Everyone from Mumbai knows where they were on the night when the shooting began, recalls producer Nikkhil Advani. The terror attacks of 26 November 2008 involved at least 10 gunmen from a Pakistan-based militant organisation carrying out 12 coordinated shooting and bomb attacks across India’s financial capital. By the time it was over, after four days of mayhem, at least 160 people had been killed.
Advani’s latest project, the medical thriller series Mumbai Diaries 26/11, follows a host of other films, books and series in the last decade that have tried to make sense of a moment deeply traumatic for the Indian national psyche. Films such as The Attacks of 26/11 and Hotel Mumbai have offered fictionalised takes on what occurred during the attacks, while documentaries including Surviving Mumbai featured interviews with those who escaped with their lives.
Mumbai Diaries 26/11, on the other hand, dramatises the experience of the hospitals and frontline medical workers who faced a deluge of attack victims requiring treatment during those days. The series is “not like anything that we have seen already”, Advani told The Independent.
The producer recalls his own memories of the attacks, saying that when news first started to get out everyone’s phones around him started going off all at once. “We got to know that terrorists have entered Colaba (an upmarket district of the city),” he recalled. “I remember watching the news, watching what was happening at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
“Every Mumbaikar has a personal connection to this series,” he said, recalling how at the time the city banded together to try and help each other “with all their might, especially the first responders”. “We came up with the idea of creating this series that gives a tribute to the bravery of the frontline workers through a fictional story set against the backdrop of the attacks.”
The thriller is set in the emergency room of one major public hospital, and explores the professional, physical and emotional challenges faced by the medical staff in handling the unfolding crisis. As the series unfolds, the hospital itself becomes the battleground between the police and military, the doctors and the attackers.
Actor Mohit Raina, who plays the role of the head physician Dr Kaushik Oberoi in the show, said the attacks left the “spirits of Mumbai shaken”.
“On the night of the attacks, I was returning from Vashi (a suburb of Mumbai) with friends in a black and yellow taxi,” he said. Back then, the actor used “one of those old Nokia phones” and received a text from an uncle checking on his whereabouts and wellbeing.
“When he called, I realised the gravity of the situation.” Raina recalled. “We were not allowed to enter the city. I stayed with a friend for two days in Navi Mumbai. On the third day, when I returned, what struck me was the eerie silence. [The city] paused for those three days, and that was heart-breaking,” he said.
Satyajeet Dubey plays the role of trainee doctor Ahaan Mirza, thrust into action and a level of responsibility he hasn’t been prepared for. The actor said he was a college student in his second year when the attacks took place in real life. “While walking back to my place post-dinner, a police van went past announcing to everyone to get back in their houses and stay indoors,” he told The Independent.
“We all saw the horror unfold in front of our eyes”. One of Dubey’s neighbours was killed in the shooting at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station, and “it was heartbreaking when his body arrived”, the actor said.
By focusing specifically on the doctors who helped during the attacks, Mumbai Diaries 26/11 tries to open old wounds in order to remind the world of how essential frontline health workers are in any crisis. It’s a pertinent message at a time when doctors, including here in India, have been attacked for trying to save lives during the pandemic.
Dubey said the key message of the series is “to understand how difficult the life of frontline warriors is”.
“Sometimes the ones who are meant to heal are the most broken ones,” Advani said. “As writers and creators, we felt that people see only one side of doctors, police, and first responders. One never actually understands that they also have personal lives, and somewhere or the other is dealing with so much which they’ll never allow coming to the surface.”
‘Mumbai Diaries 26/11’ is out now on Amazon Prime video