Movie review: Hotel Mumbai
The 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai resulted in the deaths of more than 170 people. Yet, until director Anthony Maras decided to dramatize the event in what proves a breathless two hours, the full dimensions of the tragedy never seemed to hit home.
Starring: Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs
Directed by: Anthony Maras
Running time: 123 minutes
By Katherine Monk
Either it’s a sign of the times, or the product of an aging brain, but the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai’s upscale Taj Hotel had already gone hazy on me. I had forgotten more than 500 guests and staff were trapped inside while gunmen carried out systematic executions of the innocent. Somehow, amid the torrent of current horrors, I lost track of the fact more than 170 people from over a dozen countries were murdered over the course of two days in attacks across the city.
Perhaps, this is why we need dramatized accounts of such events. We need to make sure they leave a mark on the collective psyche, a scar to remember the human trauma. Re-living the events through the eyes of survivors is the perfect tool, and it’s exactly what Anthony Maras offers in Hotel Mumbai.
Taking us to the very start of the jihadist siege, we watch a group of young men arrive by boat with machine guns. They are wearing earpieces and fan out across the city, obeying the orders of a man who urges for their martyrdom. One group attacks a train station, another a popular restaurant. Frightened tourists start flocking to the Taj, thinking the historic, five-star hotel will be the safest place to be — until gunmen arrive and open fire on everyone in the lobby.
That first sequence in the hotel is where director-writer Anthony Maras delivers the first salvo of psychological warfare. Not only is it where we feel our sense of western comfort shatter, it’s where he makes a risky but successful shift from narrative expectation and forces us to make a particularly disturbing realization: Nobody is safe.
He introduces us to many characters, but we can’t assume any of them will make it through. The traditional order of a scripted drama, where central characters deliver a pithy line and generate empathy, is blown to pieces mere minutes into the running time. As viewers, we’re suddenly in the same chaotic headspace as the guests: clutching at the familiar and seeking an exit.
He introduces us to many characters, but we can’t assume any of them will make it through. The traditional order of a scripted drama, where central characters deliver a pithy line and generate empathy, is blown to pieces mere minutes into the running time.
Even the police seem powerless. Stretched to their limit, and without a special weapons and tactical unit in Mumbai, law enforcement is waiting for backup from Delhi. It could take days for help to arrive, prompting the hotel chef, Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) to ask his staff to stay — at their own volition.
Surprisingly, most agree, feeling they know the hotel better than anyone else, giving them a good chance at surviving until rescue forces arrive. One of those volunteers is Arjun, a fictionalized composite played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). A father, a husband, a proud Sikh, Arjun is really just an ordinary man. Yet, faced with extreme circumstances, he finds himself doing extraordinary things.
This is the second phase of Maras’s victory. By blasting away all the walls that typically contain our experience into understandable chunks of information and assumption, the core human values that define “meaning” are laid bare. That doesn’t just mean we’re treated to beautifully redeeming moments of self-sacrifice for a loved one, or even a complete stranger. It also means we’re forced to reckon with what’s motivating the jihadist siege, and the attackers’ seemingly incomprehensible conviction they are martyrs to a holy cause.
Maras shows the villains as real people, too. It doesn’t make them any more sympathetic, but it strips away any sense of forced artifice, and keeps us fully in the midst of an all-too-real nightmare.
Marat shows the villains as real people, too. It doesn’t make them any more sympathetic, but it strips away any sense of forced artifice, and keeps us fully in the midst of an all-too-real nightmare.
At points, we’re seduced into hoping for a Hollywood ending. We watch a few brave police officers enter the building in an attempt to get to the CCTV room. We watch Armie Hammer try to save his wife and baby. But this isn’t Die Hard. Nor is it The Poseidon Adventure. As much as we might want it to be.
Hotel Mumbai is not documentary, yet it feels like we’ve borne witness to something undeniably real by the time it’s over. Marat spent years researching, interviewing staff and survivors, and even living in the Taj itself — so much of what we are seeing is based on personal testimony and archive. But the real barometer is the leaden feeling in your gut that follows you out the theatre, throbbing with nauseating knowledge that this is us — without narrative order, without clean sight lines but with just enough humanity to keep us hoping for redemption.
Main image: (From L-R) Nazanin Boniadi as “Zahra”, Dev Patel as “Arjun” and Armie Hammer as “David’ in director Anthony Maras’ HOTEL MUMBAI, a Bleecker Street release.
THE EX-PRESS, March 29, 2019