Well-packaged drama chronicles real-world horrors
Hotel Mumbai (2019)
Directed by Anthony Maras
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher
A group of Islamic militants from Pakistan, wide-eyed young men, sneak into Mumbai by boat. They listen, via cellphone, to the voice of their leader, a fundamentalist terrorist bent on causing chaos on the streets of India. He speaks quietly but firmly, encouraging them to look in each other’s eyes and find strength for what is about to come. His words are comforting, almost hypnotic. The young men split up, get into taxis and melt into the city. At the same time, somewhere on the other side of that crowded metropolis, the chief of staff at the impossibly fancy Taj Majal Palace Hotel speaks to his staff. He issues orders with as much conviction and control to his own loyal staff. Guests’ names and tastes must be memorized, bath temperatures must be precise, hands and uniforms must be spotless. It will come as no surprise that these two highly regimented worlds, each operating on a clockwork schedule, are soon to collide. This masterfully constructed opening sequence sets the tone and trip hammer timing for Australian director Anthony Maras’ debut feature, the harrowing, based-
Set in 2008 the film laser focuses on one of India’s most infamous terrorist attacks, in which 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist group from Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across India’s most populous city. Hotel Mumbai moves almost in real time, dispensing with flashbacks or historical voice-overs to set its scene and moving forward with energy and urgency. Within minutes a tiny group of terrorists arrives in the Taj Hotel’s glorious lobby and simply opens fire on the staff and guests. Hundreds flee in terror, hiding in their rooms or in the hotel’s restaurant.
The restaurant’s exacting head chef, Hement Oberoi (Anupam Kher from Bend it Like Beckham and Silver Linings Playbook), does his best to calm guests and to keep his staff in line. Chief among that staff is a young Sikh waiter named Arjun (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire). Arjun has a pregnant wife at home and has been desperate to pick up as many shifts as possible at the hotel. Moments before the terrorists arrived, he was almost sent home for the day, having forgotten his proper work shoes. But Oberoi took pity on him, loaning him a pair of his own (undersized) shoes. That bit of fortune is about to turn sour. Among the notable guests are wealthy Iranian wife and mother Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “How I Met Your Mother”), her new American husband David (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) and their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). There’s also a mysterious Russian businessman (Jason Isaacs) and a couple of Australian tourists (Natasha Liu Bordizzo and Angus McLaren).
The attack soon turns into a hostage drama with the terrorists’ faceless leader trying to drag things out for maximum publicity. The tiny band of terrorists goes room to room, shooting people and looking for high-profile guests (American or British) to execute. Outside, the Mumbai police find themselves overwhelmed by the military hardware (machine guns, grenades) of the attackers. Instead of storming the hotel, they’re ordered to hold back and wait for a special forces group to arrive from New Delhi (a process that will take at least 8 hours). Inside, the staff bides its time and does its best to protect the guests. (In fact, the vast majority of those killed during the attack were hotel staff.)
There’s not a lot of backstory to any of the characters. Just enough to help us identify them and make us care a bit about their fate. David takes center stage for the hostages, trying desperately to work his way up the hotel tower and into his room where his nanny and baby daughter are trapped. Arjun stands in for the staff, with Dev Patel delivering the film’s most powerful performance. As a Sikh, Arjun is dedicated to the principals of bravery and honor. Of course he’s going to volunteer to help rescue the hotel guests. He has to. But Patel doesn’t play him as a swaggering, confident tough. Instead, he’s terrified and uncertain—and yet, unwilling to abandon his duty. It’s Patel’s performance that grounds the film and gives it its most emotional heart. There are a couple of moments when Isaacs’ character looks like he might go the Billy Zane in Titanic route, but the script—
The violence—and there is a lot—is presented as bluntly and as matter-of-fact as possible. An awful lot of very bad things happened inside the Taj Hotel back in 2008. And very few good things. It’s distressing to think that, more than a decade later, there are still just as many people in the world who believe that shooting and killing their neighbors is a good solution to the world’s problems. As a result Hotel Mumbai may not be the film many people are in the mood for right now. Watching it is like getting punched in the gut, repeatedly. Once you get started, though, it is an incredibly gripping tale—one that’s very hard to turn away from.
Given how fresh the story is in recent memory—and how timely it remains—this film could have been incredibly exploitative. One small slip and this becomes The Poseidon Adventure. Maras shows amazing skill and confidence, however—dramatizing events for maximum emotion, but laying them all out with the cold efficiency of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s hard to believe this is his first feature film.
Hotel Mumbai has the ensemble cast structure of an epic disaster movie and the disturbing visceral impact of a horror flick. But it leavens that with a white-knuckle narrative intensity and a respect for real-world events. You’d be hard-pressed to call it “entertainment.” And despite all its examples of human decency in the face of overwhelming evil, you couldn’t quite label it “uplifting.” Nonetheless, this empathetic drama is a crowd-pleasing exercise in human heroism, endurance and survival.