Nikkhil Advani’s affinity for the authentic is well-established. As director of thrillers D-Day and Batla House, and producer of Airlift and Lucknow Central, Advani and his partners at Emmay Entertainment gravitate towards narratives rooted in reality. “Even if we do fictional, we tend to ask, ‘Who would this character be based on’?” says Advani. “It helps us see the story better.”
Reality, though, is not how Advani found fame. That came as director of the Karan Johar-produced Kal Ho Naa Ho. His cinematic journey, he says, began with assisting directors Saeed Mirza and Sudhir Mishra, known for their socio-political works.
Advani is all set to make his web series debut in early 2021 with Mumbai Diaries: 26/11, a fictional story set against the real backdrop of the terrorist attack of November 26, 2008. Created for Amazon Prime, the show, shot like a docu-drama, follows the chaotic lives of the doctors, nurses and residents of a government hospital. “The logline is ‘those who are meant to heal are broken themselves’,” says Advani. If received well, he hopes to continue Mumbai Diaries as an anthology, with each season dealing with a seminal incident in the metropolis.
Mumbai Diaries comes at a time when audiences on OTT platforms are being receptive to real stories, as demonstrated by shows like Scam 1992 (SonyLIV) on stock broker Harshad Mehta, and Jamtara (Netflix) on the mobile phishing scam. Research, Advani notes, is everything, with OTT audiences being vigilant about inaccuracies, especially with shows set in the past. For Mumbai Diaries, the cast, which includes Konkona Sensharma and Mohit Raina, underwent a 12-day medical workshop before the shoot and a doctor was present on set to ensure the procedures were depicted accurately. “The responsibility of getting it right is multiplied when you are dealing with an event where lives were at stake,” says Advani. This principle of factual accuracy is also being followed on other Emmay shows: Rocket Boys (on the lives of scientists Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam) and an adaptation of Empire of the Moghul, a series of historical fiction novels written by Alex Rutherford.
Even though OTT platforms, unlike the box office, give more leeway to filmmakers, Advani is aware of the thin line “between being audacious and foolish”, more so “given the current dispensation”. With OTT coming under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, there are concerns of censorship. Advani, though, isn’t worried, having worked with the standards and practices departments of both TV and streaming giants. “They are cognisant about what is going to be allowed and how much a filmmaker can stretch the rubber band,” he says.
For now, he is focused on encouraging young talent. With Emmay, he is giving opportunities to both his assistants and outsiders. The roster includes Kaashvie Nair, Madhumitha (of Tamil film K.D. fame), Vishal Furia and Shazia Iqbal.