Taking a similar approach as 22 July earlier this year (minus the courtroom drama of that film), Hotel Mumbai perilously walks us through the tense and bloody day in 2008 when a well-organized group of terrorists essentially took down India’s largest city, hitting multiple targets with military-level accuracy that the Mumbai police simply were not equipped to defend against or end swiftly. The highest-profile target was the elite and world-renowned Taj Hotel, which hosts VIP guests from all over the world and whose motto among the staff is “The guest is god.” The extremists stormed the hotel guns blazing and killed almost everyone they laid eyes on, then went room by room through the establishment, slaughtering unsuspecting guests in their rooms.
From first-time feature director Anthony Maras (who co-wrote with John Collee), Hotel Mumbai is a story told from multiple vantage points, including that of the terrorists. We follow them on their journey to the city, receiving their orders from a voice on the phone who plays off their youthful trust, religious fervor, and learned hatred of non-Muslims, especially American and British guests at the hotel. We also see the world through the eyes of a waiter named Arjun (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), a Sikh practitioner who is one of the hotel’s most loyal and fearless employees; he works along with his boss, the head chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), to hide dozens of guests from the gunman in the hotel’s exclusive (and thankfully well-hidden) private club.
Among the guests are other familiar faces, including Armie Hammer as David, who is there with his new bride (a British-Iranian Muslim woman played by Nazanin Boniadi) and even newer baby, whose frequent crying will be a sound that haunts you for months after you see this film. Jason Isaacs is also on hand as the Russian Vasili, a stinking rich businessman who orders prostitutes for his room while he eats dinner in the restaurant and doesn’t care who around him hears him do it. Normally, I might complain about the film leaning on its white actors to up the profile of the movie, but the truth is, the terrorists sought out rich, white guests to use as hostages. And even more importantly, the white actors aren’t given any more screen time than many of the actors playing the staff of the hotel, who are the true heroes of this harrowing, terrifying story.
Since this is a true story, the rules of who lives and dies might not line up the way you think they will, and at a certain point, it’s impossible not to feel every death or injury in your gut. Hotel Mumbai does a great service in telling this story, but it’s also deeply tragic because it represents the end of innocence in a place that had never experienced this type of attack before and now must always be at the ready. Patel is especially strong and nuanced as a deeply spiritual man with a new family of his own and a strong moral ethic that makes it impossible for him to leave so many people behind in mortal danger. He’s even willing to make sacrifices that go against his religious beliefs if it brings some comfort to guests who look at him suspiciously. By simply sticking to the facts, laying out the events, and refusing to give into over-dramatization, Hotel Mumbai succeeds in relaying this horrific event, as well as the awful mistakes and miscalculations that followed in attempting to respond to it, giving us an account of something that I’m guessing many non-Indians remember in detail.
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