Book me a table at the Taj Mahal hotel restaurant, a dining experience where the “customer is god” and the servers are literally willing to put their lives in harm’s way to prove it. So goes the true story of the 2008 terror attacks in India as depicted in Hotel Mumbai, a dramatic thriller assembled with all the visceral horror of being trapped in a Jihad slaughterhouse that proves once and for all that terror attacks are super scary.
In November of 2008, 10 members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist group, managed to hold an entire city hostage, striking out in a dozen separate coordinated attacks across Mumbai that lasted a startling four days. As depicted in the film, the “men of God”, branding weapons of man, hole up in the Taj Hotel, mowing down guests and staff alike, punishing a world that dares to exist in modernity.
For the first half, Anthony Maras’ directorial debut is tight as a drum; a sick game of death-defying hide and seek set to the buzzing cacophony of assault weapon fire. It’s storytelling as gut-punch and Maras excellently stages the violence and dread so as to glean every ounce of suspense possible. But for what purpose? Beyond turning the real crisis into a vessel for “entertainment” and stating the obvious truth that terrorism is an abominable horror that’s absolutely terrifying to encounter firsthand this is a movie searching for meaning that doesn’t quite find a chance to justify its existing.
On the one hand, the movie is a touching tribute to the bravery of the Taj Hotel staff, who rather than flee at the first chance to secure their own safety, remain behind to lead their guests to safety. The flip side? The movie not so delicately portrays the ritualist slaughter of real people, hovering on the verge of exploitation and failing to give much texture to the conversation beyond depicting just how awful and terrifying being in the midst of a terrorist hive must be. It’s not as if we need further lecturing on how awful terror attacks are.
What Maras does well is steering away from puff-chested heroism, navigating into harrowing realism and avoiding Hollywood cliches of the action hero. This isn’t hostage situation as wish fulfillment. There’s no Harrison Ford to flip the script and retake the plane. No Marky Mark to pin down the enemy and save the day. It’s a tale of ordinary people, scared beyond their wit’s end, bonding together to save themselves. Equally, it’s a story of fundamentalism triumphing in the face of ineptitude – the fact that less than a dozen men could sack a city of tens of millions without a response team is mind-boggling; of evil minds punching down, convincing themselves they’re in the midst of a prize fight.
Though home to the Taj Mahal, Mumbai is far from the elite class consumerist culture that the attackers seem intent on lashing out at, their city completely devoid of any kind of task force able to respond to an attack of this magnitude. The victims lay in wake of rescue until they realize that their only way out is through their own volition. It’s hard to even think of a comparable situation breaking out in the United States where a company of merely ten men could wreak havoc for days without recourse and Hotel Mumbai makes a strong case for the humanity’s great capacity for compassion and camaraderie under duress, when government fails to protect its citizenry.
Themes of bonding together despite cultural differences are teased out in scenes that signal deeper meaning. Dev Patel’s Arjun, a sikh waitstaff, gently describes to a (totally racist) guest convinced that’s anyone who’s brown must be on the side of the terrorists how his turban (or dastaar) represents a sign of courage and strength. Us in the audience may pine for Arjun to verbally rip the old lady a new one but by extending an olive branch and approaching her feelings with great humility and humanity, hope for global community and peace takes root. Even in the midst of such culturally-motivated violence.
Like United 93 before it, Hotel Mumbai splits focus among the cast, which pulls from Hollywood and Bollywood alike and features strong performances from the likes of Patal, Nazanin Boniadi, Armie Hammer, Anupam Kher, and Jason Isaacs. As written by John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World ), the film does a fine job of shading the attackers as manipulated children, controlled by a shadowy voice on the other end of a call, and Collee and Maras maintain humanity in inhuman action, giving audiences a glimpse of the systematic brainwashing that results in such near-unbelievable atrocity.
Hotel Mumbai is nowhere near as nuanced as that great Greengrass effort nor is the pacing up to the same standards but Maras manages to create a gripping portrait of chaos and fear and horror, but one that somewhat lacks urgency and purpose and fails to define its existence. Further, Maras at times struggles to keep tabs on all the characters and doesn’t fully do justice to the hundreds of lives lost. But this isn’t quite movie as memorializing; it’s something between a meditation on extremism and a cheer for cross-cultural camaraderie. That it’s hard to point to the reason that this film exists can be troubling, but the fact that it’s well done and attempts to avoid sensationalism is all the consolation you can ask for. Now whether or not you want to put yourself through such an exhausting and unnerving experience is another question entirely.
CONCLUSION: A brutal watch, ‘Hotel Mumbai’ frightfully depicts the ground level nightmare of being trapped in a terrorist attack, if that’s the kind of movie you’re into watching.
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