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How ‘Hotel Mumbai’ illuminates the courage of the everyday hero
Judy Woodruff: It's been more than 10 years since a series of coordinated terror attacks rocked Mumbai, India. But the stories of those who survived live on in the film "Hotel Mumbai."
The "NewsHour"'s Amna Nawaz has the story of this portrayal of the siege that dominated headlines.
For the record, our regular viewers likely have noticed that Bleecker Street, the company that distributes the film, was a recent funder of the "NewsHour."
This story is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Amna Nawaz: The 2008 Mumbai attacks paralyzed an entire city and half the world racked for three days. The story is now told on the big screen in "Hotel Mumbai."
Across multiple attack sites, over 160 people were killed, including staff at the luxury Taj Hotel, a Mumbai landmark where director Anthony Maras centers his story.
Anthony Maras: A lot of terror attacks are quite sudden and then they're over, and we're left dealing with the aftermath. Because of the dynamics of the situation in Mumbai in those three days were such that the police response took a number of days, it was up to ordinary people to protect one another and to protect themselves.
Nazanin Boniadi plays Zahra, a wealthy Iranian socialite staying at the hotel with her family.
Nazanin Boniadi: She went into the situation with someone who came from privilege and a golden spoon in her mouth, and then she's supposed to kick off her shoes, hike up her skirt, and do whatever it takes to survive, not only herself, but her family.
And in that sense, I think this film is not about Hollywood heroes, the ones that we're used to seeing on screen. It's about the everyday hero, the ones that we think we can't be ourselves.
Dev Patel plays Arjun, one of the everyday heroes.
Actor: Do you have a family?
Dev Patel: Yes. And I hope to stay alive and see them.
My character comes from Islam. And the idea of being able to work in the Taj, which is this beacon of hope, you know, of success, it was something one would talk about with pride. It's quite confronting, in a way. You know, it kind of sheds light on the caste system and the absolute wealth and the absolute poverty that you can have people willing to throw their lives away in service of others is beautiful, but also, like, would that happen in other parts of the world? I don't know.
Anthony Maras: The staff of the Taj Hotel, these were people within their own families, in many cases, husbands, wives, children. Outside the hotel, they had their own lives.
Actor: There is no shame in living.
Actor: I have been here 35 years. This is my home.
Actor: I'm staying too. I'm staying too.
Anthony Maras: Some staff members had made it outside to safety beyond the perimeter, where they had shepherded guests to safety. And then they turned around and went back. They went back inside this hell to protect one another and also to protect their guests.
Amna Nawaz: Armie Hammer plays David, husband to Zahra, both stuck inside that hell.
Armie Hammer: This isn't the Hollywood version of anything. This feels like the first-person point of view and perspective of what it would be like to be in those hallways when this is going down.
Amna Nawaz: Hammer was compelled to join the cast, he says, a decade after first watching the actual attacks unfold on the news.
Armie Hammer: I just remember sort of empathizing for the people that were there who couldn't do anything to save these people and also for the people that were actually in there experiencing this thing.
Amna Nawaz: For Maras, who spent months preparing, even moving into the hotel for weeks, the movie was a chance to dig more deeply into the stories of those trapped in the Taj.
Anthony Maras: Our guiding light was the research we followed for over a 12-month period, interviewing many guests and survivors, both of the attacks at the Taj, but also many other locations.
We had over 3,000 pages of transcripts from the trial of Ajmal Kasab, who was the sole surviving gunman.
Amna Nawaz: But it's Maras' minute-by-minute gripping depiction of the attack that raised some questions about the need for a fictionalized version of real-life events and concerns about humanizing the attackers.
Anthony Maras: I did feel a huge sense of responsibility in the depiction of these gunmen.
For me, it's a question of definition. If, by humanizing, you mean we're trying to justify their actions, no, we're not humanizing. If humanizing means we're trying to understand, to an extent, you know, what drove them to this, then, yes.
If it wasn't for the 10 young men who were there, it would be another 10 or another 10.
Amna Nawaz: The film's tension resides not just in the suspenseful scenes of gunmen hunting down victims, but also in the taut interactions between those fighting to stay alive.
Patel's character, an observant Sikh wearing a traditional pagri, or turban, is met with suspicion by a guest hiding in the same part of the hotel.
Dev Patel: While we are in this hotel, you are my guest. And I'm your staff. So if it would make you feel comfortable, I will take it off. Would you like that?
Actress: No. I'm just scared.
Dev Patel: We all are.
Amna Nawaz: It was your idea to make sure that the character was an observant Sikh.
Dev Patel: In this microcosm of India, this hotel which should have every ethnicity and diversity, and why not have a Sikh man? I went to the hotel. I saw Sikh doormen, Sikh waiters. And we could make him a more potent character that says more.
Anthony Maras: It's important to remember, in the Taj, it wasn't, you know, just whites and Westerners that were attacked. There were Hindus, there were Christians, there were Muslims, there were atheists.
And we're told that all these barriers usually divide us. But, at the Taj over those three days, those barriers evaporated. And the example that was set by these -- you know, by these truly heroic people, who never threw a punch, who never a fired a gun, they're heroes despite their fears, one that I think that the world especially needs to hear right now.
Amna Nawaz: What is it at the end of the day that you hope people will get from this story?
Nazanin Boniadi: You know, I hope they get what I got out of it. What I walked away from the film feeling is gratitude. It's going to make me cry, but gratitude to be alive, grateful for the loved ones I have in my life, and to live every day in the moment.
Our differences don't define us. It's really, we have so much more in common at the end of the day than we'd like to believe. So I feel like I'm a better person having been in this film, actually.
Amna Nawaz: "Hotel Mumbai" is in theaters now.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in New York.