Hotel Mumbai: ‘Regular people were caught up in hell, but they survived’

Hotel Mumbai: ‘Regular people were caught up in hell, but they survived’

Director Anthony Maras speaks to Francine Wolfisz about his new film starring Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi and Jason Isaacs, which depicts the terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi star in Hotel Mumbai, based on the terror attacks of 2008
Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi star in Hotel Mumbai, based on the terror attacks of 2008

The life of Moshe Holtzberg hung in the balance as a group of young jihadists stormed Mumbai’s Jewish community centre and executed a massacre of particular brutality.

Of the six lives taken at the Nariman Chabad House on 26 November 2008, four were visitors from Israel and America, while the other two were Moshe’s parents, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who ran the centre.

While the unthinkable happened around her, the couple’s Indian nanny frantically swept up their two-year-old son in her arms and fled from the violence – a selfless act of courage that ultimately spared his life and allowed Moshe, now 13, to celebrate his barmitzvah only a few weeks ago.

The tragic attack on the Chabad centre was just one among a series of coordinated acts of terrorism that kept Mumbai a city under siege over four days.

More than 160 people from over a dozen countries were murdered at a restaurant, train station and hospital, as well as a cinema and three hotels – including the renowned five-star Taj Hotel.

It was here that remarkably all but 32 of the 500 people caught up in a siege managed to survive – “a near miracle” that Anthony Maras (pictured inset) has retold in Hotel Mumbai, his gripping directorial debut, which is released in cinemas and will be available on Sky Cinema from tomorrow (Friday).

Based on the real events, the film shows how people of all classes, nationality, race and religion came together against the gunmen.

Among the hotel staff is renowned chef Hemant Oberoi (played by Anupam Kher) – who in real life is credited with helping save hundreds of lives by escorting guests to a more secure area of the Taj Hotel – and a gentle Sikh waiter, played by Dev Patel, while the throng of guests includes a desperate couple (Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi), who are fearful over what might become of their  newborn child.

Armie Hammer stars in Hotel Mumbai

The stellar cast also includes British-Jewish actor and Harry Potter star Jason Isaacs as a steely Russian millionaire who seems only interested in protecting  himself, but ultimately shows enormous courage in the face of danger.

Australian-Greek director Maras, who also co-wrote the script, says he was inspired to retell the tragic events after watching a documentary, Surviving Mumbai and was struck by the “selflessness, courage and resilience of people who were perfect strangers”.

Speaking during a visit to London this week ahead of the hotly-anticipated film’s release, Maras tells me: “What was unique about the Taj was that you had regular, everyday people, who were caught up in a kind of hell – and they really had no one else to turn to but each other.

“There were so many examples of hotel staff laying down their lives for fellow staff members, as well as for guests.

“There was an Australian group of tourists, who had fire literally licking their backs and everything in sight was burning – and yet they very calmly and patiently lowered one another down and out of the hotel using knotted bedsheets as makeshift ropes from windows.

“They and others inspired me to explore this subject more and ultimately make the film.”

Dev Patel stars as a Sikh waiter caught up in a terrorist attack in Hotel Mumbai

Maras spoke to more than 40 witnesses and survivors, over nearly 10 months of research.

Among them was Karambir Kang, the general manager of the Taj Hotel, who lost his wife and two children during the attacks, as well as two survivors, who like the main protagonists in the film, were wrought with anxiety trying to keep their young child out of harm’s way.

While “not a direct inspiration”, Maras also researched the attack on the Chabad centre and the incredible bravery of Sandra Samuel, the nanny who saved Moshe Holtzberg’s life.

Describing his “shock” over the details of that attack, Maras says: “It was particularly horrific what happened at Chabad, because no one was spared, literally anyone who was seen was taken out. There was an especially strong ferocity against the people at Chabad and it was really tragic.”

But in the face of adversity, Holtzberg survived – and so, too, did the majority of those trapped inside the Taj Hotel.

It is this fact alone, says Maras, which sends “a strong message” about the legacy of the Mumbai attacks, nearly 11 years on.

Hotel Mumbai is an extraordinary story of people working across many different divisions to come together to survive what seems impossible, to survive true horror.

“We live in polarised times, with very troubling examples of racism, nationalism and division across the world but, at the Taj Hotel, people from every race and ethnicity came together and were there for one another. That was really how they survived.”

Hotel Mumbai (15) is in cinemas and available on Sky Cinema from tomorrow (Friday)

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