On the song “A House is not a Motel,” from their 1967 masterpiece, Forever Changes, Arthur Lee woefully croons; “The news today, will be the movies for tomorrow.” Not only is this a painful truth, but it’s always the harrowing, tragic stories that have reasons to be made. I’m sitting and writing this just days after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand and think to myself; at what point does that film come out? And the problem with dramatic films based on such events is that while they show you some horror or injustice, they still aim to give you those super heroic moments or that “Happy Ending.” But Hotel Mumbai is not that movie. With his latest effort, filmmaker Anthony Maras brings an unflinching and unforgiving atmosphere to the screen. Yes, just as in real life, there are survivors from the terrible attacks on Mumbai from 2008, so there will be survivors in the film–but this is as close to reality as a dramatized retelling can get.
Not a simple short attack that was over in a matter of minutes or even hours, these events stretched out over days, and in places where there were plenty of lenses too. With so many camera crews on the ground, it almost felt like I was living through it; even with being thousands of miles away in a cocoon of safety. Hotel Mumbai takes that feeling, and amplifies it. Yet, it’s important to remember, this is not a film specifically about these attacks. It really is the story of a hotel staff that never flinched in the face of danger. These are women and men of the service/hospitality industry that took it upon themselves to protect others in the heart of a heinous attack.
The film’s stars, including Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, and Anupam Kher, and writer/director Anthony Maras were in NY on Saint Patrick’s Day to sit down and speak with us recreating these events, and in Anupam’s case, what it was like to actually be on the ground during the real thing. It was a pleasure to speak with this amazing group of people to discuss what I consider to be the best film of its type.
In regards to the real events, there were so many cameras on the ground, I remember personally feeling like I was living through it myself. Of course there was also the documentary, Surviving Mumbai; but did you feel you wanted to go back and look at any of it again?
Dev Patel: John Collee the screenwriter and Anthony [Maras, co-writer and director] had compiled–they interviewed so many survivors of the attack and so many family members. We had documentaries and sound clips. We had so much information going into this to draw from; so that is what we draw from before we shot.
Let’s also then talk about the idea of hospitality service. I could have just watched a fictional story or documentary about their service alone. These people are obviously thrown into a specific situation and then humanity kicks in. I’m wondering though, how much of what they did was almost an idea of it still being their jobs, compared to just doing what was right?
DP: That’s what was really interesting about watching this one documentary about the Taj. For a character like mine, you’ve got this young Sikh man from a slum who has this tremendous opportunity to work in this hotel, which is a building that was the first place to get electricity in Mumbai, and it’s frequented by his idols–his movie idols–and the Beatles, and all sorts of people. You put on this magical cloak, and all of a sudden you are in this place, this microcosm of India and your pouring blue label vodka for a millionaire…
Armie Hammer: Scotch.
DP: Scotch is was, sorry. [Laughs] It was a real privilege to work there; an honor. Even today, you go there and you see the pride that the staff has. They get to work and represent The Taj. There is a moment in the film, in the kitchen there is a slogan, “Guest is God.” The level of service is just fascinating to see; also quite confronting when you see their economic situation and class system, and that level of reverence that the staff have for their guests. You never see that anywhere else.
On the other side though, for your character of David; he has his own mission here, he has to go get his kid. But if the situation was different, and he had to have been responsible for everybody else, do you think he would have handled it?
AH: No, I’m not sure that is how it works in any other situation other than a film. I think the Hollywood version of this movie would have had David strip a gun from one of the gunmen and say, “Alright guys, we’re putting together a plan! You guys grab that, and you guys do that! Let’s get these motherfuckers!”
DP: Like Die Hard.
AH: Exactly, It’s not Die Hard. Die Hard isn’t real. This is a very accurate representation of what a first person perspective would be like to go through something like this. You are so terrified, and you are so terrorized. You are just broken by the extremity of what is going on around you. No, I don’t think any one person is ever the hero in something like this. Who was that kid? There was that Afghan kid who hugged the suicide bomber when he knew he was about to blow the vest. He grabbed him and hugged him really tightly to dampen the explosion. That’s the kind of hero that you get in a situation like this. Not someone who leads an insurgency against the guys.
Well that’s what is so great about this film, this is not the Hollywood version of it. Is that important for you before even joining a project like this?
DP: I think that was the first conversation we all had with Anthony. “This is not Die Hard, you know.” The villains in this are radicalized teenagers. They’re dead-eyed, their bullets do not discriminate. Even in a performance perspective, we were all very certain in our minds that we weren’t going to try and play to the heroics of the event, but reinforce the fear. We were terrified. Anthony had speakers around the set that he would hide. Even between takes he would press a button and this loud thundering grenade sound or a gunshot and we were tense for 10 to 12 hours a day. It would have been blistering fear; you wouldn’t have known where these guys were from, what they looked like… it was just a horrible, horrible situation.
I wanted to talk about the idea that both of you are about to appear in film’s that were based on famous novels, which both had famous film versions already. Dev, you have The Personal History of David Copperfield and Armie you have Rebecca.
DP: You’re doing Rebecca?
DP: Oh, wicked!
Both of your directors have their own style and visions [Armando Iannucci for Copperfield and Ben Wheatley for Rebecca], but is it a pressure for you at all to perform up to an expectation of what was already put out there for these works?
AH: I mean, [Laurence] Olivier is some big shoes to fill. So yeah, to answer your question, yes.
But is that important for you to take that role; wanting that challenge?
AH: For me, it is less about wanting that challenge and more about admiring the stones that Ben has to say, “Who made that one? Hitchcock? Yeah, I’ll re-do that.” If he has that much confidence, I have confidence in him.
What about then the idea in other roles. We know now that The Batman is not in your future.
AH: Just rub it in…
It’s good though, because then more rumors come out that you’re one of two actors being considered for the role of The Invisible Man, and who knows if that will be or not.
AH: I wish that people who started these rumors could actually give people jobs. Goddamn, I would love some of these jobs, because no one who actually can give them to me has talked to me about them.
Well, it doesn’t mean that is isn’t going to happen.
For roles like those, are there personal gains for knowing you won’t be able to show your face through a bit and I get to act through that; “I want that challenge.”
AH: Yeah, I was hired to play Batman before in 2007 and I was having that conversation with myself. If I’m covering my face with a mask, and your face is sort of your tool as an actor–I mean, your body and your face, and that is how you emote–what the hell do I do if I am covering most of my face, especially my eyes, which are so expressive?
DP: You emote through your rubber nipples.
AH: Yeah, just all nipple acting.
Hotel Mumbai is now playing in select theaters. You can also see our interview with Nazanin Boniadi and Anupam Kher right here.