Hotel Mumbai -A gripping true story of humanity and heroism

Ten years after the siege of the famed Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists in Mumbai, India, Greek-Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras can still recall his initial reaction to the wave of horror as it was breaking on television across the world, and with his co-screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World), Maras spent a year intensely researching the Mumbai attacks before crafting the story his intensely masterful film Hotel Mumbai.

“At first I only knew the Mumbai attacks as a series of burning buildings on a TV screen. Then as I watched interviews with survivors, an entirely new dimension of these events opened up for me,” says Maras.

They interviewed numerous survivors, police officers, hotel guests and staff. They spoke to families of those who perished, some in person, others by phone or Skype video chat.

They studied recordings of intercepted phone calls between the terrorists and their handlers, read court case transcripts, and absorbed reams of newspaper accounts and hundreds of hours of television coverage and survivor interviews.

Yet the core of the film didn’t reveal itself until Maras and Collee stepped into the Taj itself, where they stayed for a month while workshopping the story. “That was critical for both of us,” says Maras. “You can’t do it by remote control. You’ve gotta be in there, experiencing that world and walking those corridors. Also, we were able to interview a whole lot of people who worked or still work at the hotel, even after having lived through all the attacks.”

Anthony Maras on set during the filming of Hotel Mumbai

Listening to firsthand accounts strongly influenced the approach Maras would take to telling the story. He was especially struck by the fact that many of the Taj staff came from impoverished backgrounds. “For them working at the Taj wasn’t just a job,” he says. “It was the promise of a better life. It’s an intense source of pride, being part of something that represents the greatness India is capable of.”

With more than twenty million residents, Mumbai is one of the largest and most culturally diverse cities in the world. Mumbai is India’s financial and entertainment capital, home to both the stock exchange and Bollywood. Pulsating with life, color and activity, it is a place of both extreme wealth and abject poverty.

And as with many of the world’s most thriving metropolises, therein lies its power. And its vulnerability.For three days and nights in 2008—from November 26 to 29—Mumbai was a city under siege.

Arriving from Pakistan via a hijacked fishing vessel, a squad of young jihadists rained terror upon the population with a coordinated series of shooting and bombing attacks. With local police forces stretched thin, terrified locals and tourists scampered for refuge as Mumbai went up in flames. By the time the carnage ended, more than 170 people from over a dozen countries had been killed.

Targets around the city included a popular restaurant, a train station, a hospital, a movie theater, three hotels, and a Jewish community center. Mumbai had been permanently shaken.

In India, the tragic events are known simply by the date they began: 26/11.

“It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the horror of what occurred at the Taj,” says Maras. “But when you take a closer look, a different perspective emerges. There were over five hundred people caught up in the Taj Hotel siege. That all but 32 survived is a near miracle. Of the fatalities, half were staff members who had remained to protect their guests. That’s a testament to the extraordinary heroism, ingenuity and self-sacrifice of both staff members and guests alike.”

Maras remains awestruck by the many examples of bravery to emerge from the attacks: “Taj kitchen workers stuffed baking trays under their shirts, makeshift bulletproof vests, as they shielded patrons from machine-gun fire. Guests lowered fellow travellers out of windows using ropes made of knotted bed sheets. Some Taj staff members led others through hidden corridors to safety outside, only to re-enter the hotel and look for more people to save.”

Inspired by the courage and selflessness displayed amid such a tsunami of violence, Maras was determined to tell their stories on film.

Maras hope that the film will ultimately be seen for its message of unity. “The heroic and inspiring way the guests and staff bound together to overcome the most impossible of odds lays at the heart of our film. As does the notion that it’s coming together across cultural, racial, ethnic, religious and economic divides that will lead to a better world.”

Echoing his director’s thoughts, Jason Isaacs points out, “We’re living in a time when we’re being told that there’s more that separates us than unites us. But this was a real-life example of when things could not have been worse. And what happened? People not only banded together, but the essential generosity of those people who were at the bottom of the totem pole showed itself. Those staff of the hotel who could easily have escaped, many of them came back in to help people. They just made something extraordinary and inspiring out of the most terrible situation. The story proves that, ultimately, there’s a lot to be optimistic about humanity.”

Says Hammer, “The movie deals with a horrific attack and it is very intense to watch, but woven expertly into the story by Anthony is a message of hope and humanity. An incredibly diverse group of people were able to set aside their differences in the face of adversity. Many of them overcame a hellish nightmare—and the film shows how the differences we may perceive among each other can very easily be put aside for the good of the group.”  

