Mumbai Diaries 26/11 review: An overstuffed, ambitious thriller
Coming as it does 13 years after 26/11, one would expect the series to provide more insights on what really happened but what we get are fictional stories that try too hard to be balanced.
Directed by Nikhil Advani and Nikhil Gonsalves, Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is a fictional account based on real-life events that transpired on November 26, 2008, in Mumbai. The maximum city was laid to siege by terrorists who launched attacks on multiple places, killing close to 200 people. Over the course of eight episodes, each titled after a medical term and running to about 40 minutes, the web series attempts to tell an ambitious and human story about the nightmare.
The series is largely set in two fictional locations — the Bombay General Hospital and The Palace Hotel. Mohit Raina plays Dr. Kaushik Oberoi, a maverick doctor modeled on rebels like Dr. House. He's unconventional, listens to nobody, and is addicted to his job. He is, coincidentally, married to Ananya (Tina Desai) who works in a senior position at The Palace Hotel. The other significant characters in the series include Chitra (Konkana Sen Sharma), Director of Social Services, three trainee doctors — Ahaan Mirza (Satyajeet Dubey), Sujatha (Mrunmayee Deshpande), and Diya Parekh (Natasha Bharadwaj), and a passionate and pigheaded journalist Mansi (Shreya Dhanwanthary).
Coming as it does thirteen years after the terror attacks, one would expect the series to provide more insights about what really happened. How did such a massive intelligence failure occur? How was the attack planned? What were the revelations made by the captured terrorist (in real life Ajmal Kasab, in the series, Saqib)? But Mumbai Diaries 26/11 doesn't get into any of this. What we get, instead, is the fast-food version that we're already familiar with through media coverage, peppered with characters that tick the inclusivity box. The Good Muslim. The Dalit doctor. The sexist husband. The Hindutva bigot. The domestic violence survivor. And so on.
The intention is certainly laudable but the effort to showcase every other issue possible and create a 'balanced' narrative within the thriller looks too deliberate. For instance, to counter the Bad Muslims spraying bullets in Allah's name, we have a scene with Ahaan offering prayers to Allah for the soul of someone who died in the attack. To make sure that the viewer understands that communal hate isn't limited to one religion, we have a Hindu character spouting bigoted lines and a Sikh woman recalling the 1984 riots. The Dalit trainee doctor who is repeatedly insulted by an injured policeman gets to say that caste is very much an issue in her world but also has to add that she's here because of her "merit" (a subtle jibe at reservation). There's even a little lecture on the need to be open about mental health wrapped into the series.
Creating a narrative like this, without offending sentiments but sticking to the facts, is not a joke. Full points for trying, but the problem is that the trying shows. When the material itself is so full of high drama, is it necessary to blow it up even more? For instance, we have the slain ATS Chief's wife walk in and land a resounding slap on Dr. Oberoi's face for treating a terrorist. And was it really necessary for every character to find some form of redemption by the end? Do we need songs to highlight the emotions that everyone is feeling? These are writing choices that dilute the urgency of the script and push it into the territory of the average Bollywood film.
The media was heavily criticized at the time of the attacks for leaking vital information on the location of hostages and even the movement of the National Security Guard (NSG). While this aspect is more than adequately represented through Mansi, there are no fingers pointed elsewhere for the intelligence failure or even the failure to issue a protocol for the media to follow.
If the series remains watchable despite this, it is because of the performances of the cast. Konkana is impressive as Chitra, struggling to battle her inner demons in the middle of a terror attack. Shreya and Tina, too, do well in their respective roles. But it is the secondary characters, like Vasu, Cherian, and Vidya, who really make us feel for what is happening. They are not built up as heroes but they emerge as real people we care about.
There is a lot of blood and smoke on screen, with the color palette accentuating the grimness but also making the violence less gory; there are also frequent shifts from one location to another. But the screenplay and the sharp editing keep the narrative cogent. The action sequences, with the terrorists hunting the hostages and the police trying valiantly to control the situation, are also choreographed well, keeping us on tenterhooks. The long single take with an officer in a do-or-die attempt especially deserves applause. But what could have been a tightly paced narrative slips and stumbles on the backstories that intervene too often.
Mumbai Diaries 26/11 wants to be a taut, muscular thriller. But the anatomy is somewhat bloated by the need to shove in more heart than necessary.
The series is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.