There are so many inspiring characters in Hotel Mumbai, in theaters nationwide this weekend. The harrowing film is based on the true story of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and how the people in the Taj Hotel, one of the main targets, banded together to survive the days-long ordeal. The entire movie is incredibly visceral and terrifying, especially because the violence comes with the knowledge that this actually happened to real people.
But a true standout of the movie is Dev Patel, as he brings to life the character of Arjun, a staff member of the Taj who bravely puts his own life on the line like so many staff members did to ensure that as many guests trapped in the hotel as possible could survive. But is Dev Patel's character Arjun a real survivor of the Mumbai attacks?
According to Hotel Mumbai director Anthony Maras, Patel’s Arjun is actually based on more than one real person who lived through the Mumbai attacks.
“It was based on two main real people that have been interviewed,” Maras tells Refinery29. “One was a waiter in one of the restaurants in the Taj who, as is depicted in the film, when the lobby attacks rang out, thought very quickly and had great initiative to turn all the lights off and get people ducking under the tables and was in frequent communication with [Hemant] Oberoi to try and see how it was that they were going to protect these guests. And he did manage to ferry a whole lot of them to safety.”
He then adds, “That character was then combined with another Taj staff member who, as you see in the film, was able to lead the police to the CCTV room to try and get a handle on what it was that was attacking them. In the outset of the attacks, no one knew who the gunmen were, how many there were, so his input was really critical.”
Maras strived to keep both characters’ stories and actions as authentic as possible in his script for the film, but the decision to combine them into one person actually came from a place of empathy. “There was a reason behind both the amalgamation of the characters and disguising the biographical information of the real life person of who the Dev Patel character was based on,” Maras says. “And that's simply because these are private people who were either going to work or going to stay as guests in the hotel and we wanted to both respect their privacy in the case of those who survived and also respect the memories of those who passed away.”
Of course, one of the main characters of Hotel Mumbai is that of the real-life figure Oberoi (played by Anupam Kher in the film), whose name, background and story appears in the film unaltered. Maras explains that he wasn’t able to change Oberoi’s name because he “is a well known figure in India and especially in Mumbai.”
“To tell the story that we did, even if we changed his name or we changed certain details about him, people know who he was,” Maras adds. “I've done many interviews with Hemant while doing the film about him and his character and the biographical details were kept intact but the other main characters had their biographical details changed out of respect for privacy and in some cases were amalgams.”
As for how Maras made sure that he stayed as authentic to the story as possible because this was a true story about real people, he went straight to the source.
“I sat across the table from many of them and spent many hours, dozens of hours interviewing them with my co-writer John Collee,” Maras says. “And you feel a huge sense of responsibility because these are people's lives that we're dealing with here. That was our guiding light the whole way through to try and do justice to the experience that they endured and how difficult it was — we weren't shying away from the incredibly difficult situation that they had to go through. And then I personally think that that gives rise to another side of the story, which is not only the heroism but the resilience that is shown by all those people who survived.”
According to Maras, “that extends beyond just the immediate aftermath of the attack and escaping.”
“Within three weeks of the attacks they opened the first restaurant in the Taj as a symbol that they're not going to be cowed by extremism,” he adds. “Hand in hand they're going to unite and they flocked to the restaurant, people of Mumbai. Within 21 months of the attacks happening, they reopened the Taj and many survivors from across the world came back together with staff members.”
Hotel Mumbai pays tribute to that show of strength by incorporating real footage of the grand reopening into the film, something that Maras is incredibly proud to have included.
“Despite the horrors that they went through, people of many different races, religions, ethnicities, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, as they had during the attacks stood there arm in arm around that great grand staircase which was literally on fire 21 months earlier,” Maras says. “They had restored to its full glory, they stood arm in arm and they said, 'We're going to be stronger because of it.' That's why I wanted to make the film.”