On November 26, 2008, the world witnessed a terror attack like no other. A handful of terrorists held Mumbai hostage for four days. Australian director Anthony Maras’s film Hotel Mumbai — that releases this Friday and stars Dev Patel, Armie Hammer and Anupam Kher — is inspired by the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai that revolved around the ghastly attacks. Over a long phone call from New York, where Kher is shooting for the second season of the NBC show New Amsterdam, the 64-year-old actor chatted with t2.
I believe you were sceptical about doing Hotel Mumbai when it first came your way?
Yes, I was sceptical because one of our Indian directors had made a film on these attacks and it was atrocious. I was also a little unsure because Anthony Maras (the film’s director) is a foreigner and this is his first feature-length film. I was supposed to meet him at The Oberoi hotel. It was a long commute from Juhu, so I told him that I could only meet him for 30 minutes. We ended up talking for over three hours. I was mesmerised by his passion, detailed research and his need to tell this story. He wasn’t just another foreign director who wanted to tell an Indian story. Sometimes you want to be a part of films that need to be told, and for me, Hotel Mumbai was that.
When an outsider comes to a city, very often they help us see our surroundings in a different light. Did that happen with you, seeing Mumbai through the eyes of Anthony?
I have been seeing the city change from the day I reached here from Shimla decades ago. I remember the day Saaransh (his debut film) released, Bhiwandi riots had happened. Mr Mahesh Bhatt (the film’s director) and I had to travel to Metro cinema at the other end of town. Then we had the ’93 riots and 26/11 over a decade ago.
But you are right. When an outsider comes and he is sympathetic to a tragedy in the city, I like that. We needed someone to tell this story of tragedy but also of immense bravery as truthfully as possible, without making it filmi. This is a very immersive film. When you watch this film, you will feel like you were there during this mindless attack.
Did making this film feel personal?
I think this attack was personal to every Indian and every Mumbaikar. A friend of mine who was the general manager (of The Taj Hotel & Towers) lost his family. Another friend lost his sister. Anyone who is a victim of such a terrorist siege is a personal loss for all of humanity. When innocent people are killed without any reason, everyone should take it as a personal loss. Only then can we be called sensitive human beings. Deaths because of terror attacks should not become statistics.
What are your memories of those three horrific days?
I was shooting for a film in Bandra. Initially, we were told that a gang war had broken out in Colaba. Then we learnt about the massacre that happened at CST Station and then spread through other locations. For the next three days, we saw the attack unfold in almost real time like a macabre reality television show, only the blood was real. It was horrific.
There are two memories of terror attacks that will always be etched in our memories — seeing the second plane crash into the World Trade Centre on 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks on 26/11. Everyone in the world would remember where they were when they saw those visuals on TV or read about it.
You play chef Hemant Oberoi in the film. Did you know him from before?
We must have met when I went to the Taj for a meal but after I was finalised for this role, Anthony told me to not meet him. Actors have this habit of picking up on people’s mannerisms and then they lose focus of portraying the inner journey of that person. Once the script was given to me, I didn’t feel the need to meet him. We finally only met after the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. At the end of the screening, he hugged me and said, ‘Thank you’.
This, I believe, is your 501st film. Even by Bollywood standards, that’s an insane number!
(Laughs) It is insane. Many years ago, when I told (director) Woody Allen that I had made 418 films, he looked at me and asked, ‘Over how many lives?’
Do you remember every single one of these 501 films?
I think I remember most of my movies. The ones that most people remember, which are at the top of my filmography are obviously ones that I’d never forget. In my memory, certain films are attached to the memory of certain people. Like Saaransh, for me, was dedicated to the memory of my grandfather. I also remember my bad films because they just make me laugh. I don’t take myself seriously enough to think that I am going to change cinema. What is important for me is to be working every day. When I was a struggling actor, I promised God that when I start getting work, I will never complain about being too tired or busy.
Among these 501 films, I think I can count at least 20-25 really good performances. I am very happy to have done films like Daddy, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, Khosla ka Ghosla, Special 26, Rao Saheb or even Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. But this is just the interval... my real work starts now. I am more comfortable as an actor now. Earlier I was going nowhere. Now I think I know what acting is all about. I am not being modest. Now that I am working with international talent, I discovered that there is so much to learn. Yesterday, I watched the new Tom Hanks film A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. My mind is blown. It was the most amazing performance by Tom Hanks. The other day, I saw Marriage Story (starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) which is another brilliant film. When you see work like that, you realise that there is still so much to learn about this craft.
My whole idea of shifting to New York was to find new horizons. I was getting a little tired and bored of people describing me as ‘thespian’, ‘veteran’ and ‘legend’. These are all rubbish terms that we use for people who have spent more than 20 years in the business... it’s not about the quality of his or her work. I feel like a newcomer here in the US.
You talked about remembering your bad films as well. Would you tell us about any one of them?
Of course! I have to explain that a bad film for me is one where during the shoot I thought I was doing brilliant work and that wasn’t the case when I finally saw the film. After the success of Nagina, the makers had decided to make Nigahen. In the first film Amrish Puriji’s character dies. Harmesh Malhotra, the film’s producer and director, came to me with Sridevi and Sunny Deol and said that he wanted me to play Amrish Puri’s role. I thought to myself that I’ll do this role so brilliantly that people will forget Amrish Puri’s performance. When you act to impress others, there is no way that you’ll do well. I was so over-the-top in the film.
Two days before release, the film’s distributor sent me a bottle of Blue Label whisky as a mark of my performace. I had not seen the film and I have never had Blue Label before so I told myself this was a sign that I was brilliant in the film. I invited a lot of guests, including (filmmaker) Yash Chopra and his wife Pamela for a special screening. In the first scene, I realised how bad I was. By the third scene, Mrs Yash Chopra started coughing and said, ‘I am feeling....’ It was clear that she was horrified by my performance! (Laughs) By the fourth scene, I was hoping for an earthquake that would destroy the theatre, so I didn’t have to sit through that torture any more. But I am happy to have done every single film... they have brought me to where I am today.
You are shooting for the second season of New Amsterdam. How is that going?
It’s been unbelievable. Yesterday at the screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, there was a young girl who started screaming when she saw me. I thought maybe Tom Hanks was behind me! (Laughs) But then she said ‘Dr Kapoor’, so I realised that she was excited to see me. It’s not a regular hospital show, and I am very happy that it’s so well received. My character is developing an interesting storyline and I get to add little Indian touches like a Hindi song, a line in Hindi or recite the Hanuman Chalisa.