The film Hotel Mumbai on the 2008 terror attacks in the megapolis received a standing ovation as it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The loudest applause at Friday’s screening was reserved for a surprise guest: Hemant Oberoi, then a chef at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel who was among those who played a critical role in protecting precious lives. His is among the real life characters that appear prominently in the film based partly on the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai which looked at the attack from the perspective of survivors as does this fictional version.
The cast is led by British-Indian actor Dev Patel who plays Arjun, a waiter at the hotel and like chef Oberoi, another character displaying heroism while literally under fire after the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists being directed telephonically by their ISI handlers in Pakistan laid siege to the Mumbai landmark. After the world premiere, Patel said the filming was “difficult” simply because of the emotions involved. He also had a personal memory to recount. It was in September 2008 that the film that launched his career, Slumdog Millionaire premiered at TIFF. After promoting the film elsewhere, he returned home to London to find his parents transfixed by the unfolding attack tears streaming down their faces. “To see that happen to this place that was bursting with life and people and children everywhere you look, it was very difficult,” he said. He pointed out that at the end of Slumdog Millionaire there is a dance scene shot at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus earlier Victoria Terminus in Mumbai which “is a celebration of humanity and love” that he felt is encapsulated in Hotel Mumbai as well. He described the film as an “anthem of resilience”. The film is directed by Australian Antony Maras in his feature directorial debut. Maras told the opening night audience “one of the reason we made this movie is because you have all these different people from all different walks of life who are coming together to try and get through this event.”
The film begins with the terrorists arriving by boat on Mumbai’s shore and then fanning out to the pre-planned locations that they targeted including the iconic hotel. From there, it turns to the handful of guests and the effort by staff members to ensure their safety, even as the brutal rampage continues and the massacre of many of those in the hotel is shown in gory detail. Frenetic action is interspersed with vignettes of personal bonding, while context is provided by using the device of televised news reports. Of the 166 persons that were victims of those attacks, the deadliest in India’s history over 30 died within the luxurious premises of the Taj. But nearly 250 also survived and some of the credit for those lives preserved goes to the staff and this film recognises that feat of regular people rising to meet a deadly challenge.