Synopsis – The true story of the Taj Hotel terrorist attack in Mumbai. Hotel staff risk their lives to keep everyone safe as people make unthinkable sacrifices to protect themselves and their families.
My Take – For Indians all over the world, the date 26/11 has been marked with blood in recent history. As on the night of Nov. 26, 2009, a group of 10 young members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist organization based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks that lasted four days across Mumbai, leaving 164 people dead and hundreds more injured.
While the rest of the world considered it a secondary news, for Indians, even a decade later, the ripple effect of the tragedy can still be felt. Premiering at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, and based on the 2009 documentary ‘Surviving Mumbai’ by Victoria Midwinter Pitt, here, Australian film director Anthony Maras, takes us through a fictionalized yet terrifying and powerful recreation of the events that took place at the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. While fictionalizing events might tend to end up mixing it up a little bit for the sake of amusement, this film, it should go without saying, is harrowing to the extreme.
Almost unbearable, in fact. While writer/director Anthony Maras largely sticks to the dramatization playbook, he does so in an effective, affecting and empathetic fashion. Even though, it would be impossible to do justice to the true stories of the hundreds of people involved, this film succeeds as a best case scenario, by being a tightly constructed piece of film-making that’s truly human and away from tired Hollywood pitfalls. For most, that will be enough to be entertained and horrified by this thriller at the same time.
The film begins right off by showing the 10 terrorist arriving on their inflatable speedboat on the city shores, and splitting off for their respective destinations and begin their onslaught in a few minutes starting with the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. From there the story follows Arjun (Dev Patel), a low-ranking Sikh employee of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, who is clearly having a rough day; his sick baby made him late to work, and he’s lost a shoe on the way. While he is almost sent home for his misconduct by Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), the head chef, who prides on how the five-star luxury resort embodies excellence, but considering Arjun’s financial condition, he lets him stay.
However, his luck doesn’t extend to a high-tipping post attending to Vasili (Jason Isaacs), a sleazy Russian businessman, who hosts wild parties and ends up giving out huge tips. Meanwhile, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), a member of a affluent and rich family also checks into one of the hotel’s most opulent suites with David (Armie Hammer), her American husband, their newborn baby and Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), their Australian nanny, all hoping to spend a quite holiday together. However, at the Leopold Cafe, Aussie backpackers Eddie (Angus McLaren) and Bree (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) become the surviving witnesses to an early gun fire as the attacks escalate across the city, and unknown to them, some of the gunners have followed them and managed to enter the Taj hotel lobby.
The film charts the occurrences of the evening—from guests unassumingly enjoying their dinner, to the first attacks, then the very hospitable hotel staff moving the guests from one safe space to another, to the final arrival of the special forces unit which managed to kill all the terrorists present and bring an end to the firing. This is an ensemble piece where director Anthony Maras weaves various perspectives into a tightly constructed narrative. Most importantly, the drama is white-knuckle intense and unrelenting.
For all its subplots, director Maras keeps a tight leash on the film’s narrative strands as we watch characters move in and out of each other’s stories. The use of real news footage on background televisions is a clever way of dealing with exposition, allowing the plot to move briskly along. I’m astounded that this is director Anthony Maras’ first feature-length film. He’s a master of building tension through a combination of building up characters that we care about and putting them in horrific jeopardy. The most affecting aspect of the film is how it handles and stages said attacks.
Here, director Maras shoots them in a conventional manner, but his depiction is so brutal it is unnerving. In fact, as the picture goes on it simply becomes too brutal. There’s a line for an audience between conveying the true horror of what occurred and being excessive and director Maras barely avoids the latter. There are very few times when the film lets the killing occur off camera (which can be harrowing in and of itself) and it simply becomes numbing. You cannot argue, however, that both he and his editor, Peter McNulty, show deft skill in cinematically splicing it all together.
Another thing I liked a lot about the film is that it doesn’t go out of its way to artificially construct heroes in the way that an American production might have been tempted to do. As a viewer, you feel as though you are a fly on the wall as everything is happening. You can see the pain and fear in the eyes of all these innocent people who are being held prisoners inside this hotel. You want them to survive, but unfortunately, not all of them do.
People attempt heroic actions and are just gunned down in cold blood. The police are mostly ineffective. In the face of horror like this, your indomitable spirit isn’t going to save you. There are numerous scenes where a person is shot in the head with the camera remaining on the victim as he or she is shot. There are at least 30 to 40 people killed on-screen by these men throughout the film. In a typical Hollywood film, we know our heroes are going to survive. Not so here, and the result is more akin to a horror film than any traditional drama.
I want to applaud the screenwriters for not being afraid to write likable characters that end up being killed because it is the harsh reality of what occurs during an attack like this one. Seeing the attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel play out does not make for a pleasurable film-going experience but one that is very hard to watch and impossible to forget. However, what’s most disturbing about the film is the strange depiction of the terrorists themselves.
Here, director Maras makes an unusual decision in giving much of the narrative space to the four gunmen, seemingly in an attempt to humanize the terrorists. One, in particular, is shown speaking to his father on the phone and holding back tears when he’s told the money the terrorist organization promised his family hasn’t arrived. It’s a strange juxtaposition to convey that some of these killers deserve sympathy because they carried off these attacks for financial means.
There is clearly no justification for their actions, but it’s such a bizarre and frustrating choice. Especially considering this particular character’s actions later on. In one of the film’s rare humorous moments, one of the men takes a bite of a pizza until he’s told by his brother-in-arms that it’s pork. Spluttering wildly, he’s laughed at saying they’re just vegetables. It’s funny until they turn and shoot a woman in the head. It’s in these moments of jarring tonal shifts where the film’s otherwise tight pacing and structure begins to unwind.
Thankfully this tone is saved by the ensemble cast who are excellent. Dev Patel, who gets the meatiest part, manages to deliver a subdued yet a particularly moving performance and receives ample support from Armie Hammer and Anupam Kher who bring in yet another compelling and dominating turn to their roles. Jason Isaacs does fine work too, but I have to admit that I had a hard time accepting him as a Russian. It may be that I’m too familiar with his work and I could never quite suspend disbelief. I wish they had cast an actual Russian in the role, but on the other hand, he being in the film is one of the things that made me want to see it.
Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Angus McLaren, and Natasha Liu Bordizzo are compelling too. However, its Nazanin Boniadi‘s spectacular performance that holds everything together. There is this scene where Imran, one of the gunmen, played by a very effective Amandeep Singh, is ordered to kill everyone in the room. After seeing several people being shot, Zahra begins to pray which causes Imran to freak out and question his actions.
This is a compelling moment because it is the first time that you see one of the men ask what they are doing and wonder if they should kill someone who believes in the same god that he does. This was easily one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film. On the whole, ‘Hotel Mumbai’ is an excellent edge-of-the-seat thriller that will shake you to the core.
Directed – Anthony Maras
Rated – R
Run Time – 125 minutes