Nikhil Advani: A feature film is like a sprint; a series is like running a marathon

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

Writer-director-producer Nikhil Advani wears multiple hats and makes it look easy. At his production house Emmay Entertainment, work is on in full swing on feature films and web series in different stages of development. There is a method to the madness, Advani explains, as he takes time out to talk about Mumbai Diaries 26/11, a medical drama series that will premiere 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 jointly directed by Nikhil Advani and Nikhil Gonsalves.

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Excerpts from an interview with Nikhil Advani:

The trailer indicates a story unfolding in a hospital, against the backdrop of 26/11 attacks. What prompted you to write a medical drama?

Vijay Subramaniam and Aparna Purohit of Amazon Prime Video approached me to do a show in the same grungy, gritty space as D-Day (2013 film) and P.O.W – Bandi Yudd Ke (2016 series for Star Plus). I wasn’t keen on another espionage story or pitting India against Pakistan. I wanted to make a medical drama about doctors, nurses and ward staff in a Mumbai hospital. In a large, government hospital in Mumbai, they handle about 300 admissions a day. It is like going to war. What happens when they go through an extraordinary day like 26/11?

COVID-19 has made all of us more aware of the shortcomings in the healthcare system and how much healthcare workers do to keep our cities alive. This series was planned (and filmed) before the pandemic.

Does Mumbai Diaries 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 26/11, irrespective of whether they watched the traumatic events on television or had a friend/acquaintance in one of the affected areas. The logline ‘people who are meant to heal us are quite broken themselves’ defines the series. The characters are dealing with their own demons. Early in the day, Mohit’s character has an argument with his wife, who is an F&B manager at The Taj hotel. As the attacks happen, he is unable to reach her. Someone else is anxious about their parents who are stuck at the hotel. We began by wanting to narrate personal stories and it became the story of the city.

Konkona Sen Sharma in the series | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Can you discuss the process of writing fictional stories inspired by real life events? You have had quite a few — D-Day, Batla House, P.O.W and this series.

The advantage is that no matter how incredible an event may sound, no one can dispute that it happened. On 27/11, the first train left from Churchgate station to Virar as usual, which means the driver somehow managed to reach his workplace. That is a symbol of Mumbai’s resilience. We also learnt that a number of Muslims came forward to donate blood soon after the attacks, to show their solidarity with India. We incorporated all this into the story.

There is also tremendous responsibility of narrating these stories without sensationalising them. When a ward boy or a nurse sees Mumbai Diaries 26/11, they have to feel proud of seeing their story on screen. Nurses protected patients by hiding them under the beds and switching off lights. A woman who took six bullets managed to survive…

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

Absolutely. For Bollywood, the focus 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 about two years of work; you can’t come here on a short break between making two feature films.

You have been working on multiple projects as writer, producer and director. Tell us about the workflow?

There is plenty of work; sometimes people ask me if I am schizophrenic and I answer in the affirmative. Jokes apart, we are busy. Satyamev Jayate 2 (featuring John Abraham in a double role) is awaiting release, Sardar ka Grandson premiered 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 film Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is underway in Estonia with Rani Mukherji, and more films are in the pipeline.

This is possible because we have a robust development team. When we founded Emmay Entertainment a decade ago, we wanted to work with good writers, pay them well and honour the written word. I was fortunate to get opportunities from Sudhir Mishra, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar; I wanted to pay it back to younger writers and directors.

You worked on P.O.W much before the digital explosion that happened during the pandemic. What are your thoughts on the OTT Vs. theatre debate?

There will be those who will watch movies and series on digital platforms and others who will go to theatres to watch certain kind of movies. For instance, say I invest in a good bandwidth for my daughter’s online classes. Along with it I get access to streaming platforms and I watch different series. If, however, I am in a household with several others, I might want to go out and watch a film or two with my wife.

You began your career with Kal Ho Naa Ho and Salaam-e-Ishq and later moved to gritty stories. Some filmmakers feel the need to move away from romances and narrate other stories after a point, while others continue to tell romantic stories. Where do you stand?

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

At this stage of my life, I value companionship more than romance. When I have an interesting story to narrate in that space, I will definitely do it.

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