Anthony Maras is an Australian film director, writer and producer who has made several acclaimed and award-winning short films, including The Palace, a 2011 thriller about the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. After extensively researching the 2008 Mumbai attacks, he co-wrote and directed Hotel Mumbai, which is his first feature film.
The film does a great job in balancing the technical/historical details with the emotions of the event. Tell me about the research that [co-writer] John Collee and you did in developing this film.
Our guiding light was always to do justice to the stories as we had heard and analyzed them. We had the benefit of beginning with Surviving Mumbai, an Emmy-nominated documentary about the 2008 attacks. The makers of that were among the first on the ground after the attacks happened, so they were able to speak with many survivors, including both staff and guests of the Taj Hotel. The documentary is great, but for me it was the unedited footage of the interviews that really got its hooks in me. That was my starting point.
One of our co-producers is Brian Hayes who was born in India, educated in London, and now works as a lawyer in Australia. He runs trade missions between Australia and India and various cultural programs. He is also the patron of the Colaba fishing village, where the gunmen first arrived. I had gone to him early on and asked to get the transcripts of the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman. Brian knew the prosecutor, the defense counsel, and the judge of that case. Through him, we got thousands of pages of court case transcripts, which included the Indian security service intercepts of communications between the gunmen and their handlers. I have a law degree and I think that equipped me to read through and digest large amounts of material from the case. So that was the starting point.
I wanted to be well-versed in what had happened during the attacks before I spoke to anyone—to not make a fool of myself but also out of respect to the interviewees and not to waste their time. We were very up-to-speed with what happened, but you only really get a sense of the matters of the heart when you speak to people.
This whole process took about a year, and many of those months were spent interviewing people. We burnt a lot of shoe leather in Australia, America, and ultimately in India. There we went to the Taj Hotel and stayed for a month as we interviewed many guests and survivors, as well as police officers who had entered the building during the attack.
Movies are, first and foremost, entertainment. But audiences often learn more about history from a feature film than from a book. How did you strike a balance between historical accuracy and engaging your audience?
Yes, exactly. A film is not a historical document and is not the best venue for the documentary record of events. The intention was always an emotional one—how would it feel if I were placed in the middle of these attacks? To try and get people to walk in others’ shoes, to go beyond what was in the news media, where it’s often headlines and statistics. We wanted to get into how it would feel from the perspectives of the victims as well as, to a certain extent, the gunmen as well. That was always the intention. So we very fastidiously matched that, as best we could, with the documentary record of what happened. So the characters are amalgams of the real people—except Chef Hemant Oberoi and the Indian cops, whose stories were well-known.
The film is full of stark contrasts—ear-splitting violence and silence, horror and humor—and how a split-second can make the difference between life and death. Thankfully there is no typical “Hollywood heroism” in this film, which is clearly illustrated in the scene in which a big, strong character decides to take on the terrorists—and it doesn’t end up like audiences expect.
True, that would’ve been the exact film we didn’t want to make. We found that true heroism often comes from people who never threw a punch or never fired a shot. For example, staff members at the Taj had an opportunity to leave, and many didn’t. Some who left actually came back to help. They were stuffing baking trays and pots and pans down their shirts to try and protect themselves from bullets. Some acted as human shields or decoys while the guests were escaping. That is heroism.
This film offers a realistic and almost intimate depiction of the terrorists. We see their commitment to carrying out such horrible violence, but also their self-doubt and fear. And then you have these very human moments of humor and amazement. We see these rural Pakistani young men, who have gone through a lot of training and brainwashing, and they are stunned at seemingly-everyday things, like modern toilets.
Yeah, I’m very glad you picked that up. We have had some criticism from certain people—who seem to have no idea about what it is like to operate under pressure—and they think we put in those jokes or lighter moments simply for laughs or for comic levity. You sit across the table from people who have lived through this experience and they will tell you that one of the ways they got through that horrific situation was through humor. That’s on the part of the guests. On the side of the gunmen, it was a little different. They had gone through such brainwashing—their handlers had put them through such rigorous training and shown them all sorts of videoclips of Muslims being killed—that they dehumanized others to such an extent that they could make jokes, because it was like they weren’t killing humans. It has everything to do with extremism.
India and Pakistan are still caught in a cycle of violence, most recently with the tensions and hostilities following the February 2019 Pulwana attack. What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
More than anything, one thing—look at what happened in the Taj Hotel. You saw an example of people from across the spectrum of race, religion, ethnicity, and socio-economic background come together and stand for a common humanity to get through dark times. It doesn’t matter what is attacking you; it is that ability for human beings, despite their differences, to stick together in the face of adversity. That is something we should all strive for, and that, in a nutshell, is what the film is all about. ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of Military History magazine at HistoryNet.
Hotel Mumbai will open in select theaters on March 22, 2019, and nationwide on March 29, 2019.
Check out our other Film Recon interview for Hotel Mumbai:
Anupam Kher — Actor