Inspired by the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and partially shot in Adelaide, Hotel Mumbai is an at times confronting thriller about the human side of terror.
This feature debut from director and co-writer Anthony Maras is a powerfully intense chronicle of true events that’s a nerve-wracking experience to sit through, even if it’s a little unclear, at the end, what exactly we’re supposed to get out of it all. Nevertheless, there’s much here to admire, from some fine performances, to the seamless interweaving of Mumbai locales and Adelaide-shot interiors, to the memorable depiction of just how brave and selfless we can be at the very worst of times.
Back in November 2008 ten sweaty young male jihadists are seen arriving by boat on a polluted beach in Mumbai (something the Australian government will just adore), and they listen with headphones to the radicalising words of a mystery figure (‘The Bull’) from the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. We barely get to properly know them and they don’t talk much, and when we see them up close, they mostly appear blank, nervous or morally superior, although there is a strange moment of dark humour where they joke with each other about accidentally eating pork.
Their activities are intercut with a series of international characters checking into the Taj Hotel, where kitchen worker Arjun (Dev Patel) has begun a shift and been told off by head chef Hemant Oberoi (Bollywood star Anupam Kher) for the trivial matter of wearing the wrong footwear. The London-born Patel is established as the chief protagonist here, and brings weight and heart to the proceedings, while also mainly seeing you past the dubious ‘Disaster Movie’ trimmings and, it must be said, some iffy ‘white saviour’ business.
After the terrorists open fire with machine guns at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station (genuine news footage of the event is shown) and bomb Café Leopold, a fleeing crowd is allowed into the Taj and four gunmen get inside too. And the shooting starts, and although you shouldn’t, it’s hard not to wonder who’s going to survive the shocking carnage, much of which is bloodier and more disturbing than many horror movies.
Well-to-do American couple and recent parents David and Zahra (Armie Hammer and Iranian/British actress Nazanin Boniadi) and their nanny Sally (Adelaide’s Tilda Cobham-Hervey) are soon on the run, while sneering Russian Vasili (Jason Isaacs, a long way from the Harry Potter movies) summons a healthy dose of vicious contempt for his potential killers. It’s a little problematic that these types are allowed more screen time than the Indian characters (especially Kher’s Oberoi, who could have been a primary focus), but they’re all strong and there isn’t really time or breathing space to worry about such matters.
Not the first movie based on a terrorist attack (and it certainly won’t be the last), Maras’ epic tries not to get too political, but naturally proves very political indeed, even if it’s rather more concerned with the human side here, and the people who fought to save so many strangers – and themselves.
But, after all the senseless horror and death, just what are we supposed to feel? Besides brutalised?
Hotel Mumbai (MA) is in cinemas from March 14