The Story Behind Hotel Mumbai's Harrowing Prayer Scene

Photo: Courtesy of Bleecker Street.
Hotel Mumbai, out nationwide Friday, March 29, will leave you breathless from start to finish. But there is only one moment that will truly make your heart stop. It's a life-or-death exchange between one of the terrorists and one of the hotel's guests, Zahra, played by Homeland's Nazanin Boniadi. Face-to-face with a man who has been killing guests, staff, bystanders, old women, young men, rich people, poor people — everyone — for hours, Zahra starts to pray. In the scene, Boniadi must portray fear, confidence, faith, and hopelessness, all in one tearful glance. And she does it.
The audience, never getting their hopes up, doesn't know if it's safe to exhale yet, and neither does her character. But this complex intensity is exactly what the director, Anthony Maras, wants — needs — you to feel while watching his feature film debut, which depicts the true story of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
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Written by Maras and John Collee, Boniadi was cast after Maras saw a video of a speech she gave at Amnesty International. When it came time for a chemistry read between Boniadi and her on-screen American architect husband, David, played by the charismatic Armie Hammer, she offered to send Maras a clip of her in Homeland rather than read with the 6'5" Hammer, Boniadi tells Refinery29, laughing, one afternoon in a suite at the Crosby Street Hotel. She says she was intimidated by his height — she's 5'3". (The cold chemistry read never happened. Maras just went with his gut and cast his dream couple.)
As Zahra and David, two VIP guests who are parents of a newborn baby boy staying at the Hotel Mumbai, Boniadi and Hammer bring to life two characters inspired by the experiences of real-life guests at the hotel that nightmarish day. The world from which their privileged characters come from are a far stretch from that of the other main characters in this story. Dev Patel plays Anjun, a dedicated and brave employee of the hotel with a daughter and pregnant wife at home, motivating him to survive. Chef Hemant Oberoi, played by Anupam Kher, is based on the hotel's world renowned grand executive chef of the same name who protected dozens of guests during the attack.
Ahead of the film's release, Boniadi spoke with Refinery29 about filming the most intense scene of the movie, and — on a lighter note — the time she got trapped in an elevator with Hammer.
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Refinery29: Zahra is an amalgamation of various real-life women. Can you tell me about the research you did to prepare, and if you were able to speak with anyone who was a source of inspiration for her?
Nazanin Boniadi: "It is a composite character based on two women who were at the hotel during the attacks. The prayer scene is based on something that actually happened. There was a Muslim woman who actually had to pray and confront the gunman who was threatening her, and that is what she believes made him not kill her. As far as research, we watched Surviving Mumbai, which was extremely informative. Some of the people our characters are based on are in the documentary, so we didn’t really need to access them. There is also privacy issues where we were very wary of. We don’t want to impose on people’s lives."
You have two vital scenes, that prayer scene you mentioned, and a confrontation between your character and an older white woman. Did you pull from any real-life experiences for those scenes?
"First of all, I want to pay respects to Carmen, who played the older woman in one of the scenes, who recently passed away. She was such a beautiful soul, and completely the opposite of what she was playing on the screen. But yes, I have definitely experienced racism. Growing up in London and growing up here in the U.S., I’ve had that happen to me before, where someone looks at me funny because I am speaking a different language, or for assuming something about me based on how I look. That kind of racism does trigger something in you. But what I think is the beauty of the film is that my character gets angered by it because she is so hellbent on finding her child — that was her trigger. In the scene, she is talking to her mother and trying to protect her as to not worry, so even though she is filled with rage and fear over what is happening, she is trying to be as calm as possible for her mother. And then this woman comes up to her with a racist question [asking her what language she was speaking in an accusatory tone] after she hangs up the phone, and Zahra just instinctively snaps. Whereas Dev’s character, Ajun, handles it completely differently. He’s like, let me take this opportunity to educate you. That moment actually shows you that this woman isn’t a bad person. She was scared. She was very narrow-minded, and ill-informed. It goes to show that racism doesn’t always come from an evil place, but a place of fear — this fear of the other.
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"Then you go to the prayer scene, which took every ounce of my energy. I love that scene because it shows the yin and yang — it shows the complete polar opposite meanings of the same prayer. My character is using it to draw courage, hope, and survival. The other is using it to instill fear and hatred. I think that is such an important message. Do we want to be the person to use it for good, or for bad?"
Were you surrounded by actual gunshot noises for hours on set?
"Yes. Specifically in the prayer scene, [the terrorist’s] boss is on the phone telling him to kill her, so he fires a shot past her head. In that moment when I heard that shot, I really thought, Was I just hit? Am I hit? That jerk that my body made in the scene is real. I can’t even describe it, but at the end of that scene I just fell to the floor and said I can’t do it again."
Did you have to do it again?
"Yeah, we had to mainly because the physicality of it was difficult. My hands were tied behind my back, and I’m on my stomach. We had to find a way for me to come up not by jerking myself up because the character has to rise up with grace and courage. So imagine you’re on your belly and now you’re trying to find a way to smoothly, and slowly, get up and stare someone in the face. It’s impossible."
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I know you filmed in multiple locations, and it looked like you were all able to take some trips to balance out the intensity of filming. Do you think that helped bring humanity to the whole process?
"Yes, just to be able to get through the shoot because it is such a dark film. There was one rule we had. Anthony gave us one rule: The gunman were not allowed to socialize with the six of us: myself, Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, and Tilda Cobham-Hervey. We could socialize together, and the gunmen could socialize together, but separately. He didn’t want the familiarity between us. He didn’t want us to show up on set like joking around. He wanted there to be a wall of distance which I think helped the film. But the six of us who hung out, we would have dinners every night and go out and explore Mumbai or Adelaide [where they filmed]. The great thing was that Mumbai was Anupan’s city, and Adelaide was Tilda’s city so we had these tour guides."
I was at an event earlier this week with Elizabeth [Chambers, Hammer's wife], When I told her I was interviewing you, she said, "Oh, I love her."
"We bonded so much because, I don’t know if you already know this story, but Armie got us stuck in an elevator. Elizabeth was eight or nine months pregnant at the time, and we were in Adelaide shooting. Armie actually pried the doors open to save us, but at that point I was like, 'Well done, you! You just got your fake wife and your real wife angry with you at the same time.' He was like, 'But I saved you?!' And I was like, 'It doesn’t count because you got us in there in the first place.' [Laughs]"
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The film ends on a really hopeful note, but I worry some people are scared to see it because it’s too intense. Why do you think people should take the time to see this movie?
"We are inundated with bad news, and yes, the film really makes people feel uncomfortable, but sometimes that is a good thing. Sometimes the worst in humanity brings out the best in us, and I think watching this film really sends that message home. Something that is so dark, can bring out something so beautiful which is the fact that we set aside our differences and we band together just to survive. At the end of the day, bullets don’t discriminate, so we have to find commonalities and ways to hold hands to survive, because ultimately, this movie is about the helpers."
Do you think this role has made you braver?
"It has made me braver, but also more grateful. We don’t live our lives in gratitude for the safety and comfort we experience, and also the health and the lift that we have. We live day to day taking for granted that our relatives are safe, and we can call our mother. Now when I speak to my mother on the phone, I end it with an I love you. This movie is really just about counting your blessings."
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