COUNTERPOINT: “Hotel Mumbai” (and interview with filmmaker Anthony Maras)

In November 2008, ten devotees of the extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba staged a dozen terror attacks across Mumbai, resulting in over a hundred deaths. The final and most dramatic stage of the assault took place as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where several of the terrorists held the hotel under siege for three days, killing dozens in the process with automatic weapons and explosives while being directed via phone by someone in Pakistan.

Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras said that after seeing a documentary called “Surviving Mumbai,” he felt that one aspect of the siege that had perhaps not been adequately told was the heroism of the Taj’s staff, who used their intimate knowledge of the property to safeguard as many guests as possible during the violent siege. The documentary spoke of the police and various civic authorities who worked to end the siege, but Maras said he wanted his new dramatized film “Hotel Mumbai” to focus on those hotel workers going about their day, and who had no idea they would be thrust into the middle of a sudden life-or-death situation.

“These were people with ordinary lives and regular families who, when the attack happened, they did something quite extraordinary,” Maras said, adding that the staff could easily have escaped and left the guests behind. “In some cases you had staff members who made it out of the hotel, but then went back in again. This was something which really intrigued me.”

Maras and co-screenwriter John Collee (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) have dramatized this rather harrowing story in “Hotel Mumbai,” starring Dev Patel as one of those hotel employees who sprang into action to save lives.

“They decided en masse, without any organization, to remain to protect one another—the staff members but also the guests,” Maras said, adding that among the staff was one of India’s most celebrated chefs, who suddenly found himself an unexpected hero.

The filmmakers spent time at the Taj, which partially reopened only a month after the attacks, to get a better sense of place. Exterior shots were taken of the Taj, while interiors were recreated on various soundstages.

Patel, a British actor of Indian heritage, first came to prominence in “Slumdog Millionaire,” also shot in India. Maras said Patel spent time in Mumbai working with a dialect coach for six weeks prior to filming as well as spending time at the Taj itself.

“He also grew up speaking Hindi to his grandparents, who didn’t speak much English,” said Maras of his lead actor’s need to use that language for many of his lines in “Hotel Mumbai.” “This is a film that was very close to his heart.”

Maras adds that not long after Patel had returned to England following the premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire” at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, he discovered his mother crying in front of the television. It was footage of the Mumbai attacks, some of which had happened at the very same train station where he had filmed a key scene for “Slumdog.”

That association only increased Patel’s desire to be a part of “Hotel Mumbai,” for which he also serves as an executive producer.

“He was the first cast member we got on board. He was with us from day one helping develop the project, helping refining it and getting research materials,” Maras said. “And I think he did an amazing job.”

In addition to showing how the Taj staff ushered guests from safe spot to safe spot within the hotel as guns blazed around them, Maras and Collee’s script had a secondary narrative of wealthy Western guests at the Taj who found themselves in the midst of hell. Among them are Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as David and Zahra, a married interfaith couple.

In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, Zahra, fearing for her life, begins intoning a Muslim prayer, which gives one of her captors a moment’s pause.

“This [film] is not an indictment of Islam, it’s an indictment of extremism,” said Boniadi, an Iranian actress who has also appeared on “Homeland.” “When you’re dealing with something like this, it’s important to have effective nuance and sensitivities. I think it’s important to shine a light on truth and events as they occurred.

“But with that comes a responsibility and truth in every single person, good or bad, as human beings because, ultimately, even the most evil people are still people.”

Director Maras agrees with this sentiment, and when asked if the recent massacres of Muslims at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white supremacist might make people look at “Hotel Mumbai” differently, he said it is important to call out extremism in all of its incarnations.

“The reasons for terrorism are complex, and the film really is an honest attempt to unpack it,” he said. “The character played by Nazanin Boniadi is a Muslim woman; she finds great strength and comfort in her religion in her darkest hour.

“I hope people would actually go out and see the film as opposed to prejudging it beforehand,” he said. “They would come to see that the young men were driven by a very warped idea of what Islam can be rather than [see the film as] an indictment of Muslims everywhere.”

Rather, Maras calls “Hotel Mumbai” a “plea for peace” and an object lesson in how people of various faiths, socioeconomic backgrounds and nations can come together to survive something awful.

“My heart goes out to the victims of what happened in New Zealand,” Maras said. “The problem with extremism is that it doesn’t know religious or other ideological boundaries. These events keep happening.

And I think the film makes an attempt to speak to that to the extent that one of the main gunmen goes in very devout in his beliefs and comes to see the hypocrisy about them at the end—when a young Muslim woman stands up and looks him in the eye and offers a very different version of Islam than what he was” killing people for, he said.

“Unless we understand the thinking that goes into those actions, you’ll never able to stop them from happening,” added Boniadi. “And, yes, it’s uncomfortable to watch at times, and yes, it can shake people to their core, but sometimes that’s a wakeup call.”

“Hotel Mumbai” opens Friday (this film was reviewed by another Screen Comment contributor in an earlier issue of Screen Comment)

Filmmaker Anthony Maras