Arjan Bajwa: Huge responsibility to recreate the events of 26/11
Arjan Bajwa, Vivek Dahiya, and Arjun Bijlani on playing NSG commandos in State of Siege: 26/11, ZEE5’s new show about the 2008 Mumbai attacks
Military action is bracing up on Indian screens. Across mediums, there’s a push for realistic production design and tense, heart-stopping action. With 2019’s Uri: The Surgical Strike showing the way, a number of films and web-shows are mining real-life events for combat and thrills. A dash of nationalism, likewise, is par for the course.
ZEE5’s new show, State Of Siege: 26/11, streaming from March 20, looks to raise the bar for action filmmaking in India. The eight-episode series revisits the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. The story is told from the perspective of the National Security Guard (NSG) commandos flown in from Delhi to neutralise the attacks. Adapted from Sandeep Unnithan’s book Black Tornado: The Three Sieges of Mumbai 26/11, the show was assembled by an international crew led by Hollywood director Matthew Leutwyler. The ensemble cast is fronted by Arjan Bajwa, Vivek Dahiya, Arjun Bijlani, Tara Alisha Berry, and others.
Arjan, who essayed Shahid Kapoor’s brother in Kabir Singh and was also seen in Bigil, says he is finally at home with the kind of roles he likes to play. “This is my space,” Arjan shares. “I always wanted to play the role of a defence personnel. The 26/11 attacks were the 9/11 of India. It was a huge responsibility to recreate those events authentically.” Arjan’s character is based on Colonel Sunil Sheoran, the commanding officer of the NSG 51 Special Action Group that conducted the raids. His second-in-command on the mission, Lieutenant Colonel Sandeep Sen, was a script consultant and trainer on the show. “Colonel Sandeep taught us about everything the NSG — how they move, communicate or operate weapons. We also got to shoot at classified locations and use military vehicles and logistics.”
The 2008 attacks were coordinated at 12 locations in South Mumbai over four days. Among them, the hostage situation at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel lasted the longest. At the time, there was criticism that the NGS was delayed by around six hours in plunging into action. “A lot of people think the NSG was late to arrive in the city,” Arjan notes. “But the NSG works on orders. They were always on their toes to handle any crisis situation. But they couldn’t act without orders.”
In State of Siege, the role of Sandeep Unnikrishnan is essayed by Arjun Bijlani. Major Sandeep died in combat while rescuing hostages and an injured team member at the Taj. He was posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra, India's highest peacetime gallantry award. “It was a big honour to portray Sandeep Unnikrishnan in the show,” Arjun says. “I started my television career by playing a military cadet in Left Right Left. Today, after many years, I’m getting to play one of India’s greatest martyrs.”
Arjun has distinct memories of the night of 26/11. “There was a lot of panic and confusion,” he recalls. “It was being circulated that terrorists have descended all across Mumbai and are shooting randomly. My mother was not at home and I remember the dread that filled me. It was the darkest night for us…”
While the Taj attack is well documented — most recently in Anthony Maras’s survival thriller Hotel Mumbai — the situation at other locations like The Nariman House is less explored. In State of Siege, Vivek Dahiya plays Captain Rohit Bagga, a commando leading at the rescue mission at the five-story building in Colaba. “My character is the youngest of the lot,” Vivek shares. “He’s sent in to rescue the Jewish civilians trapped inside the outreach centre. According to one report, Chadad House (The Nariman House) was actually the main target of the terrorists. All the other attacks were conducted to amplify its effect…”
Twelve years since the events of 26/11, Mumbai is held hostage by a different kind of invasion. With the coronavirus pandemic raging wide, the city is in lockdown, having reported its first COVID-19 death on Tuesday. The cast members of State of Siege hope the show brings comfort to the citizens of maximum city.
“Even at his bleak hour, it’s reassuring to know that there are institutions looking after us,” Arjun says. “I urge our viewers to practice precautionary measures and avoid stepping out. We have selfishly abused the earth and its climate for too long. Let’s take this as a sign of letting the Earth breathe.”