Mumbai Diaries 26/11 On Amazon Prime Video: One of the Most Compelling Indian Shows of 2021, Film Companion
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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

I get wary when I see an Indian title arrive with a “tribute to” tagline. Firstly, tributes are best left unsaid. Secondly, the tribute hijacks all semblance of truth and storytelling. The daring gets irrational under the guise of respect and history and what not. And thirdly – and most importantly – tributes tend to be hampered by the luxury of hindsight. Most narratives carry the baggage of time, public opinion and knowledge. As a result, the lens used is a macro one. You can sense the writing is from the future. It looks outward for villains and reasons. Celebrating the good becomes a subservient cocktail of reverence and denial. The event itself turns into a footnote of action in a portrait of reaction. But Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is an emphatic course correction for new-age Hindi cinema. I’ll get to the pristine craft later, but what stands out is its inward reading of a cultural moment. It admits that triumph – in a bureaucratic nation – is a lesser language of tragedy. 

Based almost entirely inside a government hospital (Cama Hospital is “Bombay General Hospital” and Taj Mahal Palace is “Palace Hotel”), the eight-episode series is rooted in the now: the instincts, the fragility, the people and the inherent terror – as opposed to terrorism – of an infamous November night. Unlike other dramatized accounts, nobody behaves like they know how history panned out. The uncertainty is palpable. The fallibility of an ill-equipped system dawns upon its inhabitants with every passing hour. There is no country, no state, no sugarcoating of individualism and conflict. For a change the tribute is a ruse, to disclose the duality of human nature. It frames the event alone as both question and answer. Where the bullets come from is incidental. What these bullets reveal, however, runs deeper than the blood they spill. 

By being so aggressively immersive, the series trusts the viewer to recognize that heroism is not an absolute trait. Bravery is complicated: A maverick surgeon known for breaking protocol is publicly pilloried for saving a terrorist’s life but failing to resuscitate the ATS chief. Bravery is young: A trainee doctor is haunted by self-doubt after a nurse dies under his care. Bravery is bigoted: An injured inspector refuses to be treated by a lower-caste doctor, and a bitter hospital worker vents at a Muslim trainee for “being one of them”. Bravery is deluded: A reporter stages an accident to gain access to a hospital for a “scoop”. Bravery is reckless: A Mumbai policeman leads his ragtag team with war cries of Marathi rage. And most of all, bravery is unsophisticated – it is the endurance to lose, not the courage to win. Mumbai Diaries gets this. Episode after episode, mistakes are made by people desperate to survive and rescue and kill. No single man or woman saves the day. In fact the day is never saved; it’s simply suffered through. A surgeon makes the wrong call under the pressure of siege. A cop takes an open shot to ruin an elaborate operation. A terrorist forgets the detonator in another room. A lockdown fails to stop the attackers. A news channel unwittingly aids the planning of terror. Nobody is prepared. Nobody is smart. 

The second a character reaches a position of advantage – the second the “movie” image of heroism is primed to take over – reality hits like a ton of bricks. The series keeps playing on our conditioning to expect a miracle. But victims die on hospital beds even though the doctors are built up as the protagonists. Hotel guests die despite the best efforts of a manager to evacuate them. Innocence is snuffed out: A child is shot, an intellectually disabled security guard is hurt. Even an old narrative cliche is debunked. When the star doctor is introduced in a scene that also introduces his “enemy” – a crude cop who stalks the hospital for his procedural lapses – one expects these two to end the show as comrades. But that never happens. The writing refuses to transcend truth in service of circularity. Unlike politics and commercial Hindi cinema, it refuses to parade the paraphernalia of promise. Maybe it’s only fitting, then, that one of the most thrilling tributes to the healthcare community has surfaced in the middle of a pandemic. The employees of the Bombay General Hospital make no bones about the fact that their efforts happen despite the system – despite minimal resources, poor funding, a ramshackle setup and a negligent administration. The series doesn’t spell it out, but hints that “Spirit of Mumbai” is a political construct – a phrase coined to distract citizens from the infrastructural mishaps that keep demanding everyman acts of heroism. 

