Director: Anthony Maras
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher
Duration: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Evil is a mystifying word. Most of us routinely encounter corruption, lies, betrayal, deceit. What then properly qualifies as evil? The events of 26/11 gave an answer to that. No matter where you were that night – near the multiple attack sites or lucky enough to be far away – if you were in Mumbai, you experienced the heart of darkness. The attacks, which lasted over three days from November 26th to 29th and were orchestrated by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, killed more than 160 people. I remember the horror of watching the bloodbath unfold on television, the siege mentality that engulfed the city and the wild rumors that fanned our paranoia. Even when the attacks were over, I was terrified to send my children to school because an anonymous SMS forward insisted that schools were the next target. We were all scarred – in ways big and small.
In Hotel Mumbai, writer-director Anthony Maras and co-writer John Collee revisit the first night of the three days the terror lasted. The focus is the attack on Mumbai’s crown jewel – the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Why the Taj? I’m assuming because the opulence of a landmark hotel makes for cinematic visuals and it allows the narrative to be led by Western characters, meaning you can cast Armie Hammer. A disclaimer tells us that the film is inspired by true events but the makers have taken dramatic liberties so we can’t hold Hotel Mumbai up for accuracy. Once again, we are in the tricky terrain of the fact-fiction hybrid. Anupam Kher plays Hemant Oberoi, the Taj’s iconic chef who helped save many lives by hiding guests in the Chambers club. Dev Patel plays Arjun, the waiter who exemplifies the Taj motto that the guest is God. We also follow the story David and Zahra, a married couple with a baby. He is American. She is Arabic. We are repeatedly told that Zahra’s mother is fantastically rich and the two must get VIP treatment. This includes the butler making sure that the bath water is exactly at 48 degrees.
The Indian characters – especially Oberoi and Arjun – have emotional heft and benefit from heartfelt performances by Anupam and Dev Patel. But the non-Indians are bland and largely forgettable
The hotel is an island of luxury. Maras alternates between the carnage that is unfolding on the street as the attacks begin on VT Station and Leopold Café and the precisely manufactured elegance at the Taj. We cut from blood and bullets to perfectly done pastries. But of course, soon enough, the killers are in the lobby. There are obviously no surprises here. The events have been extensively documented in news media. There are several documentaries on the attack including Dan Reed’s Emmy-nominated Terror in Mumbai. Fiction gives Maras the advantage of building drama and situating us inside the hotel on that fateful night. Like Paul Greengrass did with the stellar United 93 about one of the airplanes that was hijacked on 9/11. But Hotel Mumbai doesn’t deliver that level of tension or immersion. It works in fits and starts.
The scripting is uneven. The Indian characters – especially Oberoi and Arjun – have emotional heft and benefit from heartfelt performances by Anupam and Dev Patel. But the non-Indians are bland and largely forgettable – Hammer is wasted in the role of David. Jason Isaacs playing an unlikable Russian businessman Vasili is also too generic to make an impression. Maras and Collee try to give us insight into the minds of the terrorists but the actors are one-note, which may be by design because the characters have been brainwashed into killing machines but it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.
I just wish that the film didn’t insist on a patriotic slant at the end or tell us that Mumbai bounced back in two days – it feels like an empty assertion
Maras is more successful at staging the horrors of that night – it’s chilling to see the killers knock on doors pretending to be room service or laundry and then unleashing bullets when the guest opens. But there are sequences that feel designed to create suspense – so of course at some point, the baby is being hidden in a closet and we have to hold our breaths, hoping that it won’t cry.
And yet, Hotel Mumbai lands enough emotional punches. The scale and extent of the tragedy is too vast to leave you unmoved. I just wish that the film didn’t insist on a patriotic slant at the end or tell us that Mumbai bounced back in two days – it feels like an empty assertion. There was enough heroism and humanity on display during the attacks to give us hope for a better tomorrow.