Extraordinary feature of ‘Hotel Mumbai’: Taj Mahal Palace staff

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(From left): Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations, discussing ‘Hotel Mumbai, with cast members, Nazanin Boniadi and Anupam Kher, and director, Anthony Maras, at the NYIT auditorium, in New York, on March 18, 2019. Photo: Sujeet Rajan.

NEW YORK – For Greek-Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras, the director of ‘Hotel Mumbai’, the extraordinary thing that struck him after he watched documentary footage, perused through thousands of pages of documents, and finally propelled him to venture recreating as a feature film the carnage at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai in November of 2008, after terrorists from Pakistan created mayhem there and at other parts of the city, was the human angle of it: how people from different walks of life, and different socio-economic backgrounds “came together to survive what was a terrific ordeal.”

Maras, who sat down for a talk and discussion, and took questions from the audience – along with cast members from ‘Hotel Mumbai’, Anupam Kher and Nazanin Boniadi, after a private reception and screening of the film by the Council on Foreign Relations, at the NYIT auditorium, in New York, on Monday, the outstanding feature was the resilience and fortitude of the staff of the Taj, who showed immense bravery in helping some guests escape death.

“I was struck by this extraordinary thing…the staff (of the Taj) stayed at the hotel. These were people who have families of their own. There is a Harvard Business Review article which tries to find out the corporate culture of the Taj, as to why the staff stayed there (when the terrorists struck),” said Maras. In the film, the staff is heard talking of the guests at the hotel as “God.”

The film was shot mostly in Mumbai, but several smaller interior scenes were shot in Adelaide, Australia, Maras’s hometown.

“Australia was a good place to incubate the 14 production, where we had everyone in a very controlled environment for hotel-room setups, so that the crew and cast could get to know one another. By the time we got to India to do the bulk of the production, it was a well-oiled machine, we knew where we were at and everyone had confidence in the project,” Maras said of the shooting of the film, in earlier interviews.

On location in Mumbai, several scenes were filmed at the real-life sites where the events occurred. The train station that was attacked was filmed at the actual CST station. In the film’s opening scene, the gunmen arrive by boat at the same beachside fishing village the real-life perpetrators landed at in 2008.

“Some of the fishmongers who live in that fishing village saw us filming and were taken aback, because our actors were dressed as the real gunmen were,” he said.

The film also features real exterior shots of the Taj, plus newsreel footage from 2008.

“But then the huge challenge,” explains Maras “was about how we set about doing the interiors of the hotel. In rooms where we had to have a lot a bullet hits and fire damage and all that sort of stuff, we recreated those parts of the Taj at other locations around Mumbai.”

Maras cites the large front lobby of the Taj, where much of the terrorist shooting and bombing in the film takes place.

“That was shot at this huge property just outside of Mumbai. We knew we were going to keep returning to that lobby over the course of the film. So, for example, you see a big bouquet of flowers in all its glory at the start, untouched, in the center of the lobby. And when it’s knocked over, it becomes a visual marker to help orientate the audience. That’s our production designer Steven Jones-Evans being really great and clever and smart,” he explained.

“All of the kitchen interiors and the bowels of the hotel, meaning all the corridors and stuff that people run down, they were all shot in a five-star hotel in Mumbai that has since closed. We dressed it and filmed in there. A huge part of my wanting to shoot this stuff in India, apart from the obvious reasons of location, was also we wanted to be able to hire people from Mumbai to be extras, so again, that adds a level of authenticity,” he said.

Maras also devised to have large speakers present on the locations, with the sudden, terrifying sound of gunfire blasting as the actors were working.

Maras explained that by transporting audiences to the epicenter of these attacks, the film raises questions that extend well beyond the movie theater: ‘How would I react? What would I do? How would I feel? What would I do to help?’

“The Mumbai attacks served as a potent wake up call to all who lived through them,” he said. “They were a transformative experience which led many survivors to effect positive change in their own lives—and to the realization that tolerance, education and understanding across cultures were vital for a safer world for all. I hope our film does justice to this sentiment.”

Kher, for whom ‘Hotel Mumbai’ was his 501st film – apart from over 100 plays he’s done on stage, the film was a hard choice to commit to do.

“When Anthony came up to me and said he was making a film on this, my first reaction was apprehension, to be very honest. It was too close to heart. We had witnessed the 72 hours of horrific drama, 24 hours a day, and this was happening like reality TV, except that the blood was real and victims were real,” Kher said, speaking at the NYIT auditorium.

Portraying the character of the hero of the film, Chef Oberoi, from the Taj, was also hard for the horrific drama that had played out in real life, Kher confided.

“Anthony’s passion was amazingly infectious, about making this film. When actors play real life characters they want to meet them, and find out who they are, how they sit, how they behave. But this was not something I wanted to do, and be insensitive about it. Can you tell me what happened?” Kher said of playing the role of a man whom he knew also from real life on his visits to the Taj.

“This film was much more than that,” Kher said of the term ‘hero’ affixed to his character of Chef Oberoi, who didn’t know that he would get out alive from the terrorist attack. “I was not interpreting it as a hero. Unlike in some movies we know that, at the end of the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis will triumph. To me these (the staff members of the Taj) are heroes that I feel like saluting every day.”

Kher revealed that the real life Chef Oberoi, who attended the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, got a “never ending standing ovation which he deserved”. Kher himself stood on stage with him, in tears.

“At the end, he said thank you to me. And that thank you is more than any other award I will ever get,” said Kher.

Boniady said at the Monday meet, the resilience shown by the people inside the Taj those three days was a testament to the courage of not only the staff, but also the guests there.

“It serves to me as a microcosm of the greater world. And you had people from all over the world. From different religions, ethnicities, languages, when they were faced with this horror. What really struck me is the unity, and the people banding together to survive,” Boniadi added.

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