When you were approached to do Hotel Mumbai, did you have any ethical doubts?
Anthony’s [Maras, director] vision was to make a film that doesn’t pull any punches. We didn’t give it a Hollywood treatment, we didn’t want to glamourise this movie. We wanted it to be raw. And also, not coming away from it thinking there’s black and white, there’s bad guys and good guys, the good guys are gonna be really cool like an action movie, and win, and it’ll be fine. We wanted to show that the toll of what this actually does.
And how they radicalise. What’s shocking for an audience is that they’re just young boys. Just kids. They come from poor parts of the outskirts of Pakistan where there are wars going on, and they’re perfect to be poached by these radicalist guys, and they come in and when they’re there, they come to this hotel and they’re fascinated by the way the toilets flush. They think it’s a paradise before paradise…
It doesn’t make you feel for them, but it makes you understand how they got to this place. I think that’s really important to paint a bigger picture so that people in governments and audiences can stop looking to get more and more guns; the way out of this is actually education.
What about the hostages, it seems that the message is to stick together?
I made my character a Sikh. I was dancing around doing the movie, but I hadn’t fully committed, and I met Anthony, and we ended up sitting for seven hours. And it turned into this script session, essentially, and I was like, ‘I want to say more with him’. It’s not a big character, it’s a big ensemble, we’re all supporting each other. But I read this article about these Sikh cab drivers that were being targeted and attacked after September 11th. And people calling them terrorists, and it completely got what they represented wrong. And I was like, this is an amazing story and an idea to put into our film. When terror strikes and people are in this pressure cooker, and they’re turning on each other and panicking, you look at this man with the big beard and a turban and to the uncultured eye he looks like a terrorist.
That turban and beard is actually something far more noble and gracious. This is a community that’s underrepresented in cinema, and I wanted to give them a voice essentially. And I think it’s a really beautiful metaphor for the film. When I did research for the movie, I went to these Sikh places in Mumbai, and they had these amazing, big, Gurdwaras, these temples where they gave free food for the poor every day. And free healthcare. And there was this banner on the wall that said, “Mērī pagg, mērī, which means my pagg, my turban, is my pride. And I thought wow, it made me feel emotional
But yes, it’s about togetherness. We’re all the same.
Can you speak about David Copperfield? It’s been announced as a turning point in cinema, how important is for you to break this kind of barrier?
I’m so grateful to Armando Iannucci, the director, for hiring me. And even I was confused when he called me. I was like, ‘are you sure you want to go down this path? Because people are going to give you trouble’. And he was just like, ‘I want to get the character right. I don’t care about the colour of his skin, the colour of his hair. That’s silly. I want to get my emotion of my film told correctly. That’s what my job is as a director’.
And that made me feel very indebted to him. I know there are certain instances where you’re being a likeness of someone, but David Copperfield was a character in a book, so it could’ve been anything. I think it’s amazing that you can have that freedom to just cast the best actor for the role.
How do you feel the diversity in Hollywood now?
I feel proud. That was a community in particular – the Asian community – that was very underrepresented. I got onto filmmaking because I liked Bruce Lee. If you come to my house in America, you’ll see an old Enter the Dragon poster as soon as you enter, then in the guest bedroom there’s one of Fist of Fury, you see Bruce Lee everywhere. He was one of the first guys with pigment, Asian pigment in his skin, that I looked up to. He had dark hair like me, and brown skin, and he was a leading man. And I just thought he was the coolest, as a kid. I feel a great affinity to the culture, and I think it’s fantastic, and hopefully Crazy Rich Asians marks the beginning of more films like Slumdog did for India.
Do you feel that you’re becoming this idol for Indian kids, or for people of different ethnicities?
Oh, never. I have naturally low self-esteem, so I never think that I’m anybody, it’s very shocking when I come here, and people are shouting my name. It’s very strange, I feel … it’s confronting, but I feel a deep sense of humility by it, because of it. But I hope people can see that I’m trying to take risks and dive into characters and give life to stories that haven’t been given in cinema. That’s what I’m here to contribute, that’s what I feel my purpose is. I hope people like the work I do.
Hotel Mumbai is in cinemas March 14, 2019