Director: Nikkhil Advani
Writers: Yash Chhetija, Persis Sodawaterwala, Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh
Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Mohit Raina, Mrunmayee Deshpande, Prakash Belawadi, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Tina Desai, Natasha Bharadwaj, Satyajeet Dubey, Parambrata Chattopadhyay
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Mumbai Diaries 26/11 premiered in September 2021, back when the world was riding the crests and troughs of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. The gripping eight-episode drama was based on the action at a government hospital during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But the story of a struggling healthcare community – saving lives within a dead system; defying its poor funding and resources; reframing success as a lesser language of failure – served the moment. It felt closer, and the ‘tribute’ doubled up as anti-establishment angst; the heroism was complicated, not cool. The system was diagnosed, not its people. That moment might have passed, but the emergence of Mumbai Diaries 2 suggests that the hour never ends.
Eight months after bearing the brunt of a man-made crisis, the semi-fictional Bombay General Hospital becomes the core of a natural calamity. History is revised for the sake of narrative continuity: The 2005 Mumbai floods are repositioned as a 2009 event, but the idea of a franchise remains rooted in the structural continuity of a socio-political tragedy. The captivating new installment takes on the challenge of reminding audiences that the cultural identity of Mumbai is often reduced to numbers: 26/11 in the first season, 26/7 in the second. But the times – these dates and their iconic incidents – are only the trigger. The bullet is timeless. And the gun is human. It is aimed at the malfunctioning machinery of a city whose calamity is too often reframed as courage; whose survival is phrased as ambition; whose nightmares are sold as underdog dreams; whose lives are packaged as stories; and whose ghosts are staged as “Mumbai Spirit”.
This tissue between image and imagery is subtext as well as text. A news anchor who rose to prominence by villainizing the hospital gets disillusioned when her editor orders her to focus on “stories of hope” during the deluge. She wants to expose builders and administrators, but the channel would rather do a romanticized spin on the floods; she wants to ask questions, but her employers would rather be the moral(e) police. A bureaucrat hosts a British delegation on a sugar-coated PR tour of the hospital, much to the frustration of its chief, a surgeon reduced to a hospitality figure. A legend of Mumbai’s medical community is turned into a public spectacle, scape-goated by a system looking to deflect from the death of a 26/11 hero. The delay of compensation packages pushes a desperate nurse to consider black-market trade. A grieving trainee is manipulated into testifying against her well-meaning boss. The world hails the efforts of the Bombay General Hospital staff, but their internal walls are crumbling. They didn’t ask for the limelight. There are no terrorists this time, so there is no escape from the violence within.
There’s always the risk of a sophomore season (of a hit show) unfolding with a chip on its shoulder. But Mumbai Diaries 2 uses this familiarity to its advantage. For instance, the maverick surgeon driving the first season – Mohit Raina’s Dr. Kaushik Oberoi – is a shadow of himself for much of this one. It’s a big swing, this decision to have a mercurial character like Kaushik wracked with self-doubt. We see him as a husband, not a defiant doctor, barely in control of his situation. He wades through the floods like millions of others. What this does, however, is create the anticipation of a grand return. A resurgence. Every episode without ‘The Dr. Oberoi’ feels like a step towards the inevitable. The series doesn’t downgrade him so much as hold him back. And when it happens, it’s like watching a shattered superhero reclaim his cape or a boxer don his old gloves. In his case, it’s that makeshift bandanna, the no-nonsense clip of his tone, the surname-yelling, and the brisk cockiness. There’s also a classic Rocky moment, where Kaushik’s bedridden wife finally gives him the green signal to go save the day (you can almost hear a training montage). In doing so, his arc also reveals the tragic superhero conundrum – Kaushik Oberoi can either be a devoted lover or a devoted saviour. The two identities are mutually exclusive to each other.
