After a long day on the Adelaide set of thriller Hotel Mumbai, Dev Patel didn’t find the prospect of collapsing into bed as inviting as he might have.
“Once you’ve been in a mock terrorist situation for three months, it can soak into your pores,” Patel, 28, told The New Daily.
“You end up walking from your fake hotel set to your real hotel set at 4 in the morning after a tiring day of hearing fake gunshots and seeing blood everywhere, and then you’re kind of scoping for the exits.
“But we’re lucky, we’re just silly actors that wear make-up and costumes and it’s all make-believe. But it was lived, it did happen.”
On November 26, 2008, terrorists stormed the historic, five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, one of 12 coordinated attacks in the bustling city that lasted three days and killed 164 people.
The seven-storey Taj became a war zone where guests and staff fought for their lives amid explosions and automatic gunfire. Out of the mayhem and bloodshed, moving accounts of bravery and selflessness emerged which profoundly impacted director and co-writer Anthony Maras.
Inspired by the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai, the Adelaide filmmaker went on to conduct more than 40 interviews with survivors in preparation for Hotel Mumbai, his feature-film debut.
“We went to the Taj and walked the same hallways and corridors the guests were in,” says Maras, who met real-life players including the Taj’s former grand executive chef, Hemant Oberoi (played by Anupam Kher.)
From the kitchens, the chef calmly shepherded a group of terrified guests around the hotel in an attempt to evade the attackers.
“Being there in the flesh and speaking to the people who to this day still work there … it puts a huge responsibility on your head to try and tell the story right.”
While he signed up other stars including Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi, Maras only ever had Patel in mind to play Arjun, the Sikh waiter whose quiet compassion and courage fills the screen.
“I’m proud of him, I aspire to be him,” says the softly-spoken Patel, who was born in London to Indian immigrants. Oscar nominated for 2016’s Lion, he won a swag of awards – a BAFTA, Screen Actors’ Guild – for his breakout role in 2008 smash Slumdog Millionaire.
“I think good filmmaking can be entertaining and can also feed people their vegetables without them knowing it.”
Adds Maras: “You’ve got a film about terrorism and you’ve got a building under siege, but there’s no Bruce Willis.
“You’ve got a hero who doesn’t fire a shot, who doesn’t throw a punch, who doesn’t say a curse word. As James Dean once said, ‘to be truly strong you must be gentle’.”
The taekwondo specialist (he who won a bronze medal at the 2004 martial arts world championships) relished camaraderie – and “the South Australian wine and good food”, he adds, with a laugh – fostered by Maras on set.
“It’s like what happened in the hotel, people came together to get through it and we came together as a cast,” says Patel, who’s reportedly dating his Australian Hotel Mumbai co-star Tilda Cobham-Hervey, 24.
“We’re all kind of snotty and bloody and terrified in a lot of that film, so you have to feel very comfortable with the people you’re with. It’s a very exposing space.”
Hotel Mumbai opens nationally on March 14.