Hotel Mumbai: An anthem of resilience 

By Neeru Saluja

The 2008 devastating terror attacks on Mumbai shook the nation, but not the spirit of their target ”“ the Taj Hotel. As the Jihadi terrorists lay siege to the iconic Taj Palace Hotel, the staff put their own lives at risk to save their guests.

It is this scenario that forms the basis of the film Hotel Mumbai, directed by multi-award winning Australian director Anthony Maras and starring international actor Dev Patel, Armie Hammer and Anupam Kher to name a few.

After a successful premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the film had it’s Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October 2018 and we interviewed the director and lead actor Dev Patel in an engaging conversation about the film. The film releases on 14 March 2019 in Australia by Icon Film Distribution.

Director Anthony Maras

Congratulations on a successful premiere at the Toronto Film festival and now the film is having it’s Australian debut at the Adelaide film Festival. How do you feel about it as the film was shot in Australia?

Anthony: It’ a real honour to be able to present the film in Adelaide and to get people like Dev Patel who don’t come to Adelaide too often! My family is very excited about it. But in all seriousness, it’s a huge honour not only to shoot the film there but Adelaide Film Festival and South Australian Film Corporation invested in my films. The Australian premiere will hold a very special place in my heart.

Being an Australian, what inspired you to make a film on the Mumbai attacks?

Anthony: When I first saw the documentary ”˜Surviving Mumbai’, I saw something in Mumbai attacks that I have never experienced before. When the attacks happened, I remember seeing the burning buildings on screen. But I had no idea of the epic human tales of courage, sacrifice and resilience both on the part of guests and staff. Taj is like a beautiful ship inside a glass bottle. Especially for an Australian like me, there are ten thousand things happening at once in Mumbai and then you enter Taj which is serene and beautiful. And a bunch of gunmen from Pakistan enter and rip the ship. You have people from all these walks of life, poor, rich and while they are in the same boat it’s about how to react to the pressure. It was the personal story of humanity that touched me.

For example, imagine you are with your loved one and you are having the time of your life. Then suddenly you hear fireworks from a wedding, and then there are more fireworks, and you hear people screaming. Before you know you realise there is a massacre happening in the hotel you are staying. The only thing you want to do is cherish the life of the loved ones you are with at that time. There was a story when a couple decided to separate on the scene so either can survive to look after their child. Imagine yourself in such a situation. It’s the most terrifying situation but also the most inspiring story where everyone came together for survival, specially the hotel staff who sacrificed their own lives to protect their guests. This is a great example of sacrifice in a divided world.

Dev, you have excelled once again in this role. Do you remember the attacks when they happened in 2008?

Dev Patel

Yes absolutely. How can anyone of us forget those attacks. I had just finished a press tour for Slumdog Millionaire, came back home and I saw my parents watching the events unfold on TV. It was heartbreaking to see the city burning. We danced on VT station for Slumdog at the end, it was a celebration of love. They attacked so many pieces in India.

What kind of research and training did you undergo to do this intense role?

Dev: The research was pre-digested by Anthony, we were given a bible of information that sent us down a rabbit hole. Essentially as you are trying to do justice to your character, but there is a bigger picture to which the director deals with. But as an actor, each one of us is given a slice of cake that we have to deal with. For my character, it was figuring out the accent, the look and trying to learn a bit of Hindi.

The film also carries many messages ”“ for eg a Sikh boy is doubted as a terrorist and a woman who speaks a middle Eastern language is also doubted. What do you have to say about this?

Dev: I feel through our filmmaking you want to entertain people but you also want to feed them vegetables without them knowing about it. Without breaking down racial prejudices and stereotype, the film creates a message. There were news articles of cab drivers being targeted after the 9/11 attacks and I found that really sad to read. When the terrorists attack the hotel, it breaks down all religions and you are just normal people by the end of the day. It’s interesting to explore topics when you have people in confined spaces.

Did you visit the Hotel Taj before and after you made the film? Could you feel everything happening around you?

Dev: It’s a bittersweet experience when you have to work on a movie like this. Especially when you see the big memorial in stone at the entrance. That’s sad but then you see the hotel successfully running and what it’s proud of.   There are still staff who went back after the attacks to continue working with them. Anupam’s character (Hemant Oberoi) is still working there.

Anthony: Anupam’s character started working there as a teenager as a dishwasher and 30 years’ later he is cooking for Obama, Prince Charles and Clinton. And he saved hundreds of people only because he felt it was his duty. We had the good fortune to start the film and getting the ideas together while staying at the hotel for a month. We interviewed Oberoi many times and other staff members. We did ask at the start of the interview as if how they felt that an Australian is making a film on the attacks. We couldn’t have made the film without the staff. We tried our best to balance the story and walk through the corridors as we were conceiving the story. This was India’s 9/11 but when you spend nine months talking to people who went through it, it gives you a total different perspective.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the attacks. What message does Hotel Mumbai give to the audience?

It’s an anthem of resilience. It’s a story which is about people coming from all walks of life trying to survive the unthinkable. They reopened the first restaurant in three weeks. They opened the Taj in 21 months. That hotel was meant to be rubble but it is still standing and that’s what the film is about.

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