Veteran actor on portraying the Mumbai terror attacks with honesty, real-life heroes and representing his country on international projects
A scheduled 30-minute appointment at the Oberoi hotel in south Mumbai turned into a four-hour discussion, recalls Anupam Kher, describing his first meeting with Anthony Maras, the Australian director of Hotel Mumbai which releases in India today.
“It is important to be part of films that reflect the state of affairs of a country; 26/11 was an event that changed so many things,” says Kher reflecting on his almost immediate decision to become involved with the project.
Real life heroes
Kher plays chef Hemant Oberoi, the only character in the film, as he points out, who is based on a real person. Oberoi was the grand executive chef at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel at the time, and was instrumental in saving the lives of several guests and staff members when the hotel was under siege in November 2008. But Kher says that his director did not want him to meet Oberoi before filming began. It was in fact at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film premiered last year that he finally met Oberoi who hugged and thanked him after the screening. Kher remembers that first viewing of the film where he was told of Oberoi’s presence in the audience as being an emotional one, “The hero was in the audience, I was just the actor portraying him.”
“The film is about the extraordinary courage of ordinary people,” says Kher, “it is a salute to the people of the Taj where the motto is ‘guest is god’ and where they took it seriously.” The actor had personally known some of the people who were caught in the crossfire that had ensued and who ultimately lost their lives in the attacks. Having witnessed the trauma from such close quarters he was determined that the emotions conveyed in the film should not appear superficial. “When you have done so much work, you think that somehow or other, the craft will come in,” Kher admits. But, he asserts, “This is one film where I have not used the craft of an actor. What was needed was the honesty and the reality of the emotion to come through.”
While the exteriors and kitchen sequences were shot in Mumbai, the interior sequences were filmed over a 35-day schedule in Adelaide, Australia. “We got the film’s essence there,” says Kher, describing this more intense stretch of the shoot which while helping the film’s large international cast and crew to bond, also kept out the distractions unavoidable when shooting in Mumbai. There was a week-long workshop which Kher remembers as almost traumatic in its severity and simulation of actual events.
“Anthony wanted everybody to feel what it is to be trapped in a situation where you can be killed at any time… re-living that was a very difficult exercise,” he concedes. The audience too, he assures, will feel the claustrophobic effects of this.
While Kher believes that Hotel Mumbai is an important film for our times, it is also his 501st film, making it something of a “personal landmark”. It is his lack of fear of failure, he says, that has pushed him to experiment and resist sameness in his work over a 35-year career. On international endeavours moreover and especially when working with people personally unknown to him, he believes he tends to work even harder given the unfamiliarity of the situation. “On international projects, I feel like I am representing my country which actors don’t get to do officially… [On such occasions] you tend to give a little more than what you think you would do,” he says.
Kher who has been juggling Indian and international projects for years now, explains that it’s – both his need to reinvent himself as well as the challenge and attraction of working in a non-Hindi space – that keeps him alert and geared towards the new. He marvels at the professionalism on international sets but not without declaring: “I do miss the informality of Indian sets sometimes.”
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