Mumbai Diaries 26/11 review: An urgent and swift series that feels authentic

screenmixSeptember 9, 2021

Mumbai Diaries 26/11 creator: Nikkhil Advani
Mumbai Diaries 26/11 cast: Mohit Raina, Konkona Sensharma, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Natasha Bharadwaj, Tina Desai, Satyajeet Dubey, Mrunmayee Deshpande, Prakash Belawadi

It was the 26th of November, 2008. Ten highly trained terrorists, armed with machine guns and explosives stuffed in their backpacks, came off a boat off the Gateway of India, and unleashed death and destruction at various points in South Mumbai. 26/11 has been rightfully dubbed the worst terror attack on Indian soil: the brazenness and the shocking swiftness with which it was unleashed, and the horrific death toll (172 dead, over 300 injured) laid bare the complacence and glaring lacunae in India’s internal and external security.

The repercussions of those three days and nights (the last of the hostages were rescued on the morning of the 29th, with nine out of ten terrorists shot dead; Ajmal Kasab was taken into custody, and hanged, after a prolonged trial, in 2012) continue to be felt to this day. Several films have been already made on the event: amongst the most prominent ones are Ram Gopal Verma’s ‘The Attacks of 26/11’ and Anthony Maras’ ‘Hotel Mumbai’.

‘Mumbai Diaries’, the new web series created by Nikkhil Advani, is a selectively fictionalised account of that first dark night. In the way it melds fact and fiction, you don’t quite know whether what you are watching actually happened, or whether it a figment of imagination of the writers of series’, even if several moments clearly look manufactured for the purposes of heightening drama, and suspense. You know you are being played, but you let it be, because the rest of it works as a hospital drama set in the backdrop of the attacks. And no, this is not India’s ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, even though we spend a significant amount of time with doctors and surgeons and nurses, in scrubs and masks, going about their jobs and saving lives under extreme circumstances.

We see the terrorists enter the ‘Palace’ Hotel, where a courageous hospitality executive (Tina Desai) is intent upon leading a group of guests to safety. We see them careering down Marine Drive in a captured ambulance (how they manage to whistle up an ambulance in a strange city isn’t shown; these are tiny details which stick in your craw). We see a pushy TV reporter (an effective Shreya Dhanvanthary, who had better stop accepting anymore journalist roles for fear of being typecast) chasing the story, and we see her relaying back those dribbles of information to the newsroom, jostling with the others of her tribe, being kept at bay by security personnel outside the hotel and the hospital under siege.

But for the most part the series stays focused on the Bombay General Hospital (standing in for the real-life Cama Hospital), whose doctors and nurses went above and beyond the call of duty to tend to the grievously wounded, as they kept being brought in from the bloody shooting at the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminal (CST). The Taj Hotel is called the Palace Hotel, unlike the other spots overrun by the terrorists which go by their real name — Leopold Cafe, Nariman House, Trident. Why does ‘Mumbai Diaries’ use some real names, some fictional? We never really get to know.

What we do know is that after creating murder and mayhem in other designated spots, a couple of terrorists attack the hospital where two of their men are held, one saved by the maverick-brilliant- mercurial Dr Kaushik Oberoi (Mohit Raina). He and his colleagues, Chitra Das (Konkona Sen Sharma), the pugnacious hospital boss Dr Subramaniam (Prakash Belawadi), the indefatigable nurses (Balaji Gauri, Adithi Kalkunte), the three new trainees (Satyajeet Dubey, Natasha Bharadwaj, Mrunmayee Deshpande), the wardboys vividly create an ecosystem in a typical ‘sarkari’ hospital, all grungy corridors and bedraggled wards, where the requisition of life-saving equipment is first done in triplicate, and then sat upon, but where the life savers do what they have taken the oath to: save lives.

What throws their efforts in relief is that ‘Mumbai Diaries’ raises its stakes right from the beginning: the killing of one of the hospital staff occurs early. By which time we are already, successfully, invested. The senseless death of the nurse, a mother and wife, going home to her child’s birthday, feels like a blow. It does not shy away from showing blood and exit wounds, and surgical scalpels and dripping IVs, and a few operations done on the fly, right there in the Emergency Room (ER), because well, there were no Operation Theatres (OT) available, and the patient had no time.

It’s urgent. It’s swift. And it feels authentic. And that’s what carries the day for these bravehearts on the frontline of the terror-attack, as they go through that night, with some interesting back stories coming to light. You are aware that some moving parts of this whole do not work as well as the others, and some of it is just too busy. An elderly female patient comes off annoying; a few characters in skull caps are shown pointedly cheering the police officers who emerge battered but unbowed, having lost some of their best men. Not all Muslims are terrorists, yep, got that. Some of the action stretches for too long. The role too-eager TV reporters play in exacerbating the situation plays out in the remorse on Mansi’s face.

Caste prejudice rears its ugly head, too. An injured policeman pushes out bigotry along with his groans. He will not let either a Muslim or a low caste doctor tend to him: the series chooses to call the latter ‘tum log’. Plus, a trainee doctor is shown struggling with depression. Can’t let a hot button issue like mental health go past, can we? Das, in charge of social services, has flashes of unresolved trauma from systematic spousal abuse, and this part I wanted more of because Sen Sharma does it so well. It also gives the series to explore the possibility that not all the terrorists were monsters; one of them shares a film song with a terrified prisoner. Err, yes.

There’s some mawkishness and familiar Bollywood flourishes on display. But on the whole, most of the performances, high or low pitched, feel credible, and right, given the context. Hysteria is a given when someone is shot to death, and breaths their last in your arms. Even when Dr Oberoi (Raina carries this show with complete confidence) is going full tilt at the I’m-so-bright-get-outa-my-way, you want, faintly, to cheer. Because he is doing what he knows how to best: to yank a life out from the jaws of death.

‘Mumbai Diaries’ works because it believes in itself, in Mumbai’s indomitable spirit, and in its attempts to stitch together the religious-linguistic diversity of its denizens, which override the communal jibes from some characters. It works best when, in between all the craziness, some of the characters stop to take a breath, and exchange glances or words, that lead you to believe that there is still some goodness in the world. And that there will day after this long, dark night.