Hotel Mumbai, director Anthony Maras’ graphic depiction of the 2008 terrorist attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, is not a movie to be enjoyed. It is a movie to be endured. A fictional account of the real-life tragedy, the film is harrowing, unflinching in its depiction of violence, and disturbing for its turn into action movie territory, but there’s no denying the gripping tension and the heroism it aims to celebrate.
Co-written by Maras and John Collee (Master and Commander), Hotel Mumbai takes a familiar action movie approach which may be due to the real-life event being largely unfamiliar to American audiences. This was November 2008, after all, just days after the most historic election in this country’s history, and understandably we were focused on domestic issues. The world community will never forget what happened to India over the course of those four days when Islamic extremists from Pakistan struck multiple locations in Dubai, killing indiscriminately up and down the city before discreetly entering the luxury hotel. There they wouMarasld kill 34 more people and take numerous hostages as others hid in secret.
Characters are sketched in broad strokes, just enough that we can maybe connect with one or two, or at least be able to tell them apart when/if they should meet a violent end. Dev Patel is the closest thing to a lead actor, playing Sikh waiter Arjun, a husband and father with easily relatable everyman traits (He’s late for work! He forgot his shoes!) that mark him as the one we are meant to care for most. His boss is the tough-but-fair Hement (a real person played by Anupam Kher), who teaches his team that “Guest is God”. It’s a mindset that would come into play in ways he and Arjun could never have predicted.
The terrorists sought out the Taj because of the extravagant wealth of its guests, to break with bullets the veneer of safety afforded by their wealth and privilege. The slaughter is brutal, and Maras holds nothing back in showing the killings. Young, old, man, woman, child…all are gunned down by a handful of young extremists who see their victims as less than human. Among the guests staying at the hotel are new parents David and Zahara (Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi), who because of their apparent wealth and status as outsiders make decent targets for ransom. Another is a brutish Russian playboy (Jason Isaacs, struggling with the accent) known for throwing wild, lavish orgies the hotel employees keep secret. Out of this chaos, a small group of hotel employees, including Arjun and Hement, stay behind and risk their lives to keep the guests safe. These not-so-simple acts of heroism form the backbone of Hotel Mumbai, but is hardly an oasis from all of the bloodshed.
There’s a difficult balancing act that a movie like Hotel Mumbai must walk. Maras captures the scale and lethality of the attacks with detached efficiency, which has an unsettling, even chilling effect. In time the rising body count and Maras’ unwavering portrayal of it becomes too much to handle, and the film just becomes unpleasant. It’s tempered by the ensemble’s performance, in particular Patel who is an actor with an uncanny ability to connect with viewers regardless of the role. Arjun’s struggle finds him facing discrimination from the very people he has risked his life to protect. It’s an avenue for exploration I wish Maras had more time to commit to. A couple of curious choices feel like Maras giving in to the demands of a big Hollywood action-thriller. A detour involving David and Zahara’s nanny as she tries to quiet their screaming baby is like something out of a totally different movie, while an attempt to humanize the terrorists by revealing their dire financial circumstances comes out of left field. Are we supposed to feel bad for them because they’re poor, and have been manipulated by those who have exploited their faith? Even though we’ve just watched them murder dozens of people in cold blood? If the point is to make us think about their situation, fine, but it’s probably best saved for a movie with more time to spend on that question.
Hotel Mumbai is probably not going to be a film you’ll want to stomach repeatedly but the people who are deserving of our attentions, the hotel staff who saved the lives of their clients regardless of race or religion, are worthy of braving it at least once.