Armie Hammer and Dev Patel star in an ensemble cast in director Anthony Maras’ fictionalized yet humanely real account of the Mumbai attacks, reminding us that some of Hollywood’s greatest pieces are sourced from reality.
The famed five-star Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai has one motto and one motto only for their staff: “guest is god.” It is uttered by chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) to his staff in the hotel kitchen right before the begin serving the dinner course during the time when the hotel will come under siege from four radical gunmen. It is based on the series of terrorist attacks that occurred in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 while the film recounts how the Taj’s guests and staff fought to survive those four days. Written as an ensemble piece, director Anthony Maras weaves various perspectives and ideologies into a tightly constructed narrative with enough subplots to keep the viewer intrigued and just the right number to not overwhelm the audience.
Dev Patel (delivering a subdued yet marvelous performance) plays a server under Chef Oberoi whose sudden task is to keep the guest alive when the attack breaks out. Armie Hammer is the American husband of Nazanin Boniadi, a South Asian celebrity who is trying to conceal her identity while their babysitter takes care of their child while they dine in the restaurant. Jason Isaac is a sleazy Russian businessman also present at the restaurant. Other lesser known faces bring to life other characters in the film such as the Mumbai police who infiltrate the hotel, Patel’s character’s wife, a young Aussie couple backpacking throughout India as well as the four terrorists who each bring a humaneness to their villainous characters. For all the subplots present, Maras keeps a tight leash on the film’s main narrative as we watch different characters weave in and out of each other’s stories. The use of real news footage on background television screens is a clever method of dealing with exposition and allows the plot to move along.
Most of the characters are fictional with only a handful based or inspired by real people. Thankfully, Maras and John Collee (screenwriter) don’t give white privilege an easy pass as the circumstances grow direr by the second. Maras expertly directs and guides the viewer through the maze of gorgeously produced rooms (thanks in part to Steven Jones-Evans’ production design), hallways and backdoor escapes that meant to recreate parts of the famed hotel. Nick Remy Matthews’ documentary-like cinematography along with the work of co-editors Maras and Peter McNulty weave together a wonderfully large canvas, making all of it feel like a claustrophobic horror film that unfolds in real-time.
Maras makes the decision of giving quite a chunk of the narrative to the four gunmen – an attempt to humanize each one of them. He uses the terrorists and their comedic moments in scenes (one scene shows one of them eating a pizza slice to which another of the gunmen tells him there is pork on it and he spits it out only to be told they’re vegetables… it was funny until they turned around shot a woman right in the head that was attempting to flee her room) to create different tonal shifts where the film’s otherwise tight pacing and structure begins to unwind in order to keep the dynamic and heft of the plot alive. The film’s graphic violence are horrific but even more horrific is the film’s real horror tension that Maras creates. In one scene, Hammer and Boniadi’s baby is crying in a closet with the nanny muffling the sound while gunmen are right outside the closet. The receptionists are held at gunpoint and are told to call guests’ rooms telling to unlock their doors so another gunmen can kill them.
Despite the various tonal shifts and the addition of humor in the script, Hotel Mumbai is an excellent, white-knuckle thriller and a crowd-pleaser of a film. It is an important depiction of a moment in history that is forgotten by Western civilization due to the importance and impact of another deadly event that happened a few years earlier in NYC. After the substantially scaled catastrophe comes to an end, the main question of Hollywood adaptations remains: what do we do with the film making dexterity when it serves an effort that feels exploitative and too soon rather than educative? Films like these are a marvel to watch especially when they are treated with such care and sensitivity. No matter what the public thinks, I will just sit back and wait for Maras’ next effort.
“Hotel Mumbai” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations Section. At press time, the film was released by Bleecker Street on March 22, 2019. It is currently available on DVD.
Director(s): Anthony Maras.
Screenwriter(s): John Collee, Anthony Maras – inspired by the documentary Surviving Mumbai.
Music by: Volker Berterlmann.
Cinematography: Nick Remy Matthews.
With: Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Nazanin Bondiadi, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs.