Nikhil Advani on ‘Mumbai Diaries 11/26’: A feature film is like a sprint; a series is like running a marathon



Multi-hyphenated Nikhil Advani talks about his new medical drama series ‘Mumbai Diaries 11/26’, and the multiple films and series his production house is working on

Writer-director-producer Nikhil Advani wears many hats and makes it look easy. At his production house Emmay Entertainment, work is in full swing on feature films and web series at different stages of development. There is a method to the madness, explains Advani, as he takes the time to talk about Mumbai Newspapers 11/26, a medical drama series that premieres on Amazon Prime Video on September 9. Starring Konkona Sen Sharma, Mohit Raina, Shreya Dhanwanthary, Satyajeet Dubey, Natasha Bharadwaj, Mrunmayee Deshpande and Prakash Belawadi, the series is co-produced by Nikhil Advani and Nikhil Gonsalves.

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Excerpts from an interview with Nikhil Advani:

The trailer tells a story that takes place in a hospital, against the backdrop of the terrorist attacks on 11/26. What prompted you to write a medical drama?

Vijay Subramaniam and Aparna Purohit from Amazon Prime Video approached me to do a show in the same gritty and gritty space as D-Day (2013 film) and Prisoner of War – Bandi Yudd Ke (2016 series for Star Plus). I didn’t want another spy story or pit India against Pakistan. I wanted to do a medical drama about the doctors, nurses and hospital staff at a hospital in Mumbai. At a large public hospital in Mumbai, they treat around 300 admissions per day. It’s like going to war. What happens when they go through an amazing day like 11/26?

COVID-19 has made us all more aware of the shortcomings of the healthcare system and all that healthcare workers are doing to keep our cities alive. This series was planned (and shot) before the pandemic.

Made Mumbai Newspapers 26 /11 become the story of a city as well as the characters played by Konkona Sen Sharma, Mohit Raina, Shreya Dhanwanthary and others?

I believe everyone has a story to tell about 11/26, whether they watched the traumatic events on TV or have a friend / acquaintance in one of the affected areas. The “the people who are supposed to heal us are themselves pretty broken” line of conduct defines the series. The characters face their own demons. Early in the day, Mohit’s character gets into an argument with his wife, who is the director of F&B at The Taj. As the attacks occur, he is unable to reach it. Someone else is worried about their parents who are stuck in the hotel. We started out wanting to tell personal stories and that became the story of the city.

Konkona Sen Sharma in the series

Can you discuss the process of writing fictional stories inspired by real events? You had quite a few – D-Day, Batla House, prisoner of war and this series.

The upside is that no matter how amazing an event may seem, no one can dispute that it happened. On 11/27 the first train departed from Churchgate station to Virar as usual, meaning the driver made it to his place of work. It is a symbol of Mumbai’s resilience. We also learned that a number of Muslims came forward to donate blood shortly after the attacks, to show their solidarity with India. We have made it all part of the story.

There is also a huge responsibility to tell these stories without sensationalizing them. When a ward boy or nurse sees Mumbai Newspapers 11/26, they must be proud to see their story on the screen. Nurses protected patients by hiding them under the beds and turning off the lights. A woman who took six bullets managed to survive …

Does the web space lend itself better to telling such long stories?

Absoutely. For Bollywood, the emphasis is more on screenplays. Writing for a series on a digital platform allows us to write episodic stories and longer character arcs. A feature film is like a sprint; a series is like running a marathon. Writing, directing or producing a series for a digital platform requires around two years of work; you can’t come here for a short break between two feature films.

You have worked on several projects as a screenwriter, producer and director. Tell us about the workflow?

There is a lot of work; sometimes people ask me if I am schizophrenic and I say yes. All kidding aside, we’re busy. Satyamev Jayate 2 (with John Abraham in a dual role) awaits its release, Sardar ka grandson created in May, we are working on The empire series for Hotstar, two new shows for Amazon Prime Video, Rocket boys which is a story of Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Bhaba, the movie Ms Chatterjee vs. Norway is underway in Estonia with Rani Mukherji, and more films are in the works.

This is possible because we have a strong development team. When we founded Emmay Entertainment ten years ago, we wanted to work with good writers, pay them well, and honor the written word. I was fortunate to have opportunities from Sudhir Mishra, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar; I wanted to give it back to the young screenwriters and directors.

You worked on war prisoner long before the digital explosion that occurred during the pandemic. What do you think of the OTT Vs. theatrical debate?

There will be those who will watch movies and series on digital platforms and others who will go to theaters to watch certain types of films. For example, let’s say I invest in good bandwidth for my daughter’s online courses. At the same time, I have access to streaming platforms and I watch different series. If, however, I am in a household with several other people, I might want to go out and watch a movie or two with my wife.

You started your career with Kal Ho Naa Ho and Salaam-e-Ishq and later moved on to serious stories. Some filmmakers feel the urge to move away from romances and tell other stories after a while, while others continue to tell romantic stories. Where are you ?

I am a big fan of Mani Ratnam. Regardless of the genre, there is great characterization and great drama in his films. I loved Roja, Thiruda Thiruda, Iruvar, Yuva and Kannathil Muthamittal, which were all different from each other.

At this point in my life, I value companionship more than romance. When I have an interesting story to tell in this space, I definitely will.


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