As the credits rolled on Hotel Mumbai, I heard a couple of fellow critics discussing the film. One clearly wasn’t sure what he thought of it. His colleague asked what more he wanted. His response:
“I don’t know.”
That’s the big challenge films like Anthony Maras’s debut feature ultimately face. By recreating the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – the assault on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel being the focus – Hotel Mumbai must balance an innate need to exploit the tragic scenario, respect those who lost their lives, ensure it does not overly romanticise its portrayal, and then justify its existence.
It succeeds in doing so, at least to a certain degree.
Based on hundreds of hours of research and interviews, Hotel Mumbai is a harrowing experience that reflects on acts of courage amidst escalating brutality. Maras has the audience on edge from the opening scene, introducing the terrorists before the rest of the ensemble cast so as to build anticipation for when the guns start firing. Played with disturbing calm, their presence on screen is truly unnerving, with even moments designed to humanise them only serving to reinforce the inhumanity of their actions.
Caught up in the attacks are a range of tourists and members of the hotel’s staff, including waiter Arjun (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire), VIP couple David (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, Counterpart) and the only character representing someone who actually experienced it, prestigious chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher, The Big Sick). Each puts in a strong performance, but many of the characters performed by known actors are given too much screen time in comparison to far more interesting ones. Of particular note here is Hammer’s David, who never really expands beyond the ‘man who throws himself in harm’s way to protect his family’ trope. Meanwhile, characters like butler Jamon – a consummate professional who continues serving drinks to ease the nerves of the guests – are relegated to the background or, like the two police officers who decide to engage the terrorists instead of waiting for Special Forces to arrive – disappear entirely.
Perhaps Maras’s greatest achievement in Hotel Mumbai is capturing the desperation and senselessness of such attacks. Who lives and who dies comes down to little more than luck and circumstance. Those who try to be heroes are gunned down in a moment. There are no John McClane’s or Stanley Goodspeed’s here, and while that means nobody will be using terms like ‘action packed’ or ‘entertaining’ to describe the film, it’s better as a result.
On a technical level, the film is stunning. The interior of the hotel was recreated on a sound stage in Adelaide, and the detail is exceptional. It’s all captured by cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews, who transitions from the dusty palette of the Indian streets to the neutral tones of the Taj without losing any of the impact. His camera never shies away from the unfolding violence, but it never feels excessive.
Whether we need feature films to act as a medium through which society pays tribute to the brave and innocent lives damaged or destroyed by incidents such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks is a complicated question. While Hotel Mumbai doesn’t make as strong a case in favour of such movies as others in the past (Spielberg’s Munich, for instance), audiences not so concerned with the ethics involved are sure to be moved by it.
Hotel Mumbai opens in Australian cinemas on March 14th.