“I’m just scared.”
Horrifically gripping and emotionally exhausting, Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai brings the violent and chilling terrorist attacks of November 28, 2008 to life with vigor and fury.
Told from an outside point of view, Hotel Mumbai is a true to form ensemble piece that adequately covers a plethora of different storylines; all centered on the series of attacks that culminated to a massacre within the walls of the prestigious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Though we get little information concerning our main players, their background isn’t what’s important here; the fact that they are humans is.
At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel “guest is God.” At least that is what head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) says to his staff before serving dinner during which the entire hotel comes under siege. That mantra will be put to the test as guests will hoover under tables and behind chairs as pure chaos reigns from the hotel lobby.
Dev Pate gives possibly the best performance of his still young career as Arjun, a server at the hotel who finds himself tasked with keeping the dinner guests alive when the bullets begin to fly. He is one of the only characters whose life we know about outside of the hotel: he has a pregnant wife and daughter at home - he has a reason to live but has chosen to stay and assist his guests.
Armie Hammer is your typical all-American husband to Nazanin Boniadi. The couple decides to leave their newborn baby upstairs with the nanny while they enjoy a quiet dinner alone. However, things aren’t too quiet with Jason Isaac’s Russian businessman dining just a few tables over. Interwoven within these storylines are other narratives, but it is ultimately these characters we grow to understand, and it is them whom we expect a safe trip home.
When the four gunmen enter into the hotel lobby and begin to unpack their firepower, the hairs on the back of your neck perk up, and your breathe becomes a bit faster. These effects are instinctive. It is no secret what is about to take place, and the eventual broad stroke outcome is also known. However, our heightened senses are engaged and rest assured, they are here to stay for the duration of Maras’ ambitious docs-thriller.
While there have been many terrorist style docudramas in the past (Munich, United 93 to name a few), Hotel Mumbai changes the course by refusing to stop and explain. Though there are characters that we come to know and understand, we are offered little, if any, backstory on any of them. Outside of Patel’s Arjun, we are not told about jobs, families, or even relationships. Each of these characters is present: physically, mentally, emotionally. To us they aren’t connected to the outside; thus preventing the film from turning into a disaster movie cliché.
Though only one scene calls into question nationality, within the walls of the hotel, there is one divide that is examined thoroughly: class. The line between guests and staff remains intact, despite the life-and-death situation that exists all around them. It is an interesting depiction really, one that showcases a sense of humanity and compassion, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak set of circumstances.
As the film enters into its third act and it becomes clear that the officials in Mumbai are not equipped to handle such an outbreak of terrorist activity, Maras begins to hone in on the four gunmen who are causing the bloodshed. Though I won’t go as far as to say that he humanizes the mass killers, he doesn’t shy away from that perception. It’s an arguable choice given the information awarded to us about the souls behind the innocent bodies that lay lifeless on the lobby floor, but alas, it does help to bring the events to a perceivable close as the film cuts back and forth between a risky escape plan and a hostage situation.
Much like real life, the later we get into the film the more we realize that Maras is not sold on any of his characters. Everyone at the hotel is vulnerable; everyone is mortal. It is this uncertainty that keeps the energy high and emotions in question. Granted this approach doesn’t allow us to overlook the inconsistent tonal shifts or the occasional plot hole, it does help us to stay focused on what this film is about: the people.