'Hotel Mumbai' preserves tragic history of terrorist attack
With terrorist attacks and mass shootings occurring regularly, it can be all too easy to forget or blur the details of some of the most dramatic, recent violent attacks. There's a sense of history being preserved and archived through the mediated lens of fiction filmmaking in Anthony Maras' "Hotel Mumbai."
Maras makes his directorial debut with the gripping, nearly minute-by-minute account of the carnage that unfolded in the grand Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai during the terror attacks of November 2008. It's a meticulous depiction of the events that is at once disturbing, yet also illuminating.
Maras plunges us right into the action as the terrorists, a group of 10 young Pakistani men wielding automatic weapons and grenades, land in the city via dinghy and then scatter and disperse via taxi, mowing down people at a train station and cafe. Although the attacks took place in 12 different locations in Mumbai, Maras keeps the focus of the film on the events at the hotel, a historic luxury property where "guest is god." The terrorists are about to slip in undetected with a group of their own victims seeking shelter from the gunfire and dig in for siege that lasts days.
Maras carefully lays out not only the geography of the hotel, but its routines, rhythms, rituals and culture — and most importantly, the people. He establishes an emotional arc for almost every staff member, from the chefs who choose to stay, wielding mallets and butcher knives, to the receptionists who would rather sacrifice their own lives than put guests in danger.
The events unfold through several different perspectives of the staff and guests. There's Arjun (Dev Patel), a young Sikh waiter who desperately needs the job, and his stern but empathetic boss, Chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher). A young family made up of an Indian heiress, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), her American husband, David (Armie Hammer), their baby and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) arrive for their stay and fatefully cross paths with a mysterious Russian playboy (Jason Isaacs).
But perhaps most interestingly, Maras and co-writer John Collee provide the perspective of the terrorists too, a bunch of incredibly young men hopped up on financial desperation and jihadi rhetoric. Clad in dingy T-shirts and jeans, they remorselessly murder innocent people, but we are privy to their private moments of vulnerability. They constantly have the voice of "Brother Bull" in their ear, promising them paradise, money for their families, justifying the murders in the name of Allah. That constant voice underscores how radicalism — of any kind — is a cult preying on vulnerable young men, exploiting their insecurities and extracting holy war from class struggle. To fully understand them would be impossible, but in their moments of weakness and panic, it's all too clear how human they are, which makes their actions that much more devastating.
Visceral and suspenseful, "Hotel Mumbai" is also deeply humane and moving, anchored by searing performances from Patel, Kher, Boniadi and Hammer. The film refuses to settle on one hero, allowing the hotel itself to emerge as the ultimate hero. At times it feels a bit strange to feel this emotional for an institution, but Maras never loses sight of the most important element: the people. Spreading the honor around seems only fitting for the group that experienced the tragic events.
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, Tilda Cobham-Hervey.
Directed by Anthony Maras.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
Rated R for disturbing violence throughout, bloody images, and language.