“Ordinary people become extraordinary when they are given a choice of situations,” says actor Anupam Kher. “Sometimes we find courage in a situation which we think we would never get into. That’s a triumph of this film.”
Kher plays an ordinary hero moved to extraordinary action in the gripping drama Hotel Mumbai. Playing Hermant Oberoi, chef of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India, Kher gives a performance of quiet authority and overwhelming dignity. The film provides a gripping dramatization of the real life survival drama in which Chef Oberoi led the servants of the posh hotel to guide countless guests to safety when the landmark tourist destination was the target of a violent terrorist attack on November 26, 2008. Kher’s Chef Oberoi is just one ordinary hero along many in an ensemble that includes Lion’s Dev Patel as a waiter at the Taj alongside Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, and Jason Isaacs as some of the many guests who banded together with the servants when terrorists began firing indiscriminately on the hotel’s occupants. The powerful film offers a necessary message of unity in divisive times.
The cast and director Anthony Maras, speaking following the world premiere of Hotel Mumbai at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, describe approaching the tragedy respectfully and authentically to help audiences connect with its story of everyday heroes. Kher’s Chef Oberoi is the only character based strictly on a real life counterpart, while others like Hammer’s David and Boniadi’s Zahra are amalgams of two or three people who experienced the attack. “The thinking behind that was [Chef Oberoi] was a public figure prior to the attacks and he was one of the persons I had the most contact with at the outset,” explains Maras. “In the case of the other survivors, or people who had fallen in the attacks, we concealed their identities out of respect for their families, and others who were traumatized by the experience.” Maras says the cast drew upon extensive interviews with survivors to create scenes and inspire characters, while the wealth of news footage, as well as the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai, ensured a fact-based approach to realism and authenticity.
While Hotel Mumbai is an ensemble film, the central character is ultimately the Taj itself. Maras says that constructing the geography of the hotel within the story development was essential for creating the tension. “I learned a lot by making mistakes with my short film The Palace because you can’t have tension if people don’t understand the parameters of where they work,” explains Maras on crafting his feature debut. “If they don’t know the proximity of where the staircase is to the kitchen, then there’s no tension because you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Maras says that he and his co-writers spent ample time at the Taj in pre-production researching the layout, dynamics, and characteristics of the hotel and embedding them within the story. “We spent five weeks staying at the Taj, which is where we wrote a lot of the early outlines for the film,” says Maras. “We were walking the hallways of the Taj; we were going up the staircase.”
The director likens the film’s geography to a jigsaw puzzle in creating the film’s geography while establishing the upstairs/downstairs dynamic and social divisions that are blown apart when the action begins. “There’s a reason why Armie Hammer and [Nazanin Boniadi] come to the front entrance and that’s intercut with Dev Patel walking through the back entrance,” says Maras. “There’s a reason why you see Anupam Kher looking up the staircase that they’re going to have to come down at the end. That was meticulously planned to make it easy for audiences to understand the geography of the hotel.” The effect puts audiences in the headspace of the characters as they experience the grand setting and can orient themselves in relation to the action, understanding the suspense as the situation escalates.
Honouring Real Life Counterparts
For Maras, this approach to authenticity includes casting actors who embody the film’s message for unity. Boniadi says she was approached for the film after the director saw a video of her speaking for Amnesty International. “The casting was so refreshing because he found something that I was offering, something that he saw in me,” says Boniadi, who advocates for the rights of women and youth in Iran. “It wasn’t something that I was trying to manufacture. Of course, the character is nothing like a human rights advocate, but there is a commonality in the sense that both require a fearlessness in speaking truth to power.”
Kher recalls feeling a responsibility to the victims and survivors at the city landmark. The actor describes relating to the attack on a personal level when a friend, who was a general manager at the Taj, lost his family in the attack. “His wife and his two kids, eight and nine years old, had come to stay in the hotel. Just a night,” says Kher. “His wife and the two children died because of suffocation. I’d just met [him] five days back, had dinner with him, and he had mentioned that his family was coming next day. And then…they died.”
The shock in Kher’s voice is palpable, but he adds that telling this story is essential to honour the victims’ memory. Kher, who lives in Mumbai, agrees that shooting part of the film in his hometown was essential. “This film would not have got its soul if it was not shot in India,” says Kher. “Bombay’s a very distracting place. We went to the studio every day, where they did the interior of the Taj up brilliantly.” Even before the violence begins, the Taj stands as an oasis in the hustle-bustle of Mumbai’s densely packed streets, letting audiences appreciate its status as an institution, as well as a pillar for security in the busy city.
Boniadi echoes Kher’s sentiment relating to friends and family. The film features one especially emotional moment in which Zahra calls her mother back home, and Boniadi says she drew upon her personal connection to the voice on the phone to make the scene so impactful.
The actress says that her mother ultimately voiced Zahra’s mom when she and Maras realized that the original vocal performance didn’t create the same emotional spark. “My mother is not an actor by any means,” says Boniadi. “She’s actually a hairstylist.” Boniadi notes that her mom came aboard at Maras’ suggestion to lend the film some raw emotion by wearing the shoes of a woman potentially speaking to her daughter for the last time. “I tried to guide my mother,” explains Boniadi. “I was on Skype from Australia and [Maras] Skyped in and directed her to perfection. I think she was very compelling and helped that scene tremendously.” It’s a raw, and powerful moment within a relentlessly intense film. The pause reminds viewers of the stakes within the action.
