Arjun Bijlani: It is an honour to play Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan in State of Siege 26/11

Sana Farzeen
Arjun Bijlani in State of Siege: 26/11

Arjun Bijlani's State of Siege: 26/11 will stream on ZEE5.

“I started my career playing a soldier, and now I am essaying the role of a Major. I think I am progressing in the right direction,” Arjun Bijlani remarked as he spoke about his latest project State of Siege: 26/11. Based on the novel Black Tornado, the ZEE5 original will present the untold stories from the 2008 Mumbai attacks that shook the whole country.

Bijlani in an exclusive conversation with opened up about making his digital debut with the action-packed web series. He also shared his memories of 26/11.

Excerpts from the conversation:

The show got pushed from its earlier release date, and now promotions have seen a hit because of coronavirus outbreak. Do these events affect you as an actor?

It is quite disheartening. The postponement happened because we had a chunk of VFX and post-production work remaining. So it was justified. However, this virus outbreak was completely unexpected. We had planned city visits and a whole lot of other engagements. However, I am looking at it in a positive way. With most people at home, it would be a good opportunity for them to watch our show. It is a story that is close to every Indian, and I hope people give us all the love and support.

Being a Mumbaikar, what are the memories you have about the 26/11 attack?

I was at home, but my mom wasn't. The early news suggested it was a gang war, and then rumours began that several terrorists are attacking people across the city. Having lost my father when I was just 19, I was very worried for my mother. I was scared to death and almost had tears in my eyes. She was on her way back home, but I kept calling her every minute to check. Then the usual drill began on checking on friends and relatives. Having lived in town all my life, those places were the ones we have been to every day. It was quite a scary thought that something like this could happen in a city like Mumbai.

Did that make shooting for State of Siege an emotional experience?

More than myself, I was touched by what these soldiers must be going through at those times. It is a war zone with bullets and grenades falling around. And to be there making decisions of life and death takes nerves of steel. One of my toughest sequence in the series is where I have to jump into a room, and a grenade blasts. While shooting, due to a miscalculation, it burst open early right in front of me. The particles were in my eyes, and I was shaken. We continued to shoot, but that moment made me realise that while it is a protected environment here, those soldiers were in this for real. I salute those commandos for it is only because of them that we are all safe.

You are playing a character inspired by Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. What was the kind of preparation to play the part?

It is an honour to play him. He was the training officer, and very close to everyone. Everyone had a tremendous amount of respect for him. While saving so many lives, he got martyred. And even with the emotion and trauma, his team continued to fight with bravery and passion. I feel we call ourselves heroes, but we are nothing in front of them. Lt. Colonel Sundeep Sen, who was the second in command during the incident, was our guiding light on set. I trained under him not just on how to handle weapons but also emotions.

Your family will get quite emotional seeing you in this role?

I know! Neha (his wife) hates seeing me die on screen. She always gets teary-eyed and tells me why I have to do such roles. My son Ayaan is too young to see the show, but I would like to show him the fighting part. He loves his guns and is always in a combat mood.

How important is it to tell such stories to kids?

I think everything has a right age. Right now, it is important to teach him values in life. From caring, sharing, friends, good behaviour to respecting and being polite to women. As a parent, I need to teach him these rather than giving him luxuries.

And what has been your biggest learning from State of Siege?

We live in a world where anything can happen. The least we can do is to be brave and compassionate. Look at the current state, a virus has created mayhem all over the world. So much more can happen. We have to be prepared. Whichever country, religion or caste one is, above all, we are humans, and we have to stick together till the end.

Before you signed up for the show, what were the kind of apprehensions or concerns you had about the digital medium?

Honestly, I was offered a couple of web series before, but I didn't take it up. I wanted to start on a different note. I was praying to God, and manifesting it when this came my way. And I just jumped at the opportunity of being a part of it. It was also quite a deja vu moment as I started my TV career as a soldier. I think it was just meant to happen.

When are we seeing you back on TV?

Well, you will get to see me hosting for sure. But as for acting opportunities, I am weighing my options. It is not like I don't want to do television, but one gets stuck in a character for long. I want to keep doing different things. I would like to do more of web and films. But at the end of the day, it all depends on the kinds of roles I get.

State of Siege: 26/11 also stars Arjan Bajwa, Vivek Dahiya, Mukul Dev and Sid Makkar among more. Directed by Matthew Leutwyler, the series will stream on ZEE5 from March 20.