Nail-biting film relives the 2008 attack on India’s grandest hotel – and celebrates the heroic staff

Just imagine you’re a waiter at one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. It’s a pleasure palace for the rich, where nothing less than absolute perfection will suffice, and the motto, repeated to you daily, is ‘the guest is God’. 

Or perhaps you’re a guest there, cosseted and pampered, your every wish anticipated.

Now imagine that it has suddenly become irrelevant whether you’re a guest or a waiter, because the place has been seized by terrorists armed with semi-automatic weapons and the sole question on your mind is how you are going to survive.

Nail-biting new film Hotel Mumbai re-imagines the events that happened almost 11 years ago  when jihadi terrorists attacked one of India's grandest hotels, The Taj. Pictured, the hotel in flames in the movie

Nail-biting new film Hotel Mumbai re-imagines the events that happened almost 11 years ago  when jihadi terrorists attacked one of India's grandest hotels, The Taj. Pictured, the hotel in flames in the movie

Nail-biting new film Hotel Mumbai re-imagines the events that happened almost 11 years ago  when jihadi terrorists attacked one of India’s grandest hotels, The Taj. Pictured, the hotel in flames in the movie

Hotel staff risked their lives to keep everyone as safe as possible and made unthinkable sacrifices to protect themselves and their families. Pictured, Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra, Dev Patel as Arjun and Armie Hammer playing David in the film

Hotel staff risked their lives to keep everyone as safe as possible and made unthinkable sacrifices to protect themselves and their families. Pictured, Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra, Dev Patel as Arjun and Armie Hammer playing David in the film

Hotel staff risked their lives to keep everyone as safe as possible and made unthinkable sacrifices to protect themselves and their families. Pictured, Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra, Dev Patel as Arjun and Armie Hammer playing David in the film

Such is the terrifying premise of the unforgettable film Hotel Mumbai, directed by Australian newcomer Anthony Maras. 

It’s based on the real-life events of late November 2008, when ten jihadi terrorists invaded the city of Mumbai, India, attacking railway stations, taxis and cafes.

Four of the terrorists took possession of the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Fatalities among the 450 guests numbered at least 31, with countless more injured during three days of siege, until the terrorists were killed and the terrified captives were released.

Hotel Mumbai is a mixture of fact and fiction. Real footage is interspersed with the dramatic action. 

Most of the hotel’s guests and staff are either fictional or amalgamations of several characters, the exception being the film’s quiet hero, chef Hemant Oberoi (played by Bollywood legend Anupam Kher, recently seen on British TV in Mrs Wilson). 

The trailer shows the star-studded cast trying to escape. The motion picture portrays the heroic actions of hotel staff as the business came under attack

The trailer shows the star-studded cast trying to escape. The motion picture portrays the heroic actions of hotel staff as the business came under attack

The trailer shows the star-studded cast trying to escape. The motion picture portrays the heroic actions of hotel staff as the business came under attack

Ten jihadi terrorists stormed the hotel in 2008 (pictured) and killed 31 people, including staff and guests. Pictured, the day the building was hit

Ten jihadi terrorists stormed the hotel in 2008 (pictured) and killed 31 people, including staff and guests. Pictured, the day the building was hit

Ten jihadi terrorists stormed the hotel in 2008 (pictured) and killed 31 people, including staff and guests. Pictured, the day the building was hit

Along with several of his staff, Oberoi risked his life to shepherd as many of the guests through the nightmare as he could. 

He led them first to the exclusive club room The Chambers, deep within the hotel, then got them outside to safety, all the while treating them with as much dignity as if he were ushering them in to a gourmet meal at the restaurant.

‘We could hear the blasts,’ Oberoi has himself said of the night. ‘But we didn’t want the guests to panic. Some of them knew what was happening, some didn’t. 

‘But we wanted to ensure that they were calm and that we would take care of them. We lost so many young chefs that night – I can never forget them.’

For Star Trek actor Jason Isaacs, who plays Russian hotel guest Vasili, it’s the real-life heroism of Oberoi and his staff that distinguishes the film from more ordinary movie fare. 

‘The movie business has been creating uplifting stories forever, and we usually recognise how far they are from normal life experience,’ he says. 

‘But here the real world threw up a perfect example of what we really are capable of as human beings – the extraordinary selflessness and generosity that these guys showed.

‘Oddly, for a story in which such harrowing things happened, the film was incredibly positive to make. 

The Indian police and army were ill-equipped to handle the assault in 2008. Pictured, a woman being rescued from inside the hotel on the day itself

The Indian police and army were ill-equipped to handle the assault in 2008. Pictured, a woman being rescued from inside the hotel on the day itself

The Indian police and army were ill-equipped to handle the assault in 2008. Pictured, a woman being rescued from inside the hotel on the day itself

‘We felt we were part of a positive story to put to the world. And in these times, it felt like a very resonant message.’

The real terrorists belonged to the Pakistan-based militant Islamist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba, but the film is clear that it is fanaticism, not the brainwashed men, that is to blame. 

‘They’re only kids!’ exclaims a police officer on seeing them on a security camera.

In the film, the terrorists are controlled by the mysterious Brother Bull, a commanding voice on their mobile phones issuing chilling orders to kill with promises of Paradise to come. 

‘They’re kids led astray by this faceless voice who tells them to do terrible things,’ says Armie Hammer, who plays David, an American staying in the hotel with his wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi). 

‘They’re told, “If you do this, we’re going to send money to your family.” They are humans who are misled by ideology. 

‘Towards the end they start to realise that. It’s very tough to see a child who has been manipulated dealing with the consequences of his own actions.’

There’s no getting around the fact that the terrorists were Muslims, but Slumdog Millionaire actor Dev Patel, who plays waiter Arjun, says, ‘These guys were not doing what they did in the name of religion. This is an anti-religious-fundamentalism film. 

‘That is the evil in this movie. The good is humanity and it comes in all different shapes and sizes and beliefs.’

Indian commandos and special forces pictured at the hotel which was under attack from Islamist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba in November 2008

Indian commandos and special forces pictured at the hotel which was under attack from Islamist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba in November 2008

Indian commandos and special forces pictured at the hotel which was under attack from Islamist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba in November 2008

Arjun is portrayed as a Sikh, whose beard and turban unnerve an English guest until, in a touching scene, he charms her by showing her a photo of his wife and daughter and explaining what the turban means to him. 

Dev was raised a Hindu, but he says that the idea of making Arjun a Sikh was his.

‘I thought we had this opportunity, where we were all locked into this room, to be diverse with the faces in the crowd. 

‘I remembered reading about Sikh cab drivers being attacked after September 11, and it was just through cultural ignorance because nobody knew what their religion meant, what it stood for, what that turban and beard meant. 

‘There is a version of religion that can be quiet and personal and pious, and that’s what Arjun’s religion is to him.’

Armie Hammer says the most poignant moment during filming was visiting the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. 

‘A few of us decided to go – me, Jason Isaacs and a couple of others. It was surreal. 

‘Right as you walk in there’s a wall with all the names written on it of the people who died in the attack. We looked at it and we all just started crying. It was intense.’ 

Hotel Mumbai is in cinemas and available on Sky On Demand and Now TV.

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