Nikkhil Advani last directed Batla House in 2019 and one of the stories in the Unpaused anthology last year. He’s catching up on reviews of his latest web series Mumbai Diaries 26/11 from Estonia, where his production company Emmay Entertainment is filming the upcoming feature Mrs Chatterji vs Norway (directed by Ashima Chibber).
Set against the backdrop of the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, Mumbai Diaries (Amazon Prime Video) series follows doctors, interns, nurses, ward boys and administrators as they face one of the greatest challenges and the most harrowing days of their lives. Mohit Raina, Konkona Sen Sharma, Prakash Belawadi are among the returning cast members in upcoming seasons of the Amazon Prime Video show. Over a video interview, Advani spoke about the first season of the medical drama, set in the fictitious Bombay General Hospital. Edited excerpts:
What kind of research did you undertake for ‘Mumbai Diaries’?
My idea always was to do a medical drama. I wanted to get into the gritty, grungy space. Post directing D-Day, I have found comfort in a more realistic space. When we started research, we went to KEM Hospital and JJ Hospital. I actually saw a doctor performing a procedure under the bed because there weren’t enough beds available. They had also converted some crates into a bed because the state of the art machine from Germany that had come in those crates could not be used as someone had failed to requisition the special batteries.
Within all this, the doctors continued doing their work. So I said if this is what the doctors go through everyday, what if I make it that one extraordinary day. One big aspect that motivated me was what would the doctors do if the super cops and the terrorists were brought into the same hospital, knowing fully well that more than 100 people had been gunned down and more than 300 were being held hostage. That’s where that line in the show comes in, when Dr Kaushik Oberoi says, “We care for the human body. Judging the human character is not our job.”
What did it take to get the medical details right?
There were a few steps. In the first instance we just wrote the script and put placeholders for procedures, for example mentioning there's a bullet wound. The second step was figuring out what kind of wound the bullet would cause, where would it be lodged, could it be fatal, and so on.
For the hospital introduction I knew we wanted to have a young victim of an accident who is unable to breathe. When we wrote that scene, we didn’t know that he would need a tracheostomy. First the drama had to work, and then we found out the right medical terms.
We had Dr Sheikh come on board. He was at the Taj Hotel and Bombay Hospital on 26/11 and he gave us the procedures—tracheostomy or gun shot wound or open heart surgery. Once this was added into the script, we shared it with the actors who had to learn the jargon. The actors, assistant directors and anyone dealing with anything medical also did a two-week medical workshop with doctors. The fourth step was having Dr Sheikh on set everyday.
What dictated the hospital design?
Our production designer Priya Suhas created a massive set over 2.5 acres in Film City. In government hospitals you are first hit by the sweet smell of Formaldehyde and body odour. Then comes the stench of urine. I wanted the set to look and almost smell like that.
I saw the making of The West Wing. They had created a set where you can walk from one room to another without cutting the scene—just walk and talk, walk and talk. We built our set after I took Priya through some of the bigger scenes I wanted to shoot. These doctors are in the trenches every day, and from 9.30pm, after the first victims were hit at Leopold, they were doing procedures in any and every free space. So we combined the healing that was happening at JJ Hospital with the attack that happened at Cama and Albless Hospital. In reality, the Cama attack was 20 minutes but we made it into three episodes.
I spoke to my DOP Kaushal Shah and told him that I don’t want to cut because, as much as possible you needed to be with the doctors real time. For a scene in episode six, there is one line in the script: “Shirke secures the ground floor”. I felt we needed to see the entire ground floor getting locked so we have a nine-minute single steadicam shot. We choreographed it. In fact there is a lot of choreography in the show because the actors had to hit their mark, hit their line, hit the light. In the next season it will be the same set. The only change is that it might become more decrepit, more leaky and crumble more.
So what exactly is the format of the series, assuming their will be further seasons of ‘Mumbai Diaries’?
Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is season one. In the next season there will be a new challenge the city faces, which could be manmade or natural, and the show will explore how the city comes to its knees again and how my doctors and first responders deal with that.
The principal characters all return—namely Dr Oberoi (Mohit Raina), Dr Subramaniam (Prakash Belawadi), Chitra Das (Konkona Sen Sharma), Cherian (Balaji Gauri), Samarth (Pushkaraj Chirputkar), Vidya (Adithi Kalkunte), Dr Diya Parekh (Natasha Bharadwaj), Dr Ahaan Mirza (Satyajeet Dubey) and Dr Sujata Ajawale (Mrunmayee Deshpande).
You would have noticed that Konkona’s domestic violence track is not unresolved, because it’s a setup. Mumbai and what it is going through will always be seen through the lens of the hospital and the hospital staff. The outsiders coming to the hospital will change. If in season one it was cops, in the next season it could be administrators, BMC staff, etc., but fictionalised. And the media will continue to to play an important role in telling us what is going on outside the hospital.