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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Hotel Mumbai

by director/co-writer Anthony Maras

With over twenty million residents, Mumbai is one of the most populous and culturally diverse cities in the world. A seemingly endless metropolis, constantly pulsating with life and color and movement. It is the financial and entertainment capital of India—the home of Bollywood. A place of both enormous wealth and abject poverty. Therein lies its power, and its vulnerability.

November 2018 marked the ten-year anniversary of a series of terror attacks that rocked the city to its core. Over three days and nights, twelve sites across Mumbai were hit by a team of young jihadists, who were receiving instructions from unseen handlers via satellite phones. With police and security forces stretched wafer thin, frantic tourists and locals scampered for refuge as the city went up in flames. Many fled to the one place they thought would be safe—the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

In reality, the Taj was the primary target. The historic, seven story monument to India’s progress and diversity soon became a war zone. Guests and staff were bombed, shot at and hunted through hotel corridors in what became a grueling, days-long fight for survival.

With material like this, it is easy to get lost in the darkness. To be overwhelmed by the horror of it all. But take a closer look, and a new perspective takes hold. There were over five hundred people in the Taj during what became a three-day siege. That all but thirty-two survived is a miracle, a testament to the extraordinary heroism, ingenuity and self-sacrifice of both staff members and guests alike.

Led by the indomitable master chef Hemant Oberoi, Taj kitchen workers stuffed baking trays under their shirts—makeshift ‘bulletproof vests’—as they shielded patrons from close range machine-gun fire. As fire roared behind them, desperate guests patiently lowered fellow travelers out of upper-level windows using makeshift ropes made of knotted bed sheets. Taj staff led others through hidden corridors to safety outside, only to re-enter the hotel and look for more people to rescue. These were young men and women with families of their own, who risked everything out of a sense of obligation to their guests.

For many staff members, finding work at the Taj is not just a job, it is the promise of a better life. It is an intense source of pride. It is being part of a family. Being part of something that represents the greatness India is capable of. Something so valuable, so deeply cherished that many were willing to risk everything to defend it. In contemplating all this, one particular fact speaks volumes: of more than 500 people trapped in the hotel, 32 died, 15 of whom were staff members.

Within three weeks of the attacks, Chef Oberoi and his team re-opened the first of his twelve restaurants inside the bombed-out hotel. The signal was strong and clear. We will not be cowed. We refuse to live in fear. We refuse to mistrust others different from ourselves. Arm in arm—we will strive on forward together. Twenty-one months later the hotel was restored to its former glory. Grateful survivors from all over the world joined staff for an emotional re-opening ceremony. People of all races, all ethnicities, all religions—from uber-wealthy guests to the most junior staff members—all standing as one.

At a time when the world feels so divided, where people’s differences are used to promote distrust and conflict, where violence (whether labelled terror or not) is commonplace—one can look to the example set by the staff and guests of the Taj Hotel: we either rise, or fall, together.

I also hope audiences come away with a more nuanced understanding of how and why these attacks occur, and what drives those who commit them. In the case of the Mumbai attacks, the perpetrators were all young men, barely out of their teens. They came from remote highland regions in Pakistan, near the Indian border—an area synonymous with abject poverty and frequent warfare. Devoid of any formal education, these young men were prime targets for radicalization by fundamentalist groups.

The Mumbai attacks served as a potent wake up call to all who lived through them. They were a transformative experience which led many survivors to effect positive change in their own lives, and to the realization that tolerance, education and understanding across cultures were vital to a safer world for all—regardless of race, religion or economic standing.

I hope our film does justice to this sentiment, and to the stories of all those affected by the Mumbai attacks.

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