Hotel Mumbai puts courage and hope against the horrors of terrorism

Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra and Jason Isaacs as Vasili in Hotel Mumbai. Picture: PA Photo/Hotel Mumbai
Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra and Jason Isaacs as Vasili in Hotel Mumbai. Picture: PA Photo/Hotel Mumbai
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No one can deny that Hotel Mumbai is a brutal watch.

A Sky Cinema original film, it vividly portrays a true story; the 2008 siege of one of India’s most famed hotels.

But while it’s a terror-attack thriller containing extreme violence, there’s an inspiring message within it, which was the appeal for two of its stars, Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi.

“With the current state of the world, where world leaders are driving wedges between us and capitalising on our differences, we need this sense of hope that we can do and be better, and I think that’s what the film does,” suggests Iranian-British actress Boniadi, 39.

“It gives us a lie to this nonsense that there’s so much that divides us and we’re so separate from each other, because all the divisions evaporated the second the bullets started flying, and people’s best natures came out, not their worst natures,” adds 56-year-old Isaacs, who was born in Liverpool, and is known for roles such as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series.

“And we need reminding of that when we’re told the opposite.”

The gripping drama recalls how, between 26-29 November, a squad of young jihadists reigned terror upon Mumbai, with a co-ordinated series of shooting and bombing attacks (by the time the carnage across the city had ended, more than 170 people from over a dozen countries had been killed).

During the three-day stand-off, chaos unfolded at the legendary Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which a group of gunmen seized with more than 500 people trapped inside.

Isaacs and Boniadi play guests at the hotel, who are composite characters.

The former is a steely Russian millionaire whose main interest seems to be protecting himself, whilst the latter portrays one half of a desperate couple (Armie Hammer takes on the role of her husband) who have to make unthinkable sacrifices to defend their baby.

Knowing they were playing amalgamations of fictional and real people didn’t influence the way either actor approached the role.

“The things that you’re seeing on screen actually happened, so you still treat it with the same respect and authenticity, and you try to be as true and as honest in the moment that you can,” suggests Boniadi, who’s best known for series Homeland and How I Met Your Mother.

“The man I’m playing is a composite of actually three people,” notes Isaacs, who’s also starred in TV shows such as The OA and Case Histories.

“But I know who they are, and I know what happened to them.”

One challenging aspect of a film like this could be its portrayal of religion, given its depiction of terrorists.

Did the stars see getting that balance right as a challenge?

“No, I think when you’re dealing with a real-life situation, you have to not try to whitewash the situation,” Boniadi says.

“It is what it is – this is what happened.”

She explains how she plays a “British-Iranian woman; she is a Muslim, she comes from a Muslim background.

“There’s one scene which is very powerful... I don’t want to give too much away, but I call it the yin and yang of faith.

“It’s up to us, as individuals, how we use faith. We can use it on one hand – which will become clear to audiences when they see the scene – to instil fear and to propagate hate, and on the other hand you can use it to bring about hope and resolve and courage.

“And I think that was a powerful message for me and my character, and the arc of my character in the film.”

Perhaps what’s particularly fascinating about the feature is how it follows ordinary people from all walks of life.

For example, there are the remarkable members of hotel staff, such as renowned chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and gentle Sikh waiter (Dev Patel), who risk everything to protect their guests.

It was previously reported in the media that Isaacs, a father-of-two – who is married to documentary filmmaker Emma Hewitt – wasn’t looking to work when he was offered the part in Hotel Mumbai. In fact, he had plans for a big family holiday.

But, once he read the script, he knew he couldn’t turn it down.

He says, “It’s a huge cinematic experience when you see it; it’s intense, you feel drained by the end of it. We’re essentially generous and we’re essentially capable of selflessness. We’re told the opposite from all corners and ‘there’s rising tides of nationalism and populism, tribalism, people pulling the drawbridges up around their particular clan’, and actually, that’s not what we’re like when our backs are against the wall.”

Hotel Mumbai is a Sky Original Film, available to watch now on Sky Cinema and in cinemas.