Australian director Anthony Maras’s Hotel Mumbai revisits the terror attacks on India’a financial capital in November 2008. The thriller is set inside the Taj Mahal luxury hotel, which was besieged by Pakistani terrorists for four days. The incident is seen from the points of view of the staff, the guests, and the terrorists, who take instructions from a handler in Pakistan.
The international cast includes Dev Patel as a waiter at the hotel, Anupam Kher as the chef Hemant Oberoi, Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as a couple caught in the crossfire, and Jason Isaacs as a Russian businessman.
Maras has previously directed the short film The Palace (2011), in which a Cypriot family takes refuge in an Ottoman-era palace during Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Hotel Mumbai was completed in 2018 and is being released in India by Zee Studios in English, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil on November 29. The film “invites the audience to empathise with those who went through it first-hand”, Maras told Scroll.in in an interview.
What made you want to make ‘Hotel Mumbai’?
Like most people, I got to know about the Mumbai attacks from the news. It was the documentary Surviving Mumbai that helped me understand the human aspect of the incident. It featured interviews with people who narrowly missed the attacks in the Taj and the Leopold Cafe.
Then, I know an Australian who is married to an Indian woman, who had gone to Mumbai for the wedding on November 27, 2008. He was my first personal connection with the attacks.
What struck me more than anything was the courage and the heroism of the staff members who put their lives on the line to protect the guests. It was amazing how several people separated by racial, national and economic divides came together to help each other.
Indians have lived with the images and memories of this tragic incident for 11 years. What will they get out of ‘Hotel Mumbai’?
Well, it’s one thing to see the images remotely on television and try to understand what went on through facts, figures and stars. My film offers a different kind of experience. It invites the audience to empathise with those who went through it first-hand.
We also watched dozens of hours of news footage, but it is an altogether different experience to talk to the ones caught in those images and understand their hopes, fears, and what drove them to take certain courageous decision. We spent close to a year doing interviews. My film is not an attempt to tell the story from the outside like a journalist, but from the inside like a storyteller.
Had you been to India, Mumbai or the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel before?
No. During filming, we went back and forth several times over the course of nine months around 2014 and 2015. Before that, my only experience with Indians was the expatriate community in Australia.
Being a non-Indian, was it difficult to tell an Indian story?
Not being from India is, of course, a big factor. We tried to treat the subject with as much respect and authenticity as possible. We spent a year speaking to as many people involved in the attacks as we could.
The story celebrates the Indian staff members, but it’s also a story of the international guests. We spoke to dozens of such guests who stayed in the Taj. We visited the same sections, hallways and ballrooms where the shooting took place to get an intimate understanding of the layout. We spoke to the police who were directly involved in engaging with the terrorists.
Above all, we read up to 1,000 pages of transcripts of the Kasab case and spoke to his lawyer to understand the situation as well as we could. The idea was to put the audience in the eye of the storm and make them experience what the survivors endured.
Where did you shoot the movie?
The interior scenes, smaller hotel rooms, wardrobes and cupboards were shot on location in Australia. The big interiors and exteriors were shot across Mumbai on location. We used some exact locations where the events unfolded, such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus station and the fishing village in Colaba, where the terrorists landed.
We did not shoot in the Taj, of course, as some of the staff members who survived are still working there. It wouldn’t be appropriate. The production design team painstakingly captured the grandeur of the Taj at other locations.
I was overwhelmed by the scope of Mumbai during the shoot. Its population is higher than the number of people living in Australia alone. I got a culture shock on landing here. But the production happened very quickly and well. I had the most incredible crew working here.
Why did you cast the British actor Dev Patel as an Indian character?
He is a fine and incredible actor, and I was moved by his performances in the past, such as in Lion, another Australian film. He was an amazing collaborator from the word go. A true honour to work with him.
In a scene in the trailer, Dev’s Sikh character offers to take off his turban to comfort a suspicious foreign guest. Why is he apologising for racist behaviour?
The thought was to show that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and one can use kindness and empathy to solve problems. Here, a panicked woman makes assumptions about who he is, his motives, and accuses him of some pretty bad things. But rather than running away or reacting to it, he uses this moment to explain what he is all about. I find it as one of the warmer moments of the film.
The terrorists are constantly in touch with a handler called “Brother Bull”. Is he based on anyone?
When we went through the Kasab trial transcripts, we read the calls made between the terrorists and their handlers, as intercepted by the Indian security services. Some of these conversations in the film have been taken verbatim from there. In actuality, there were several handlers, but we concentrated them as one voice.