And Boniadi also mentions the theme of unity, which drew her to the project in the first place. “I tend to gravitate towards stories and roles that raise consciousness and awareness or inspire audiences in some way. This film tells an incredible true story about the resilience of the human spirit and our ability to band together and overcome extreme adversity against all odds. In that sense, it is not only a timely story but a timeless one.”

Maras hope that by transporting audiences to the epicentre of these attacks, the film raises questions that extend well beyond the movie theatre: How would I react? What would I do? How would I feel? What would I do to help?

“The Mumbai attacks served as a potent wake-up call to all who lived through them,” the director says. “They were a transformative experience which led many survivors to effect positive change in their own lives—and to the realization that tolerance, education and understanding across cultures were vital for a safer world for all. I hope our film does justice to this sentiment.”

With his cast in place, the greatest challenge for Maras and the crew involved the logistics of portraying the Taj onscreen. “Without the cast and the script, nothing happens, obviously,” says Maras. “But the locations were really the linchpin as to whether the film was going to succeed or not. The film is an attempt to place the audience in the belly of the beast, right in the epicenter of one of these attacks.”

As with researching the screenplay, this was an area where staying in the Taj for a month was so critical to understanding how the story would unfold onscreen. “It’s one of the most opulent hotels on earth but we weren’t able to shoot the interiors of the real Taj, because it’s still a fully functioning hotel,” says Maras. Though the production would film extensively in Mumbai, first several smaller interior scenes were shot in Adelaide, Australia, Maras’s hometown.

Julie Ryan who heads Adelaide production company Cyan Films was one of six producers on Hotel Mumbai and says about 230 people were employed during filming and post production, with 66% of them from South Africa.

The writing team

Anthony Maras (Director/Writer/Editor) is a multi-award-winning Greek-Australian filmmaker, who has carved a reputation for tackling ambitious, large-scale, character-driven stories, often shot on location in difficult circumstances.

Anthony’s short film The Palace, which he wrote, produced and edited, was set during the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and shot along the UN Green Line in Nicosia.

THE PALACE had its international premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and won awards at over 20 festivals internationally. The film was one of six selected by the Cesar Awards/French Film Academy to screen at the Golden Nights of Short Film at the UNESCO World Headquarters in Paris.

Anthony’s work has premiered or won awards at film festivals the world over, including Telluride FF, Rotterdam IFF, Palm Springs IFSF, Santa Barbara IFF, Austin FF, Valladolid FF, Hamptons FF, Flickerfest SFF, Adelaide FF, Melbourne FF, Sydney FF, Beverly Hills FF, Bilbao ISFF, Sao Paulo IFF, Los Angeles ISFF, Interfilm Berlin ISFF, Rome IFF, Fort Lauderdale IFF, Athens IFF, Vermont IFF, Bermuda IFF, Drama IFF, Tiburon IFF, Berkshire IFF, Festival du Film Court de Mont-Tremblant, Australian FF, St Kilda FF, IF Awards, ADG Awards and AWG Awards.

Co-written with John Collee, Hotek Mumbai is Anthony’s directorial feature film debut. The film was screened to rave reviews and strong audience response at its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival and its Australian premiere at Adelaide Film Festival where it won the Rising Sun Audience Award for Best Film.

Maras was named one of Variety’s top 10 directors to watch in 2018.

John Collee (Writer/Executive Producer) co-wrote Hotel Mumbai with director Anthony Maras, spent a year of his childhood in India, which provided the inspiration for his first novel “Kingsley’s Touch”.

Prior to his current career as a screenwriter, he travelled widely as a trauma doctor and medical journalist.

John Collee

After adapting his second novel “Paper Mask” he turned his hand to screenwriting. Subsequent films – often co-written with their respective directors – range from blockbuster action as the Oscar nominated Master and Commander with director Peter Weir – to historical dramas such as Creation, and animated family movies such as Walking With Dinosaurs, 3D and the Oscar-winning Happy Feet with director George Miller.

His foreign-language films include Chinese language hit Wolf Totem and, most recently, Tanna, which was nominated in 2017 for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Current projects are Just Cause for Brad Peyton/ Warner Bros, based on the popular video game, plus a TV series with Mel Gibson and a rewrite of Little Dragon, a movie about the early life of Bruce Lee, filming this year in Hong Kong and the UK with Shekhar Kapur directing.

His other writing credits include: “Bergerac” (four TV episodes) for BBC1 1988-1990, “Star Cops” (three TV episodes) for BBC2 1988, “The Heart Surgeon” (two-part TV serial) for BBC1 1997, “Happy Feet” (2006) credited with director and co-directors.

Recently he wrote The Legend Of Tarzan – based on the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and The Patriarch – based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera.