I personally am not a fan of films about terrorism. I often find them overblown, unrealistic and too adherent to the typical “hero” story whereby a character with near superhuman ability and mental clarity in a time of chaos can fight the opponents and either die in a heroic way to say someone they love, or survive to tell the tale. Even when based in reality, there is repeatedly too much melodrama and predictability to be enjoyable.
Thankfully Hotel Mumbai, the true story of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, does not suffer from these issues. Centred at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in India’s financial capital, the film portrays the stories of the Taj’s guests and hotel staff during the four day siege that captured the world’s attention.
As usual in these types of films, the plot interweaves the stories of various people, with the characters led by Arjun (Dev Patel), a server at the luxury venue working under Chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher), who becomes the unwitting protector of the guests when the attack breaks out inside the hotel lobby. Said guests include heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American husband David (Armie Hammer), Russian playboy Vasili (Jason Isaacs) and over 20 other wealthy guests. There are also parallel storylines of an Australian couple caught in another attack who attempt to hide in the hotel and a few rouge Mumbai police officers who try to save the guests trapped inside, all against the backdrop of real life footage of the widespread attacks across the nation.
The notion that “guest is God”, as repeated by Oberoi to the staff, is really at the heart of the story, as the locals sacrifice themselves for their guests and aim to save them all. It becomes not only a story of survival in the face of immense danger, but a parable on the generosity and heart of the staff in this situation. There were periods I wished there was more time for exploration on some of the other characters stories, and a bit more depth on the political situation at the time for more context on the attacks. But for the most part, it’s a solid film with enough thrill and excitement for a blockbuster lover to stay intrigued and engaged in the story.
Indeed there are times when subplots detract from the heart of the story, though I think they are intended to deal with the wider exposition of the true life story. Occasionally, though, racism and classism are dealt with pretty poorly – a common factor in these films, particularly with Muslim terrorists. In fact a part I did enjoy was the decision to humanise the terrorists by giving them space to ponder and revel in the unusual circumstances around the attacks. It’s jarring, but is also an element of the attacks that would be unrealistic to ignore.
Director Anthony Maras really raises the tension throughout the film, expertly crafting a realistic story that doesn’t feel Hollywood glamourised. By exploring all angles, Maras gives a voice to a range of experiences with gripping results, with such detail in recreating the attacks it feels real time. Patel is excellent and really drives the film forward, with Kher in top form and worthy of acclaim for his performance. Boniadi is also solid, though often deepens into melodrama, whilst Hammer is good but somewhat forgettable. Isaac’s does a convincing Russian accent but his character isn’t well developed unfortunately.
Yes, the scenes are violent and yes, the tension throughout is near traumatising to deal with. For some it may be considered exploitative to bring drama and thrill to such a devastating life event, particularly with some will-they-die-won’t-they-die moments perfect for shock value, but I see it as a powerful way to educate and engage an audience that are often driven to these types of films but not interested with the historical background that comes with it. But what is presented when these viewers arrive, is watch a real human story and harrowing drama that lasts long after walking out of the theatre.
A truly haunting depiction of a real life event that is often overshadowed by US-centric storytelling, that is gripping and shocking in its replay. Excellent directorial debut by Anthony Maras and stunning Australian film. Gets you into the mindset of a hostage like no other.
Can come across as exploitative, with some middling performances and not for everyone.
Originally published on Back Row, 6 March, 2019.