Isaacs, who plays the boisterous and arrogant hotel guest Vasili, says the pleasure of taking on the character came not so much from playing someone with whom he could identify, but someone he could critique. “This is a very arrogant, dismissive, cynical, wealthy entitled man,” says Isaacs, “but that’s because the world has shown him that to be anything else is to be sentimental and foolish. What I loved about his journey is that when all of that is stripped away and when the stakes are their highest, he discovers things about himself.”
A Story of Togetherness
Although the three actors arrive at their assessments of the characters differently, their stories share sentiments of finding common ground and courage under fire. Maras says that the Taj itself holds special significance in this regard, which the film plays with in its explosion of the familiar upstairs/downstairs trope that introduces the upper class characters and the servants, only to put them all on a level playing field.
“In some respects, this is unique because of what the hotel stands for and because of the types of people that you find in that hotel,” says Maras. “You have young waiters from the slums in there with hedge fund managers. When the bullets start flying, all of those class divisions are neutralized because they’re all in the same boat.”
Maras adds that seeing beyond these divides helps the story resonate a decade after the attack. “The world is pretty divided at the moment and has been for a while,” says Maras. “I think that the action set by the guests and staff in coming together is a good example for us.”
Isaacs agrees and draws upon his disdain for Donald Trump to underscore the film’s relevance. “This story, drawn from real life, shows that there is far more that unites us than divides us,” says Isaacs. “The messages coming from the highest offices in the world are telling us that we’re not like each other if we have a different colour of skin, if we have different incomes, [implying] that essentially human beings are selfish and venal. Real life gave us an enormously dramatic example that proves that’s not true. The basic human instinct in times of crisis to reach out to each other.”
The Complexity of Faith
Hotel Mumbai walks a difficult line while dramatizing the tragedy accurately without perpetuating the same divisiveness that Maras and Isaacs observe in the world. Central to this challenge is the film’s portrayal of religion given that the terrorists depicted in the film, like their real life counterparts, are jihadi extremists. In the vein of films like Captain Philips, Hotel Mumbai affords screentime to the protagonists and their attackers. It avoids making terrorists faceless villains in an effort to help audiences understand the pressures that might motivate individuals to radical action without validating their extremism.
For the British-Iranian Boniadi, this tightrope walk of choosing roles and representing religion is a challenge she accepts. “I think that good and bad and evil and goodness exist in every religion, every ethnicity, and every nationality,” she says. “I was born into a Muslim family. I have people in my family on my mother’s side who veil, cover, and are very devout. My father is Zoroastrian, a monotheistic religion that predated Islam in Iran. This is my second character who is a Muslim woman and is not radicalized. She is just like everybody else.”
Boniadi adds that representing diverse characters comes with responsibility, especially when they risk being cast as stereotypes. “I think it’s very important for me to humanize a person, a character regardless of faith,” says Boniadi. “When I took the role that I’m currently playing on Counterpart, her name is Clare. I auditioned as Clare, and when I got the role, it was very important to me that they didn’t change that to Fatima or some Middle Eastern name, strictly because I am playing a terrorist.” The film balances its portrait of extremism by showing faith in a positive light, like in the scene where Zahra calls her mother who tells her to pray, or a pivotal scene when she heeds her mother’s advice and recites the Quran.
Kher says that the nuance of the film’s portrayal of religion resides largely in its depiction of the hotel staff. “Eight people sitting here, their own perception and their connection with God is different; as a person, as a chef,” observes Kher. “That’s the philosophy of the Taj. That the guest is God. In fact, that’s a philosophy of India. A Sanskrit term, Atithi Devo Bhava, means the guest is always God.” The line that “the guest is God” is Chef Oberoi’s mantra throughout the film, and it ultimately proves a test of the servants’ devotion, while creating common ground as the guests rise to the challenge set by the servants’ heroism.
Isaacs agrees and points to a specific scene in which an elderly white guest at the Taj suspects Dev Patel’s Arjun, a Sikh, of being a terrorist. Arjun calmly explains to the guest why he wears a turban, but offers to remove it in a selfless act that puts her security, and that of the group, above his comfort. “To me, the entire film is encapsulated in that one scene,” says Isaacs. “Even though the film is full of terrible carnage and suffering and pain and death, I found that unbearably moving and beautiful. It encapsulates what the film has to say about people.”
“The Most Important Film of Our Time”
Boniadi says moments like these put her choices as an actor hand in hand with her advocacy work. “I try to choose films that raise conscientiousness and awareness and inspire,” she explains. “I see it lending itself to my advocacy work. As actors, we get to portray the human condition and as advocates and activists, we get to change the human condition. There’s a real interplay of those worlds.”
Activism and acting are part of the film’s appeal for Kher in honouring the city he loves. Prior to the film’s premiere at TIFF, Kher proclaimed Hotel Mumbai “the most important film of our times” on Twitter. When asked to elaborate on the sentiment, Kher explains, “I think it’s important because terrorism is not area-centric or country-centric. It has gone all over the place and it’s important for people to realize that people who die are not statistics. They’re somebody’s father, somebody’s mother, somebody’s brother, and somebody’s sister.”
Ten years after the attacks in Mumbai, radical violence is as prevalent as ever. A summer of shootings in Toronto set a violent stage for the film’s premiere, and the recent massacre in the mosques of Christchurch, New Zealand, prior to the theatrical release are reminders that violent ideologies know no boundaries. Kher encourages audiences to see Hotel Mumbai as a unifying film, no matter how painful it may be. “Unfortunately, in times of sadness, the only thing you do is hold the hands of each other,” says Kher. “Grief brings you together. Happiness gets you outside.”
Hotel Mumbai opens on March 29