Director: Anthony Maras
There’s a scene in Hotel Mumbai that immediately brings to mind another film…a very different film. The head chef of the Taj Mahal Hotel gathers his staff minutes after it has become clear that the property is under attack from armed assailants. He tells his staff that they have a choice: they can stay, risk their lives and help the guests to safety, or they can escape through the rear door and return to their families. As the staff contemplates their choice, one elderly manager steps ahead, explains that he’s been with the hotel for over 30 years, that this is his life. So he’ll stay. That scene reminds you of a similar moment in Titanic. Like that film, Hotel Mumbai goes through the paces of a disaster movie. Yet it falls short. There are some chilling moments and strong performances, but it doesn’t have the throat-choking impact that you’d expect to feel from a film that recreates one of the most horrific tragedies of our times.
As you’re probably aware, Hotel Mumbai is based on the 26/11 terror attacks of 2008 in which 10 Pakistani terrorists laid siege on Mumbai and killed hundreds of innocent people. Soon after we see how the men arrived in tiny boats from the sea, the attacks unfold at CST railway station, near Metro Cinema, at Cama Hospital, and at Leopold Café. But the film focuses primarily on the incidents at the Taj, revealing in some detail how four men wreaked havoc on the luxury hotel, its terrified guests and heroic staff.
Australian director Anthony Maras reveals an eye for detail and leans towards reality as he sets up the characters, especially the backstory of Arjun, a poor waiter, played by Dev Patel, through whose perspective the film unfolds. The events are rooted in fact, yet the only real-life character on screen is the hotel’s head chef Hemant Oberoi, played by Anupam Kher, presented as a figure of nobility and courage. Other characters are inspired from the stories of real victims and survivors. Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi play a young couple enjoying a romantic dinner at the Shamiana while a nanny takes care of their infant in the suite upstairs. Jason Isaacs, in the role of a blunt Russian guest who’s holding a secret, provides some pithy relief.
The cold-blooded shooting scenes, and the parts where the guests are hunted by the terrorists (all four enacted credibly) evoke dread and claustrophobia. But it’s in the little details that the film falters. Background characters are crucial to this kind of film, but little effort appears to have gone into portraying them as anything but stereotypes. Despite its best intentions the film also fails to truly dig into the hearts and minds of those trapped between life and death. What was going through them, knowing that they were mere moments away from losing their lives? Even with the terrorists, we see how they’re goaded and galvanized into carrying out these dastardly acts by a voice on their phones invoking the Lord. A scene in which one of the men calls his father to check if money has reached his family hints at what they were promised in exchange for their commitment to the cause. But what was it actually like for these very young men, pulling the trigger and sending innocent men, women, and children to the grave? The film offers none of that insight.
Hotel Mumbai isn’t cheap or exploitative in its recreation of the tragedy. Yet it never goes beyond the obvious. The truth is that watching live news broadcasts of the hotel burning, and of guests escaping through windows and exits were far more horrific than any film that attempts to duplicate it. The events of 26/11 left many of us permanently scarred. It’ll take an extremely smart, sensitive, and insightful film to help us make any sense of it. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Hotel Mumbai. This is not that film.