'Hotel Mumbai' Director Talks Releasing Terrorist Thriller in Wake of New Zealand Attack

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Anthony Maras and stars Dev Patel, Nazanin Boniadi and Anupam Kher tell The Hollywood Reporter why the movie about the 2008 violence in Mumbai is unlike other films about extremism.

While terrorism thriller Hotel Mumbai's theatrical release has been suspended in New Zealand following mass shootings at two mosques that left 50 people dead, there has been little talk of how the unfortunate timing of the film's emotionally charged subject matter may impact its U.S. release this Friday.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Hotel Mumbai director Anthony Maras called the New Zealand attacks "horrific," and said that timing is always tricky for films such as his, but that Hotel Mumbai ultimately serves as an indictment of all extremism, including that behind both the recent Christchurch shootings and 2008 Mumbai attacks.

"Unfortunately, I don't think there's ever a good time for a film like this," Maras told THR about whether he reconsidered Hotel Mumbai's release in light of the New Zealand attacks. "But I've said it before: I think sunlight is the best disinfectant for these issues. I think the example of the staff and the guests at the Taj hotel are a really worthwhile thing to remember and have discussions about."

Maras went on to describe his directorial debut as a look at the human cost of extremism, not as "an indictment on any one particular faith." The Bleecker Street and ShivHans Pictures film details the experiences of the hotel guests, staff and gunmen during the 2008 mass shooting at Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one part of a more extensive series of coordinated terror attacks that took place over several days in Mumbai, India, 10 years ago.

At the New York premiere of the film earlier this week, Maras said of the movie, "It's important to remember that in the Mumbai attack, people of the Islamic faith were victims and they were heroes. They weren't just perpetrators. The men behind [the Mumbai attacks] were brainwashed extremists, and the film is a cry out against this type of thinking."

Hotel Mumbai star Anupam Kher, who portrays the real-life former Taj Mahal Palace chef Hemant Oberoi, emphasized at the New York screening that the story honors a set of ordinary people from different socioeconomic, religious and ethnic backgrounds — including the kitchen staff and other hotel employees who helped with rescue efforts — who emerged as heroes in an extraordinary situation. 

"It's a film about looking at the person next to you and saying that if he needs me, I'll be there to help him," said Kher. "All those people who are working there in the hotel, they were ordinary people. They were people who grew up in the middle-class, lower-middle-class families. We may not look like traditional heroes, but we behave like heroes."

For actress Nazanin Boniadi, who plays wealthy Muslim socialite Zahra, a composite of Mumbai attack survivors who shared their experiences with Maras, the way the film aimed to go beyond cliched portrayals of people and events is one reason she was drawn to the project.

"I think for me it was very important that [the audience] started the film not seeing the typical things you see throughout other films like this," Boniadi told The Hollywood Reporter about her character, who is both a mother and the wife of Armie Hammer's character, David. "[Zahra's] a Muslim woman, but she's also cosmopolitan. You don't look at her and think, 'Oh, she's Muslim.' And to be perfectly honest, a lot of Muslim women, they're not defined by their clothing or other things we typically think about. And so she, I think in that sense, is just a modern woman who happens to be Muslim."

For Maras, going beyond stereotype was as easy as sticking to the facts that he and co-writer John Collee amassed over 12 months of intensive research. Scouring through 3,000 pages of court transcripts from the trial of gunman Ajmal Kasab and speaking with 40 of the 2008 attack's victims and secondhand sources, the duo were able to build a narrative that was true to survivors' experiences, even if it meant not using their names in order to protect their privacy.

"I never considered any other terrorism films whatsoever," Maras told THR when asked whether he looked to other films for guidance on crafting the Hotel Mumbai story. "We sat across the table from many survivors, and it was a real attempt to do justice to the story as we heard them. In some cases, we had to moderate what really happened, because some of it was unbelievable even despite the fact that it was true."

That dedication to capturing the diverse human realities of the Mumbai attacks over dramatization was part of what star Dev Patel said attracted him to "a beautiful script" about a subject matter that moved him.

"I [didn't] want to be a part of making Die Hard," Patel told THR. "I don't want a movie where the Hollywood-known actors band together and steal the guns from the bad guys and get the blueprints to the building and go about kicking ass. That's not what this movie should be."