Director: Anthony Maras
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher
Duration: 2 hours, 5 minutes
As someone who has spent almost two decades in the city, I can precisely recall the events of only a handful of nights. 26/11 – the 2008 Mumbai attacks – is one of them. I know exactly where I was when I heard about the news, I know what I was drinking, I can even smell the plate of food on my table. I remember my cab driver wondering if the terrorists were inching towards the suburbs. I remember telling a friend that we are practically living in a movie. Which is why watching Hotel Mumbai is a strange experience.
At some points, you are revisioning the night through a pair of virtual reality glasses. The hotel, the tension, the tears, the horror of being hunted down by boys casually pumping bullets into bodies as if they were watering a garden. It’s all very distressing; it’s all very thrilling. At other points, you are reminded that this is a film. For instance, the disaster movie trope: The opening moments overplay the personality of a character – noble, sweet, sleazy – so that we empathize with them without discrimination in the heat of the battle. They look like something bad is about to happen: Dev Patel is a Sikh waiter who is rushing to work at the Taj with a face that suggests he will be a jittery hero. Anupam Kher is a no-nonsense head chef whose integrity will be tested to the hilt. Armie Hammer, the American with an Arab-British wife and baby and Australian nanny in tow, is so good-looking that he is destined to be chased. Jason Isaacs is a vile Russian who is busy choosing his favourite escorts for the night. One of the terrorists sings something close to an Allah song at dawn, while another weeps after a phone call to his father. Yet another is conflicted about killing a Muslim guest. They are all, visibly, doomsday-drama “characters” – more on the lines of a Roland Emmerich Mojito than a Paul Greengrass Martini. Each of them is designed to represent a narrative track at a different corner of the building.
Hotel Mumbai, as a film, gets a lot of things right. The sepia colour tone, for example, effectively conveys the heat and grime of a humid city on fire
More interesting is the manner in which the filmmaker positions the Pakistani terrorists. Their juvenility is over-exposed right from the beginning – the careless Punjabi, the crass banter, the dead-eyed fury – so that we feel disoriented by the sight of machine guns in their hands. We see a lot of them – strolling, shooting, chuckling, cursing. They even quarrel about pizza slices (“Is this a Western paratha?”) and marvel at “automatic toilet flushes”. It might seem exploitative at times, but this works in context of the big picture: Only such unlettered minds can have been brainwashed so thoroughly. As a result, it’s unnerving to see them switch between boyishness and boisterous violence in a split second. The actors playing them are competent; they convey a fair bit even through the act of spraying bullets. They make something as unassuming as an “Oye!” sound ominous – the more normal they sound, the more disturbing it becomes to digest the carnage. You sense, through their “performances,” that these are people who aren’t quite intelligent enough to know what guns can do. Or how deeply they can hurt.
Hotel Mumbai, as a film, gets a lot of things right. The sepia colour tone, for example, effectively conveys the heat and grime of a humid city on fire. Dev Patel is nothing if not sincere. The very concept of a popular British-Asian actor playing a pure-bred Indian is an underdog one; he drives the do-or-die desperation of the narrative with this vibe. The makers also understand that the only way they can dramatize an already dramatic true story is by lending a face to it. A few background-score flourishes aside, there is no theatrical grandstanding; the suspense is bare-boned and the camera often appears like it is caught in the cross-fire.
Thankfully, given that the director is Australian, we don’t see the whitewashing of the police or commandos or the decision-making machinery. They are absent and ill-prepared, even the media is portrayed as intrusive and detrimental
But what this movie truly excels at is its uncomplicated treatment of space. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a hostage-survival-terrorist thriller spread across several floors of a multi-storied – and largely unfamiliar – building. Most makers of course cheat with the locations and assemble the shots together to make it seem like a continuous motion of space. Often, as a viewer, it gets difficult to chart a sense of spatial geography. Little questions rankle: If the guy jumped out that window, how did he fall there? If the floor broke in the corner, why is the door on the other side? But Hotel Mumbai is clear, almost video-gamey, in its demarcation of levels: There’s the lobby, circular and dangerous, where one of them is always lurking. There’s the group hiding in the Shamiana restaurant, in a corridor but in plain sight of the lobby. The safety stairs door opens right opposite the restaurant. The Chambers – where the brave head chef elevates the “Guest is God” rule into an art form – is on the sixth floor, and is the safest room in the hotel. The nanny and baby are hiding on the fourth floor, in a room to the right of the elevator down the hall. It’s rare to be able to tell who is where in an action movie, but somehow you know precisely when a character will appear after exiting the previous frame. The hotel seems to have been reconstructed with shot-taking, action and blocking in mind. This contributes to the panic and chaos and claustrophobia of a film in which people – as well as viewers – are always looking for a way out.
Hotel Mumbai concludes powerfully and hopefully and sentimentally; the wail of a baby and the sight of bare feet acquire a near-profound level of symbolism
Thankfully, given that the director is Australian, we don’t see the whitewashing of the police or commandos or the decision-making machinery. They are absent and ill-prepared, even the media is portrayed as intrusive and detrimental. I remember being baffled by how a siege in India’s financial capital can go on for so long without official interference – the film offers frustrating, but necessary, answers. Sometimes, there are no answers. The ending is a bit reminiscent of the Naomi Watts starrer, The Impossible, in which a vacationing family is torn apart by the 2004 tsunami crashing onto Thailand beaches. Hotel Mumbai concludes powerfully and hopefully and sentimentally; the wail of a baby and the sight of bare feet acquire a near-profound level of symbolism.
Most tragedies don’t deserve to be immortalized by cinema. This is a unique case, however, in which cinema is briefly immortalized by tragedy. I can’t imagine a more efficient way to lend flesh and blood to the remembrance of that night. Maybe when I look back ten years later, I’ll recall the precise events – the waiter, the chef, the nanny, and the foolhardy cop who went in with just a pistol. The memories of being there and not being there at once.