotional dexterity of these scenes astonishingly well. Even the episodic transitions, often ending with cliffhangers never feel planted. There's just about enough exposition to provide context. Despite carrying the burden of legacy, the show is never afraid to venture even into relatively risky territories, sometimes even attempting to humanise what might have been painted with broad brushstrokes of evil and inhumane.
However, what binds the show together is its emotional core; solid and strong. Every actor gets the opportunity to the steal the scene they're in. I found myself weeping copiously as Ahaan, a new junior resident bandaids a little girl, or when Beeji, an almost matriarchal figure admitted to the hospital for years pleadingly asks a new patient to take her to the washroom. The sensibilities are purely mainstream, but they work. Writers Yash Chettija, Nikhil Gonsalves and Anushka Mehrotra blend this with enough subtext to support the main story, and that largely contributes in making the show consistently gripping.
There are moments which are so grotesque that they're almost unwatchable, but then again, this is unwatchable in the best sense of the word. Never does the writing slip into manipulation and exploitation. The makers have enough faith in their supreme craft to convey every emotion with immense accuracy. This is further enhanced by the technical soundness of the show.
DOP Kaushal Shah's cinematography is haunting and effective, utilising the often misused long-takes. The camera swivels around the room, reminding us that the action is never confined to one place. Towards the end of the first episode, as the ward begins to fill up, the masterful camerawork shows us that while the focus maybe on a scene at one particular location, there are also hundreds of people around, doing different things at the same time. This level of self-awareness is rare to find, and it's an absolute delight over here. The makers never uses disarray as an excuse to peddle confused action. Every blast, every gunshot is always coherent.
Mumbai Diaries is also an ensemble piece in the best way possible. It's embellished with superlative performances. Konkona Sensharma as Chitra Das, a social service director at the hospital with a troubled past is, as usual, splendid. The always reliable Mohit Raina is also in stellar form as Dr. Kaushik Oberoi, smoothly transitioning from heroic to frustrated. Natasha Bhardwaj, Satyajeet Dubey and Mrunmayee Deshpande are also top-notch as Diya, Ahaan and Sujata. One struggles with her own entitlement that she wants to get rid of, the other two with bigotry they face even in the time of crisis. The makers embed a lot of social commentary on caste, class and religion, but it never feels forced. Advani and Gonsalves never attempt to overarch the storytelling with this, and it's more effective that way. Prakash Belawadi as Dr. Mani Subramaniam and Sandesh Kulkarni as ACP Mahesh Tawde are well-cast in their parts, bringing a dignified but simmering anger to their parts. But my favourite was Mohini Sharma as Beeji. Despite being saddled with a half-baked backstory, she brings to life a character that provides the sole sense of warmth and fuzziness to a show that otherwise doesn't deviate from its gritty tone.
Also read: How Mumbai Diaries 26/11 Found Its Cast
What doesn't work as well is the character of Mansi Hirani, played by Shreya Dhanwantry. She's overcome by a journalistic fervour and marred by her own delusion. Dhanwantry builds on her astute capabilities as an actor that we saw glimpses of in Scam 1992, but I'm not sure if I eventually ended up disliking the character or the way in which she was written. She's so vile and uncaring, that despite getting a small redeeming arc, it never quite lands.
However, this is a minor niggling in an otherwise absorbing, riveting and superbly made show that is as much an ode to the valour of the survivors of 26/11 as it is a love letter to Mumbai. I was emotionally drained by the end, my guts churned and eyes wet. I think you will be too, but it's all very rewarding.