The hospital remains an enduring metaphor of the city. It bursts at its seams. Its residents are stressed and sleepless. It is constantly under construction. Parts are ramshackled beyond repair. The hustle is hot and humid. Pain is paraded as promise. Foreign delegations arrive, marvel at the ‘resilience’ and leave. There is a shortage of everything – including patience. Pockets of humanity and silence aren’t disruptions; they inform the chaos. Madness is reverse-engineered to arrive at a semblance of method. There’s no time to dwell. In fact, there’s no time for scenes to end and begin. The space-crunch shapes the visual style; it’s no fashion statement. In a setting where supply follows no rules, the central conflict revolves around the futility of “protocol” to meet demand. Order is overrated. Which is to say: The production design is the protagonist. The place is rescued by its people, not vice versa. The healing reveals the suffering. Characters don’t walk; they’re striding, rushing, leaping, reaching and jogging, like the corridors define their muscle memory. The rhythm is such that even their resting feels frenetic.
For a series of plurality and scale, it’s a miracle that other technical departments don’t jostle for attention. If anything, they are inextricable from each other. The cinematography cannot be isolated from the rainy soundscape and tense score. The power-cut portions are lit to perfection, pitching darkness against urgency and noise against emotions. The terrific performances can’t be isolated from the staging and editing. Of the supporting cast, the matriarchal head nurse (Balaji Gauri as Cherian) and the Kaushik Oberoi protege (Mrunmayee Deshpande as Dr. Sujata) steal the show. The long and unbroken takes – where the camera floats like oxygen, following bodies but segueing from one life in motion to another – are a symptom of circumstances. Multiple threads are juggled with clarity and momentum; the viewer is never disoriented by the density of storytelling. The action is relentless towards the end, and it’s no mean feat that nothing is lost in translation over the course of the night. Some arcs are more realized than the others, but other than a shaky finale, I’d be hard-pressed to find a false note.
Most of all, it’s the writing that can’t be isolated from the commentary. Made In Heaven 2 made me wary about the one-message-per-character template. But the mind of Mumbai Diaries 2 is incidental to its bustling heart. Reality shapes the fictions: A juvenile-home scam, a railway-bridge collapse, a coming-out journey, a midwife-assisted birth, a suicidal youngster.
The most striking of them is led by Konkona Sen Sharma’s turn as Chitra Das, the hospital’s director of social services and a domestic-abuse survivor. Chitra’s past returns to haunt her in the form of her estranged husband, Dr. Sourav Chandra. Remarkably, the show resists broad strokes. Instead, it delves into the complex psychology of abuse. He is not presented as an all-out villain; at times, he’s the unsung hero of the night. Chitra’s confused gaze reflects ours: Can monsters be reformed? Parambrata Chatterjee puts on a ridiculous Indo-British-Bengali accent as Sourav, but after a while it starts to feed our perception of the man’s moral ambiguity. The result – like Vijay Varma’s duality in Darlings (2022) – is disturbingly effective. He is a good doctor, but does that imply he’s a good man? The last episode is disappointing in terms of this dynamic. But such conflicts don’t exist in a bubble. The public becomes an extension of the personal. Sourav tells off the pushy bureaucrat, almost making the audience root for him despite his dastardly history. Chitra’s struggle, too, bleeds into her job. At one point, she’s dissuading a trainee from overstepping in an STD (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) case, but her survival instincts kick in the minute a potential abuser charges at them.
That’s another victory of the writing. The lack of systemic support means that these doctors are attuned to intervene. They are destined to be more than the coats they wear and the bodies they treat. The best moments of the show emerge from their inability to stick to their job-profile – when their empathy can’t be contained any longer. None of these ‘human’ interventions feel performative; their identity determines their daring. The middle-class Maharashtrian doctor untangles a child-abuse conspiracy because it’s in her nature to keep probing, to keep fighting. The nepotism hire enables a coming-out arc (and lectures the parents), because her wokeness is a byproduct of her privilege and dysfunctionality. The CMO steps up to do a difficult brain surgery, because he’s sick of being shackled by his management profile. A monologue conveys that doctors need not read the Gita to distinguish between ‘dharm’ (faith) and ‘karam’ (duty), because patriotism is tired of being politicized. Mumbai Diaries 2 thrives on this private bridge between impression and expression. After all, cities like Mumbai are defined by flesh and blood. And diaries are defined by letters and confessions.