‘It was awkward and surreal’: Tina Desai on shooting for ‘Mumbai Diaries 26/11’

The ‘Sense8’ actor on recreating the tragedy for the screen, studying the Taj group’s hiring policies, and her next project ‘Bob Biswas’

One of the best parts of Mumbai Diaries 26/11 — Amazon Prime Video’s new thriller set during the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks — is Tina Desai’s character Ananya Ghosh. Her role is based on several members of the Taj hospitality team, whose courage showcased when under fire and the ‘guests first’ culture later became the subject of a Harvard Business Review study. The actor, best known for her performances in films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and shows like Netflix’s Sense8, spoke to The Hindu Weekend about her latest release, the experience of working with the Wachowski Sisters (for the Netflix show), and projects in the pipeline.

A Still From ‘Mumbai Diaries 26/11’

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Keeping it real

In Mumbai Diaries 26/11, also starring Konkana Sen Sharma and Mohit Raina, the ‘real time’ aspect of the story is emphasised. There are several extended action sequences with zero or very few cuts. These have been very cleverly shot, a la sequences in shows like Amazon Prime’s own The Family Man. Because of this, Mumbai Diaries 26/11 has been drawing positive reviews for its hard-hitting and telling portrayal of the terror attack. It is what makes it thrilling for the audience, but it also involved a gruelling, strict shooting schedule for Desai and her fellow cast members. There was also the pressure of portraying real-life heroes, with the knowledge that should things go even slightly awry in terms of the depiction, the show could become a soft target for critics.

“It’s challenging when you have to recreate a situation that caused so many people a huge amount of trauma in real life,” says Desai, adding, “While shooting the segments set at the Taj, I was admiring the sets, the design, but at the same time I had to remind myself that this actually happened, that people actually died. It was awkward and surreal, and we knew we had to be as true to the real-life sequence of incidents as possible.”

A Still From ‘Mumbai Diaries 26/11’

In a crucial scene from the show, her character, Ananya, is dissuaded by everyone (her trauma surgeon husband included) after she announces that she’s going back into the burning hotel, having safely escorted a number of guests outside the building. Explaining how this scene encapsulated the essence of her character, Desai says, “I read up on the recruitment policies of the Taj and they target tier two and three cities for their hospitality teams because they feel that it is in such cities that the old ethos of ‘atithi devo bhavah’ (guests are akin to God) can still be found. The real-life Taj hospitality team formed a human chain between the terrorists and the guests; they got shot themselves while trying to save the guests.”

Sense8 and more

Desai’s biggest project so far was her lead role as Kala Dandekar in the Netflix science fiction show Sense8 (2015-2018), co-created by Lilly and Lana Wachowski (the iconic directors of the Matrix franchise). The show followed a group of eight strangers across the world who are bound to each other by a psychic connection, and it drew rave reviews from critics around the world for its sophisticated portrayal of themes involving gender politics, sexual identity and religious fundamentalism.

A Still From ‘Sense8’

“One of the amazing parts of working on Sense8 was the table reads. As the cast was so diverse and these characters were from all around the world, there were so many fresh perspectives that we [the cast] picked up from each other,” says the actor, adding how the nature of Sense8’s central narrative — deceit — meant that she had to know the ins and outs of every single character on display. “Because of the shared-brain plot point, there were moments when I had to act as a different character and they had to act as me, so there was a lot of improvisation on set as well. I wish the show were still around!”

Soon, Desai will be seen in Red Chillies’ Bob Biswas, a spin-off from the 2012 Vidya Balan starrer Kahaani. “I have also shot for another project, a remake of the BBC show Guilt, directed by Shaad Ali and developed by Applause Entertainment,” she concludes.

Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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