Hotel Mumbai, 2019.
Directed by Anthony Maras.
Starring Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and Anupam Kher.
The true story of the victims and survivors of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, focusing on the residents and staff of the Taj Hotel.
Some events are so abhorrent, so unspeakably horrific and off-putting to the senses, they needn’t be retold through the art of film. Hotel Mumbai is one such feature; based on the horrendous 2008 coordinated Mumbai attacks, which saw the deaths of more than 166 people across the city during three days of “indiscriminate terror”. Debutant filmmaker Anthony Maras envisions the nightmare with solid craft, but the question isn’t how effective the experience is; it’s why we needed it in the first place.
The clearest inspiration here is Greengrass, telling the fatal tale in a very straight, top-to-bottom fashion (with even the subtly shaky cam from DP Nick Remi Matthews to place you more organically in the chaos). But Maras’ effort is less polemic, more overview, not digging deep into the motives of the terrorists (their continuous religious encouragements to one another is about as much as you get) to give you something to grapple with other than superficial shock at the sights, rather than the wider context.
Anchoring the stacked ensemble is Dev Patel, a husband, father and loyal waiter at the Taj Hotel, who like his co-workers, follows the mantra that the “guest is god”. When the surrounding city is thrown into hysteria by multiple shootings and bombings (the attack on a local cafe packs a visceral thump), the staff of the hotel selflessly stick around to help protect those whose exotic home-away-from-home has turned into a war zone. Amidst the scuttling residents are newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), along with their baby and nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). There’s also a Russian womanising aristocrat (Jason Isaacs), who’s immediately repulsive but develops, you guessed it, into somewhat of a nice guy.
The bulk of the film is their continuous struggle to remain safe as the terrorists ruthlessly murder anyone they see in cold-blood. These moments are particularly hard to watch, Maras quite fearlessly showing buckets of blood-shed and only cutting away for deaths that would breach the line of taste. The four assailants are terrifying to watch (Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi and Gaurav Paswala), going through the motions of dedication, pain, and maybe, just maybe, slight guilt as they unload their weaponry onto innocent civilians.
Maras imbues the runtime with an almost constant tension, any glimmers of hope shunned by bullets and kickstarting another ticking clock till the next kill. If A Quiet Place played with the concept of having an infant during disarray, Hotel Mumbai goes full on excruciating with one particular sequence in a cupboard with a crying child – to the point that in the cinema, the cacophony of breathing in the room almost overpowered the surround sound. Although, there are times where it feels more like a palm-sweating exercise that disobeys logic, times where characters leg it across a lobby and manage to go unheard, despite their heeled shoes clattering along the marble floor.
Bizarre flourishes flow through the direction and the script; the latter more-so, sequences spliced with jarring comedy that fail in their efforts to diffuse the impact of the ordeal (Isaacs’ character quips of an older woman scared of the waiters: “She looks like she hasn’t been fucked in 10 years, minimum”). There’s some iffy green-screen usage as the effects become more heavy on the hotel exterior, but in coming from a career in short films to this, Maras’ ambition manages to achieve an unsettling level of verisimilitude.
It’s easy to get caught up in the sweeping closing shots, with the hugely powerful music from Volker Bertelmann and the tear-jerking agony in Patel’s eyes (who, predictably, is the best part of the movie – capturing the courageous soul of the employees, even in their panic). But don’t forget a few things: the script is, tonally, a strange product; Hammer is wasted in a role that requires little development outside the hero-father archetype; and ultimately, what was the point? To scare the audience? To inform in the most basic, primal way? Frustratingly, there’s little to learn from Hotel Mumbai – except a harrowing insight into how the attacks unravelled, and the response system that let the people down.
Maras’ film is, expectedly, tough to watch; an asphyxiating recreation of a massacre, lacking in a point of view to give it purpose.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★