In his career spanning more than 37 years and over 500 films, veteran actor Anupam Kher found Hotel Mumbai – a retelling of 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks the most exhausting and immersive experience.
Kher is the only real-life character (he plays Hemant Oberoi, celebrated head chef of Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, who was instrumental in saving many lives during the attack) in the Australian-American-Indian co-production, which was inspired by the documentary Surviving Mumbai (2009) and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. Helmed by Australian director Anthony Maras, the film also stars Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, and Jason Isaacs in key roles.
Best known to Western audiences for his roles in films like Bend it Like Beckham, Silver Linings Playbook, The Big Sick and the upcoming Hotel Mumbai, Kher is currently in New York shooting for his much-talked about show, New Amsterdam. Excerpts from a chat with the prolific actor, who was in Mumbai a few days ago to talk about the life-changing experience he had while working on the biographical thriller.
It must have been a very traumatic experience shooting for Hotel Mumbai. Can you recount?
It was a very stressful shoot, and in fact, one had to relive more than the actual incident, where we were an outsider, though we could imagine the horror of the situation. Anthony Maras wanted us to feel every moment. He had created an atmosphere of what must have happened, and that is what the purpose of the film is. Audience will actually feel that they are inside the Taj Hotel while watching the film. I went through the trauma thrice. One, as it happened. Second time, my director wanted us to actually go through the whole workshop about as if we were already there. The third time was when I saw the film. Anthony wanted to make the film in such a manner that the spectator would feel that he or she is in this whole thing.
It's important to tell the world what victims go through sometimes. They're becoming more and more mechanical about tragedy. Now, we have started reacting to tragedies with statistics, "Kitne mare" (how many died)? But even if there's one victim of terrorism, the family has lost somebody for the rest of their lives, whether it is their father, or mother, or brother.
It is traumatic, and that is why Hotel Mumbai is not fiction, and it is important to remember such incidents so that people feel for it. I wanted to be a part of film like this so that the world knew what happened on 26/11 at the time when five-six terrorists from the neighbouring country came, and gunned down so many innocents.
What kind of research and prep went in for the film?
My director did not want me to meet chef Oberoi because he said we were not picking up mannerisms, and the chef isn’t visibly a well-known person. People have only heard of him. Before that, I must have met him in the hotel but nothing more than that. But the best compliment I got from him was that nobody could have portrayed this character as well as you have done. That is why I wanted to do Hindi dubbing myself because people are so familiar with my voice, and I have to recreate that whole thing all over again. Earlier, my brother Raju had done it but I did it all over again in three days when I came to India.
I am the only actor to play a real life character in the film. But authenticity is compassion for the victims, and the film is about extraordinary courage of ordinary people. Anthony was fully prepared even though it was his first feature film. Sometimes, I feel that people who are from outside, when they make a film about India, they do a better job not because they are more talented than us but they have a sense of responsibility. It made a Richard Attenborough to make Gandhi. But the preparation was as honest as it could have been as an actor. Sometimes, honesty is more important than the craft of an actor.
What was your immediate reaction when you were approached for the film?
I was skeptical because the incident was so close to us. I was in Mumbai when it happened, and we saw almost three days of a virtual reality show on television, and how people were dealing with it. I knew the general manager, who lost his two sons and his wife. I knew so many others. I watched the documentary on which the film is based, and then I read the script. I spent three hours with the director, and understood his vision, his interpretation, and passion for the film. But the film took a bit longer to materialise because various producers were coming in, and the best part was when we went to Adelaide in Australia and did workshop with every actor.
Dev Patel and Anupam Kher in a still from Hotel Mumbai
Dev Patel and Anupam Kher in a still from Hotel Mumbai. Twitter
Tell us about your co-stars in the film.
The way the director dealt with the subject that we developed a great bond, and that is why Dev Patel, Armie, Nazanin, and I are now friends for life. Though it is about the attack on India, today, unfortunately, the whole world is a victim of terrorism. All these actors have a great sense of responsibility, and, of course, this is the subject where actors needed to use sincerity rather than their craft. They had all heard about 26/11. Maybe they had not followed it much but they all knew that the iconic Taj Hotel was attacked, and it went on for three days. They may not have played the real-life characters but the characters were drawn from some people who were there in that attack.
You may have not met Hemant Oberoi for your prep but did you meet him later, after the film was completed?
Yes, I met him at the premiere at Toronto Film Festival, and I was devastated because there was the real-life hero in the audience, and here I was wearing this white tuxedo and talking about how I played the part. It was he who went through this traumatic experience. My respect for common people with amazing courage grew that day. The film is about hope, compassion, coming together, and the way all the actors from various countries descended in Australia made compassion a universal emotion.
Can you tell us about the shooting process?
We shot for the interiors in Australia for 35 days, and then we shot the exteriors for 10 to 15 days in Mumbai at various locations outside Elphinstone and St Xavier’s College. We built the whole kitchen in the basement of a hotel in Juhu in the western suburbs of Mumbai. It was a 50 to 55 day shoot but Anthony was so sure that he will make the entire experience very authentic as if we were all breathing the whole incident. He had planted the recordings of blast, and whenever he would start that, you could actually see the reactions of actors of jolt. It was so horrifying and tiring. I have never felt so emotionally exhausted and tired in any of the films that I have done in the past. An actor is always greedy for more parts, for better parts, and that's what my journey has been defined by. I'm happy this film, Hotel Mumbai, is my 501st film. It’s a landmark project for me and for all those brave souls who help continue the spirit of humanity in dire times of need.
What was the takeaway for you from the film?
That there is every possibility of a stranger helping you in times of distress.We need not always doubt a stranger. We are usually very skeptical but not every stranger will look away. This film also made me learn the biggest lesson of my life – to value humanity above all. It is a very universal film.