There’s a particular scene in Hotel Mumbai that perfectly captures what viewers should expect from this depiction of the brutal 2008 terror attack. In that attack, ten members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 shooting and bombing sprees across the city. The incident lasted for three days, finally coming to an end when the last attackers were killed at the Taj Hotel where hundreds of guests were still trapped. In total, at least 174 people died and more than 300 were wounded.
In the scene in question, four men are stalking the corridors of the five-star Taj Hotel in central Mumbai, indiscriminately shooting everyone they come across. David (Armie Hammer), a hotel guest, has left the relative safety of the dining hall where his wife is hiding in order to rescue their new-born baby from the couple’s suite. As he rises in the lift he sees the button for the top floor – his destination – suddenly light up as if someone else has just pressed it. This can only mean one thing: a terrorist awaits him. Desperate to stop the lift, he stabs the button for an intermediate floor, but alas, the button is broken. It’s a scene of extreme tension, but is it really necessary?
Hotel Mumbai is almost entirely focused on these kinds of life-and-death incidents at the Taj, offering an introduction to each of the key characters before the attack begins and dominates. Two of these characters are staff. Arjun (Dev Patel) is a waiter working hard to earn money and support his wife, child and unborn baby. His boss is head chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), a perfectionist, determined to serve his guests only the very best. Of these guests, there’s David, his British-Iranian heiress wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), their maid Sally and baby Cameron. Personality-wise they all get a light touch – rich, a bit demanding, but still fairly nice; Sally is just nice. Then there’s Vasili (Jason Isaacs), a Russian billionaire and ex-special forces operative. We first meet him picking out prostitutes from a pack of photographs.
The attack begins while everyone is at dinner. The terrorists walk through the front doors and begin gunning people down with cold precision. Arjun leaps into action, turning out the lights and forcing guests to hide. The following hour and a half is relentless, loud and terrifying. The terrorists go out of their way to locate guests and slaughter them – knocking on doors and pretending to offer room service, machine-gunning anyone who makes a run for it. Many of these scenes offer a harrowing but effective portrayal of what it might really have been like inside the hotel. Long, pristine corridors and sumptuous décor are transformed from a once-decadent environment into the ultimate nightmare. Dead bodies lie in the entrance hall, blood splatters the walls. The sheer size of the building makes escape and communication impossible and the confusion this must have elicited is palpable.
The staff, led by Arjun and Oberoi, are heroic. Both actors do their real-life counterparts justice. The character of Arjun is reportedly a composite, based on two people (a waiter and a security guard), both of whom risked their lives to save guests. Oberoi is based on the Taj’s actual head chef of the same name, who still works at the hotel. Choosing to remain inside rather than attempt to escape, they round up as many guests as they can and take them to the safest part of the hotel. The film is at its best in the way that it honours their fortitude as time and again they put themselves in danger, just as eye-witness reports reveal the actual staff did.
It’s a shame then that other aspects of the film are so uncomfortable, and not in a good way. The constant ratcheting of tension is incessant, achieved through numerous small scenes which, like the broken button in the lift, are never subtle. Phone batteries only ever run out at the worst possible second. Hotel guests are only ever stopped from opening doors that would see them slaughtered at the very last moment, just as their hand hovers on the lock. These would be effective (if standard) ploys in a normal thriller, but in this film, based on the lives and deaths of real people, it feels inappropriate – as if an audience will only find such scenes watchable if they come with a hearty dose of heightened suspense.
The style also comes at the expense of character development, which in some cases is bizarre. Issac’s turn as a Russian super-villain is particularly random. It is unclear why the character is painted as utterly vile (the head chef warns that female staff members mustn’t be allowed near him) only to be immediately redeemed as the attack begins and he takes it upon himself to act as the beautiful Zahra’s protector. Again, the character is an amalgam of two people who were both in the Taj during the attacks. There’s something artless about this imagined incarnation.
Brief attempts to humanise the terrorists also sit oddly. It’s as if Maras decided at the last minute that the film might be more meaningful if the terrorists had some character but didn’t have the time to pull it off. It might have worked if this film had been a portrait of these young men and an analysis of what led them to commit such an atrocity. But it isn’t. It means that when one of the terrorists asks out of the blue: ‘Do you think our family will get the money,’ displaying a vulnerability that is absent in every other shot, in which these men are nothing but cold, determined killers, happy to joke and laugh about their ‘work’, the audience has no idea what to think.
These issues highlight and heighten a more overriding question – what is this film for? Though it succeeds in demonstrating the selflessness and heroism of the Taj’s staff, it is also bloody, relentless and offers no answers as to why such an incident happened or why it couldn’t be stopped sooner. By choosing to make this an action film above anything else, the story feels twisted to suit the big-screen, with sometimes uncomfortable results.
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