Ordinary man of extraordinary courage

Updated: Nov 10, 2019, 07:27 IST | Mohar Basu | Mumbai

How does Anupam Kher play a convincing Hemant Oberoi, grand executive chef at The Taj at the time of the 26/11 terror attacks, without having met him?

An Indian soldier aims his weapon towards The Taj Mahal hotel on November 29, 2008. Three militants were killed in the final assault on the hotel that signalled the end of the two-day assault on Mumbai. Pic/ Getty Images
An Indian soldier aims his weapon towards The Taj Mahal hotel on November 29, 2008. Three militants were killed in the final assault on the hotel that signalled the end of the two-day assault on Mumbai. Pic/ Getty Images

In the banquet hall of a suburban hotel, Hemant Oberoi paces up and down. Not many recognise one of the city's most famous chefs, now the owner of restaurants in Mumbai, Singapore and San Diego. Just then Anupam Kher walks in, spots Oberoi and makes a dash to give him a hug.

Kher plays Oberoi in the upcoming Anthony Maras thriller, Hotel Mumbai. It tells the story of what transpired at The Taj Mahal Palace & Towers at Apollo Bunder on the night of November 26, 2008, when militants from the Lashkar-e- Taiba stormed the five-star in a series of coordinated attacks. The hotel was the perfect target, a symbol of Mumbai's progress and pride and a catchment areas for foreign guests.

It's been over 10 years, but Oberoi's voice dips when he speaks of the night when his staff intervened to save the lives of scores of visitors by forming a human chain. "We just stuck to each other that night. No one wanted to leave. The courage of that team is rare to find. I lost seven chefs, including my deputy, who walked me home every night until then."

Incidentally, Kher and Oberoi have met only once before this chat, at the Toronto International Film Festival last year where the film premièred. "I did the film without meeting him [Oberoi]. That night at TIFF, Chef was the special guest. I remember the standing ovation we got. It was never-ending. It was the triumph for his courage. I am glad we are finally getting time to spend time today and I also had the privilege to serve him food cooked at my home," Kher says warmly, which Oberoi quickly calls "delicious and made with love". It was simple lunch, they tell us, of aloo methi, dal and roti, with dahi on the side. It's the rare time Kher and Oberoi are smiling.

A mention of 26/11 brings back the seriousness to the discussion, as Kher recounts that he was in Bandra that night. "Everyone remembers two incidents of terror in modern world history—9/11 and 26/11. When I was told that I would play Chef Oberoi, I was nervous. What would his reaction be? It wasn't just about how well I could act. There was a lot more at stake. [It was] a portrayal of someone's intensity and normalcy in a time of adversity."

Oberoi has not said anything about the film to Kher except, thank you.

"He was absolutely and totally me. He got every nuance right. My demeanour, the way I command the kitchen. No one could have done it as beautifully. He was composed in every shot and knew exactly how I managed things that night. He brought back way too many memories."

Kher turns to him to say, "This [the complement] is bigger than any award."

Hemant Oberoi and Anupam Kher. PIC/ASHISH RAJEHemant Oberoi and Anupam Kher. Pic/ Ashish Raje

We wonder how he prepped without meeting the man he plays, and Kher shares that five minutes before the first shot was taken for his debut film, Saaransh, director Mahesh Bhatt told him that this was a character who was all about compassion. Compassion had to be the dominating emotion in the film. "It was the same with this film too, 500 movies after I did my first," Kher says.

On cue, Oberoi him that he named his child Saaransh after he watched the 1984 film about a retired school teacher and his wife coming to terms with the death of their only child who is killed in a mugging incident in New York. "Because I loved him in the film [I named my son after it]. Incidentally, Saaransh's wedding was the first event to be hosted at the Taj after it was restored and reopened post 26/11. I wanted to do it to put the message out there that you can't break our spirit."

Kher credits his performance to the script, which he calls unflinchingly honest in its depiction of the chef's character. Kher and Oberoi concede that their favourite scene is the one towards the middle of the film when Kher announces to his staff that they can leave the hotel if they want [to be safe]. "One of my staffers had to undergo dialysis every day. Even he didn't leave. 'Saath mein chalenge'," he had said. He passed on recently, but survived that night," Oberoi remembers. And so, while the story is of the horrors that unfolded leading to the death of 166 people across the city, the film reinstates faith in the human spirit. "It's about the heroism of ordinary people. We need to bring examples of extraordinary courage to the fore," Kher feels.

Oberoi carries on his face a calmness that Kher beautifully portrays. Chef says he draws serenity from the sea. "The high and low tide come and go. Marine Drive is my place to find peace. I believe in karma and destiny. When you see people closest to you dying, you want to celebrate life. Fishermen that night hailed three cabs to take me to various hospitals so that I could track down my staff scattered across wards and morgues."

Despite this, an international review snubbed the film, calling it out for depicting terrorism in a popcorn movie. Kher brushes aside the criticism. "It suits them when they want to make a film about World War and the Holocaust. When it comes to India, we can't make such films. Let's ignore the international media. There should be films made on such subjects. It is a fact that 10 people from a neighbouring country came here and killed the innocent. This film needs to be screened in India."
An unfazed Oberoi has the final word. "I want people to remember to do good deeds, be humane. You never know when you can find yourself in a similar situation. Help others. We also had the option [to escape] but it's necessary to not fall for the trap that takes us further away from human values."

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