Far from being the latest entry in the Hotel Cinematic Universe (a sprawling series that includes ‘Million Dollar Hotel’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’, 'Hotel Transylvania', ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and ‘Hotel Artemis’), South Australian director Anthony Maras’s feature film debut is a nerve-shredding thriller that recounts the 2008 siege of the famed Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists in Mumbai, India.
As a group of young men from an Islamic terrorist group based in Pakistan arrive by small inflatable boat in the densely populated city on India’s west coast, scenes showing life in the city’s chaotic streets are juxtaposed with those highlighting the opulence and extravagance of the Taj, where staff work tirelessly to cater for their VIP guests’ every whim. Open since December 1902, the hotel has been at the forefront of Indian high society ever since, hosting dignitaries and celebrities along the Colaba waterfront in Mumbai.
Similar to the opening 20 minutes of Paul Greengrass’ ‘July 22’, about the 2011 Norway attacks and their aftermath, the feeling of foreboding is already high as locals and tourists are shown going about their business on what they believe will be another ordinary day yet which turns out to be extraordinarily horrific.
When the terrorists launch their relentlessly brutal wave of attacks in twelve different locations around the city, the feeling of sheer panic, fear and desperation is intense – and it doesn’t let up for the full two hours of the film. Eventually, hidden within a frantic crowd seeking shelter, the terrorists infiltrate the hotel...
Among the dedicated hotel staff is the renowned chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher, 'The Big Sick') and a waiter, Arjun (Dev Patel, 'Lion', ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’) who choose to risk their lives to protect their guests because “Guest is God”. As the world watches on, a desperate couple, David (Armie Hammer, 'Call Me By Your Name', 'Free Fire') and Zahara (Nazanin Boniadi) is forced to make unthinkable sacrifices to protect their newborn child. Floating on the periphery are nanny Sally (Cobham-Hervey) and sleazy Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs, who seems to have been cast purely for his juicy accent from 'The Death of Stalin').
Based on the 2009 documentary “Surviving Mumbai” by Victoria Midwinter Pitt and adapted by screenwriter John Collee, ‘Hotel Mumbai’ offers a number of different perspectives, including from the police officers who were able to do little to combat the terrorists while they waited many long hours for special forces to arrive. One of the most shocking things – aside from the fact that 164 people were eventually killed and another 308 injured – is that it occurred over several days. There was much controversy at the time over the Indian government’s inability to get a military force to Dubai for an extraordinary amount of time. It’s a credit to the film that it is unafraid to explore this.
Although the terrorists are callous killers who believe fervently in their mission, glimpses are also offered of their naivety and vulnerability. In particular, Imran (Amandeep Singh) one of the most murderous, is shown speaking to his father on the phone and holding back tears when he’s told the money the terrorist organization promised his family hasn’t arrived. It’s another bold choice and something that director Paul Greengrass touched on with his film ‘United 93’, which chronicled events aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it was hijacked during the September 11 attacks of 2001.
There are also some neat little character moments exploring India's class and racial gulf, like a panicked white guest (Carmen Duncan, 'Turkey Shoot') who feels threatened by Arjun’s turban, and also accuses Zahra of being a terrorist in a moment of pure Agatha Christie. Arjun patiently explains the cultural significance of his headgear as a Sikh man, an ironic scene in light of the history of the building in which their conversation takes place (pioneering Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata decided to build the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel after being refused entry to Bombay’s “whites only” Watson’s Hotel).
On a technical level, the film is impressive. The interior of the hotel was recreated with exceptional care to detail on a sound stage in Adelaide. All of the action is lensed by cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews, who transitions from the dusty browns and muddy reds of the Indian streets to the neutral tones of the Taj without losing any of the impact.
Still, while the massacre in ‘The Hotel Mumbai’ is confronting and relentless, it avoids becoming numbing or excessive (albeit, barely).
While today’s audiences could be forgiven for being somewhat desensitized to screen violence, the terror in ‘Hotel Mumbai’ feels particularly potent. That’s partly because it is based on real events, but it can also be credited to clever direction, a taut narrative and slick cinematography; the viewer is made to feel like they are there with the hostages, and with each terrifying twist and turn around the labyrinthine corridors of the Taj, we don’t know who will live or die. There is also some button-pushing manipulation on behalf of the filmmaker, particularly concerning the fate of David and Zahara’s baby, and there are perhaps too many scenes of innocent victims being shot at point blank range by the terrorists, with the camera refusing to cut away or having it done out of frame. Still, while the massacre in ‘The Hotel Mumbai’ is confronting and relentless, it avoids becoming numbing or excessive (albeit, barely).
However, ‘Hotel Mumbai’ isn’t without some weakness in its execution.
While each of the actors puts in a dedicated performance, many of the characters performed by the bigger actors are given a lot more screen time in comparison to far more interesting ones. Meanwhile, characters like butler Jamon - a consummate professional who continues serving drinks to ease the nerves of the guests - are relegated to the background. Or, like the two police officers who decide to engage the terrorists in a shoot-out instead of waiting for Special Forces to arrive - fade away entirely. Luckily, we are given a multi-faceted depiction of Arjun. Patel is the standout of the film, continuing on from his great work in the 2016’s ‘Lion’, which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nod. Patel’s emotive facial expressions and his reassuring presence provide a necessary emotional counterweight to the film’s scenes of bloodshed.
There is also an occasional awkwardness in condensing so many individual stories into a fictionalised retelling of true events for maximum cinematic impact. Think Peter Berg’s 'Patriot's Day', about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent terrorist manhunt, where Mark Wahlberg played a Wahlberg-ishly fictional composite character involved in all the major events. Again, ‘Hotel Mumbai’ just manages to balance an innate need to exploit the tragic scenario, respect those who lost their lives, and avoid overly romanticising its portrayal.
Despite some roughness around the edges, ‘Hotel Mumbai’ is a haunting portrayal of an atrocity and a powerful, armchair-gripping thriller with a strong ensemble cast, confident direction and a brave commitment to realism. It’s a harrowing vantage point of a terrible event.