Directed by: Nikkhil Advani, Nikhil Gonsalves
Writer: Yash Chhetija, Nikhil Gonsalves, Anushka Mehrotra, Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh
Cast: Mohit Raina, Konkona Sen Sharma, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Mrunmayee Deshpande, Tina Desai
Cinematography: Kaushal Shah
Edited by: Maahir Zaveri
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
In episode 4 of Mumbai Diaries 26/11, a doctor tells a cop, "Hum doctor hain, Sir. Human body ko dekhte hain. Human character ko dekhna humara kaam nahin hai." It's the horrific night of 26/11. The body in question is a wounded and bleeding terrorist who has spread destruction and death with impunity. The cop is ACP Tawde who has just seen his seniors die. And the doctor is Kaushik Oberoi, the best surgeon at Bombay General Hospital. Kaushik is the closest thing the medical fraternity has to a rock star or ninja, as a friend later describes him. Saving lives is all that matters. Even if the life is that of a brainwashed murderer.
Human character is what emerges through those long hours when the city of Mumbai became a battlefield. When confronted with mindless brutality and anguish, men and women find reservoirs of courage and kindness within them. But there are no heroes here. These are ordinary people with ordinary dreams and ordinary flaws. Sexism, casteism, communalism, blind ambition, greed, selfishness, insecurity, deceit – everything comes to the fore. But eventually, when the city is under siege, somehow its residents come together and help each other through the hell of that night.
Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is a masterful blend of fact and fiction. The writers – Yash Chhetija, Nikhil Gonsalves, who has also co-directed the series, and Anushka Mehrotra – place characters into true events that we are all familiar with. Names are changed – Cama Hospital becomes Bombay General Hospital and the Taj Mahal Hotel becomes the Palace Hotel. Over eight episodes, which range in duration from 35 minutes to 48 minutes, the series recreates the horror, beat by beat.
The word immersive gets tossed around a lot but Mumbai Diaries 26/11 actually achieves it. Co-directors Nikkhil Advani and Nikhil Gonsalves begin by throwing us into the routine chaos of a government hospital where the corridors are filled with waiting patients, the toilets are filthy and medical supplies aren't always available. The place is grimy, crowded and frankly, frightening to those of us privileged enough to have never entered one. Imagine what happens here when terrorists let loose and bodies start to pile in.
The directors – aided by DOP Kaushal Shah and editor Maahir Zaveri – insert us into the physicality of the present. Long, continuous takes create immediacy with the camera following the several characters as they go into crisis mode. The action mostly moves between the hospital and the hotel, though inexplicably, the narrative takes a quick detour to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which doesn't add any insight. The dialogue by Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh is authentic and a shout-out to Kavish Sinha for the casting. There are half a dozen prominent characters here and each actor holds his or her own.
At centerstage is Mohit Raina as Dr. Kaushik Oberoi. Mohit, who was solid as the para-commando in Uri: The Surgical Strike, alternates between being a swashbuckling saviour and a man struggling with personal demons. His heroism is punctured by his recklessness. It's a demanding role and he delivers superbly. As does the rest of the cast – among them, veterans such as Prakash Belawadi and Konkona Sen Sharma and newer faces such as Natasha Bharadwaj, Satyajeet Dubey, Tina Desai and Mrunmayee Deshpande. Sandesh Kulkarni as ACP Tawde is terrific.
The one false note is the character of a television journalist, Mansi. Shreya Dhanwanthary, who also played Sucheta Dalal in Scam 1992, is back in chasing the story mode but Mansi isn't written as well as the other characters. Even though she has a substantial arc, she comes off as a cliché.
The series is also keen to make larger statements about religion and the banality of evil – so the terrorist handler in Pakistan is tenderly playing with his daughter while he orders his men to kill as many people as he can. There is also a lengthy sequence in which a key character talks about the fact that hate and violence has no religion. Her family was killed in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which the perpetrators were Hindu. It's a critical and well-intentioned message but it seems planted on to the narrative rather than organic.
Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is far more successful when the social critique is layered into the plot – like a scene in which we are told that the VIP syndrome is in play even in death. So rescue operations are diverted to the Palace Hotel where rich people are under attack as opposed to the government hospital where life is cheap. It's grotesque.
The two Nikhils, with their stellar cast and crew, construct a riveting portrait of grace under pressure. Watching this series is like being inside a pressure cooker. There are places in which the tension is almost unbearable and the tragedy is overwhelming. I wept and my insides were wrung out. But it was absolutely worth it.
You can see Mumbai Diaries 26/11 on Amazon Prime Video.