In November of 2008, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist terrorist organization based in Pakistan, staged an ambush on Mumbai, carrying out widespread coordinated attacks at 12 different sites across India's largest city. The siege lasted days and ultimately claimed the lives of more than 160 individuals. A brutally realistic and harrowing reenactment of that horrific event, "Hotel Mumbai" focuses on one of those attacks at the high-end Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a luxurious oasis at the heart of the city.
In his feature directorial debut, Anthony Maras creates an often excruciatingly suspenseful procedural, attempting to humanize and put a face (or multiple faces) to the tragedy. His screenplay, co-written with John Collee, quickly introduces us to several individuals who will become our focal points. All the characters in the film -- save for the hotel's world-renowned chef, Hemant Oberoi (AnupamKher) -- are fictionalized, composites of real-life individuals.
There's Arjun (Dev Patel), a working class Sikh man who's employed as a waiter, struggling to support a wife and baby at home. Wealthy young married couple David and Zahra (Armie Hammer and NazaninBoniadi) arrive at the hotel with their infant and nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) in tow. There's also a lecherous Russian businessman (Jason Isaacs), who provides the film some much needed -- albeit brief -- moments of comedic relief.
Other characters drift in an out of focus, but Maras is more interested in creating a collective sense of who was inside the hotel. The Taj was targeted because of its significance as a symbol of Indian wealth and prosperity, and the people inside its walls are a diverse cross-section of various races, ethnicities, and classes. As catastrophe strikes, there's an urgent need for solidarity as they do whatever they can to survive.
Once the chaos begins, Maras doesn't attempt to soften the horror of the attack. The film's violence is never cavalier, and the director makes sure every death means something. The action (though it feels glib to call it that) is well-staged, and Maras works to keep us situated within the hotel's many floors, as employees and guests scatter and hide wherever they can.
Maras isn't after thrills or excitement, but his film can't avoid resorting to some movie-style plotting, a perhaps unavoidable side effect of crafting this story into a coherent narrative that would lend itself to a film. There's a certain Hollywood feel to which people are simply portrayed as targets and which ones we're meant to care about (a dichotomy that unfortunately ends up foregrounding the white characters). As grueling as it is, "Hotel Mumbai" is nonetheless engrossing.
The film seeks to honor and memorialize the many demonstrations of heroism amidst the chaos. Much of that courage came from the staff of the hotel, many of whom remained in the building to help, and made great sacrifices to keep the guests safe. In one horrifying scene, hotel reception employees are held at gunpoint by the attackers, who try to coerce them into phoning up to guests to draw them out of their rooms. The staff members are executed with chilling efficiency when they refuse.
Even the perpetrators of the attack are given bits of humanity. We're not asked to sympathize with them, but to see them as they were: naïve, scared young men brainwashed and manipulated by extremists into carrying out the most horrifying of deeds. We watch as they receive encouragement and instructions by phone from Brother Bull, the terrorist mastermind behind the attack, and the film is clear in its condemnation of this radicalism.
Strictly speaking, "Hotel Mumbai" isn't a horror movie, though in many ways it shares a similar purpose. In showing us what society fears at our particular moment in time, and on some level seeking to understand it, the film attempts a sort of exorcism.
But watching actual atrocities reproduced in a movie can't help but raise the question of whether their dramatization is exploitative. I can't help questioning the necessity of a film like this (or other similar ones like Paul Greengrass' "United 93" and "22 July") and its depiction of real-life death and suffering on screen. The filmmakers appear to have their hearts in the right place; it's clear that what we're meant to take away from our viewing is the heroism and courage demonstrated in the face of unspeakable horror. Despite these noble intentions, I'm not sure the film manages to entirely justify its existence.
In light of the recent tragedy at Christchurch, it was announced that "Hotel Mumbai" has been removed from theaters in New Zealand. But there's always some recent incident, isn't there?
It can feel as though our society is stuck in an endless cycle of one unspeakable tragedy after another, and there's an increasing likelihood that films like this will be opening in close proximity to some real-life horror. And when we're watching these events unfold in news broadcasts on such a regular basis, I'm not sure I can take reliving them all over again at the movies.