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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Hotel Mumbai: In Conversation with Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi & Anthony Maras

Hotel Mumbai is inspired by the stories of survivors of the 2008 Mumbai Attacks, the terror attack which took place at various locations in the city.

During these co-ordinated attacks, Jihadist terrorists laid siege to the iconic Taj Palace Hotel, whose guests and staff became trapped in a heroic, day-long fight for survival.

Amid the gunfire and mayhem, a brave chef (played by Anupam Kher) and kitchen worker (Dev Patel) selflessly risk their own lives to try and protect the frightened guests.

As the militants continue their assault on the hotel, a desperate couple must do whatever they can to protect their new-born baby.

In a special interview, actors Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi and director Anthony Maras discuss their experience of working on the film.

Jason, you’ve been quite busy with a handful of projects. What drove your decision to do Hotel Mumbai?

I wasn’t going to work when this came along. I was about to go and have a holiday with my family… A long plan to walk on the Machu Pichu trail.

We were very excited about it.

The script came in, at a time when I was watching the beginning of the rise of populism all over the world, with right-wing dictators.

I just thought: “Here is a real-life story, that gives a lie to the nonsense ‘there’s more that divides us than unites us’.”

Here are a bunch of people, of various races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds, trapped for three days… Pulling together and helping each other.

I thought that it was an important message and an exciting film to do.

It’s a very positive message to put in the world… So I dropped the family holiday and did it.

What was the main reference point for you as an actor in playing Vasili?

My character, like Nazanin’s, is an amalgamation of people who ought to protect their privacy.

But there were 100s of stories in the hotel which was jam-packed with people and they all had the same theme.

People helped each other out of windows, the staff helped others get out, hid them in lift shafts, came back in to rescue more guests.

In terms of playing Vasili, apart from accent and voice, I wanted to find what makes someone so swagger and overcompensated with confidence.

With him, it’s both the terror of dying as well as the terror of showing weakness.

Lucious Malfoy ranks amongst your most iconic roles. How challenging has it been to break away from such a well-known character?

The thing about the Harry Potter films is the privilege of bringing me to the attention of the entire world but I’ve done so much more before and so much afterwards.

In any way, I don’t know how it’s affected conversations in rooms that I’m not in.

But if that’s the reason why I get to be in magnificent films like Hotel Mumbai, then that’s fantastic.

It’s just a part of 30 years of acting for me. 

Nazanin, you play a determined wife and mother. What was your preparation process like?

Besides watching documentaries like Surviving Mumbai and several news footages, interviews with survivors, Anthony Maras our director, is basically an encyclopedia on the subject because he’d done so much research at this point.

Really for me, I play a very privileged British-Iranian woman.

As Jason said, it’s an amalgamation of various people who actually existed through the horrific ordeal. 

What drew me to the role was the fact that she starts the film at the top – with a golden spoon in her mouth for her whole life, very privileged, a frequent to the Taj Hotel.

Very quickly she’s thrown into this horrific ordeal, is forced to kick off her heels and had to tap into her inner strength which she didn’t know she had. 

Subsequently, she is forced to fight for herself and the family.

Alongside yourself, co-stars Anupam Kher and Dev Patel have represented your communities on an international level. What is your view on the cultural diversity in Hollywood today?

I believe in authentic casting.

I love the fact that Anthony championed casting me (an Iranian actor) in this role rather than going in the direction of roping in a big name for ticket sales.

Every character in this film has been cast authentically in the sense that they’re the best people for the role.

It was not stunt-casted in any way, thus, it led to the authenticity we really wanted.

Anthony, previously, there was a documentary and Hindi film which provided thorough insights into the 26/11 attacks. What new aspect does Hotel Mumbai offer?

There actually several documentaries, there’s a French film and a lot of different mediums there.

I haven’t seen the other Bollywood film, it was a conscious choice not to see that.

I didn’t really think about what else is out there covering this subject in terms of feature films.

I was just completely taken aback by the personal stories of the survivors and having sat across from many of them for over years of research, their struggles and impossible circumstances they endured to survive, really got under my skin.

So I wanted to know more about these people and incidents, especially as an outsider.

I’m not Indian, but there were a lot of Australians and other foreigners who got caught up in the attack (which is a key reason why the hotel was targetted).

Of course, many other places throughout Colaba and South Mumbai were hit. Thus, it was to try and make sense of the madness.

India still hasn’t recovered from the massacres including political challenges and conflicts. Why do you feel this should be viewed as a “thriller”?

I don’t know about it being viewed as a ‘thriller’ but I think you have examples of people who came from different backgrounds saw those differences evaporate during the attacks at the Taj Hotel.

You saw people selflessly being there for one another, trying to endure and get through the hardship. I believe that is a story worth telling.

We had Karambir Kang – the former general manager of the Taj Hotel, who tragically lost his family during the attacks – in the audience of our New York premiere.

He is a man of such strength and resolve that even knowing his family had passed, he stayed for days on end at the hotel until everyone was out.

After he saw the film, he said: “thank you for honouring the memory of our staff and showing the world what we went through.”

It’s more in that sentiment rather than the film being a thriller.

Obviously it’s going to be ‘thrilling’ because you have these life and death situations that regular people are facing.

However, it was more of an attempt to do justice with the survivors’ stories.

Views expressed in publications like Variety felt Armie Hammer’s character mirrors a typical “white saviour” and he gets more prominence than the other Indian characters, who get minimal screen time. How justified is this opinion?

Armie was the only American out of the other 7 main cast members. There were Indians, a Russian, an Australian, a British/Persian woman.

To say that it’s about a ‘white saviour’… I mean, who did he save? 

I think it’s a really good question because there are sometimes reflexive reactions to things.

I’d be truly curious because that’s something a viewer should do… They should watch the film and then look at the review and see who he saved.

As the film is set in India, are there any particular actors or filmmakers you look up to from there?

Mira Nair is a filmmaker I’ve been following for quite some time. I remember seeing one of her films at Cannes. 

I also like Ritesh Batra’s work, especially in The Lunchbox. I think he’s a genius in many ways.

I am not across Bollywood cinema at all… I’ve seen very little of it. 

I have huge respect for Shah Rukh Khan for what he’s achieved, it’s just the cinema I’ve not been exposed much to it.

Having said that, I saw Lagaan, that was a great film. Even Sonam Kapoor’s work in Neerja. The way they filmed that was very compelling.

The final thing I want to say is that filming with Indian cast and crew was fascinating.

I was shocked to see what they could achieve and it was a pleasure.

Hotel Mumbai is a Sky Original Film, in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 27th September.

Watch the trailer of Hotel Mumbai here:


Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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