So much of this subtext is enabled by the immaculate detailing. For one, the film-making is so smooth that it’s almost invisible. The sound design captures the “firecracker-like popping” of gunshots and explosions, eschewing dramatic reverb in favour of witness-account rawness. (I like that the title score resembles that of Made In Heaven; if you think about it, Mumbai Diaries is a twisted reimagining of the same). The editing (by Maahir Zaveri) is masterful in its composition of tension and rhythm – even the flashbacks, some of which are untimely in the midst of crisis, don’t feel too awkward. Kaushal Shah’s cinematography is a visual extension of dread – the camera moves like oxygen between corridors and faces, and none of the long tracking shots look like a gimmick. It’s essential to understand the spatial anatomy of an area in a long-form story. The trapping of characters, or their escapes, cannot look convenient. A distinct feature of that night was the free movement of the shooters from one South Mumbai target to another. The makers do a solid job of replicating the map and familiarizing us with their physical route. At no point does it seem like the distance is being “adapted”.

Like the hostages, I found myself repeatedly trying to sense the proximity of noise and silence, which I suppose is a testament to the scale of the series. The production design (by Priya Suhas) is perhaps the most crucial element. It recreates as well as creates, builds as well as destroys with unerring precision. The transformation of the hospital from episode 4 to 8 is superbly rendered – for instance, one can tell the difference between its bullet-battered carnage and the degrees of structural decay. That’s also an indicator of a versatile set: the hospital looks just about technical enough to alienate the audience and just about shabby enough to host a tense shootout. Even the sign at the gate looks suitably worn. The telecast of the fifth ODI of the 2008 India-England series in the backdrop – a day-and-night game with India chasing – is the icing on the cake. It’s nice to see creator and co-director Nikkhil Advani join the growing list of film directors who seem to have embraced their long-format calling. This is by far his best work, though I’ll forever have a soft spot for Kal Ho Naa Ho.

That’s not to say it’s flawless. The few false notes of Mumbai Diaries look like late-stage compromises. Like the random insert of a cabinet meeting (“the handlers are from Pakistan, what else is new?”); the ministers are never seen again. Or the parallel track of the handler – an unassuming family man directing his men through Mumbai. It just doesn’t belong in this series. The outwardness of the moment is distracting. Some of the otherwise-sharp writing descends into melodrama – like the flashback of an old Sikh patient denoting her time in the 1984 riots while she’s trying to “cure” her Islamophobic nurse. Then there’s Shreya Dhanwanthary’s journalist character, who comes across as an unhinged version of her Scam 1992 role. The villainizing of the media is fine, but there’s something fundamentally off about her gait and exchanges with her editor. The writers seem unclear about whether to explain her organization or indict it. 

Yet, much of the organised chaos of Mumbai Diaries is the consequence of its excellent cast. If not for space, I would single out each one of them – especially the trainee doctors having a first day from hell. But I particularly enjoyed (maybe “enjoyed” is not the word here) Mohit Raina’s performance as the hospital’s alpha doctor Kaushik Oberoi, and Sandesh Kulkarni as the hotheaded ACP Tawde. That Konkona Sen Sharma for once doesn’t look head and shoulders above the rest is a reminder of the reputation-free casting. Everyone is afforded a moment to shine. The diversity of talent is such that a specific theme – like, for example, the grammar of female agency – supplements the narrative without hijacking it. I’ll also repeat the merits of Scam 1992 and Paatal Lok: If you cast underutilized artists who’ve been shackled to television and bit parts for years, their hunger adds an X-factor to the writing. Most of the faces in Mumbai Diaries are familiar. To paraphrase the critic from Ratatouille: Not everyone can become a great performer, but a great performance can come from anywhere.

Mumbai Diaries also brings another point to the fore. We tend to perceive the roles in ‘action thrillers’ (like even Money Heist) as a lesser kind of acting. But so much of it thrives on emotional momentum and continuity. This body-acting is just as difficult – their relationship with the camera must reflect their relationships with one another in closed spaces. I don’t understand medical jargon, but the confidence of delivery and tone plays a key role in making things sound authentic to the uninitiated viewer. I’ve seen corny and unresearched hospital scenes too often to not appreciate a clear-minded series like this. I’ve experienced too much heartburn to not recognize the legitimacy of heartbreak. For, beyond the frenzy of a shapeless night, Mumbai Diaries doesn’t valorize the ordinary – it humanizes the extraordinary. It straddles the bridge between romanticizing and remembering, while at once acknowledging the abusive affair between a city and its citizens. And it raises the question we are trained to erase: Life goes on, but is it supposed to?

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