When I first saw the trailer for HOTEL MUMBAI, I was definitely intrigued despite not remembering much of the actual events that happened in 2008. I don’t usually go for dramatizations of true events, especially when it comes to disaster/calamity. Yet there’s something about this one that appealed to me.
It opens with the attackers coming into Mumbai on boats. It isn’t spelled out who they are but it’s pretty clear they intend to cause harm on the city. We see their somber demeanor as they descend into the city, listening to a voice over from an Islamic militant group saying ‘God is Great,’ The scene is contrasted with a hotel staff, Arjun (Dev Patel), getting ready for work in the morning. The luxurious, five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is run with a nearly militaristic precision. Each department head from the lobby to the kitchen grill their staff and tell them to practice ‘customers are gods’ mantra. Everything happened like any ordinary day, only later it turns out to be anything but.
I saw this at an early screening, definitely too early for something THIS intense. My coffee barely had any effect but I didn’t really need it once the action started. The attackers began the mayhem in a train station, a cafe, then the Taj Hotel, with two of the perpetrators walking in pretending to be one of the masses looking for cover. One thing that took me by surprise was that they’re just a bunch of boys, some are probably in their late teens. They get direct orders from Brother Bull who constantly feed instructions on their earpiece. Promising them money to their families and afterlife in paradise, they instill hatred of the upper class ‘infidels.’
This is Aussie director Anthony Maras‘ feature film debut and I think he’s adept enough in creating a genuine sense of suspense and dread. Films like this tend to be rather exploitative but this one looks well-crafted and well-acted all around. A production financed mostly by South Australian Film Corporation and filmed in Adelaide Film studios for the hotel interior, the production design also looked really believable. Despite the intense graphic violence of the gunmen shooting anything that moves, the movie never descends into a manic Die Hard or Expendables type of shoot-em-up thriller. I remember thinking on one intense scene where a couple of cops are trying to shoot a group of gunmen, James Bond would’ve killed them w/ a single bullet each. But it’s NOT that kind of action fantasy, so real people did get hurt and innocent people lose loved ones in the most brutal way.
There’s not a weak performance amongst the talented cast. I have grown to respect Dev Patel and his character Arjun is immediately sympathetic. There are scenes with relatable humanistic touches, such as when Arjun lost his shoe and had to jam his foot into his boss’ shoes that are way too small for him. I’ve been a big fan of Indian actor Anupam Kher who portrays Chef Oberoi and once again he’s terrific here, who along with Arjun are the unsung heroes of the hotel attack. Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi played husband and wife who travel with a nanny and their baby, which made up some of the film’s most suspenseful scenes. Jason Isaac is also quite memorable as a high-ranking Russian mystery guy, one of the guests trapped in the hotel. The film did a good job making me care about the characters, instead of just showing a play-by-play of a horrifying event. Even the bad guys get to be more than stock characters, and they get to show their human side without glorifying their evil acts.
Apparently the filmmakers got access to original transcripts of intercepted cell (mobile) calls between the ten terrorists and their handlers, which adds the authenticity of the scenes. Watching this I was quite infuriated and frustrated by how ridiculously slow the hotel (and perhaps other places) get support from the Indian government. The hotel staff kept having to reassure the guests that help was coming, but they were trapped in some kind of ‘safe house’ area of the hotel for hours before the special ops finally arrived from New Delhi (800 miles away from Mumbai).
The text at the end summed up the damage of the tragedy, with 164 people killed and over 300 people wounded. The film premiere last year was planned to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the attack. The hotel only took 21 months to be restored to its original glory, and many of the survivors attended the grand re-opening.
I remember feeling a bit lightheaded and weak in the knees after watching this, given the vivid depiction that made me feel as if I were right there amidst the chaos. Indeed a grim and unflinchingly-tense film that shows the triumph of human spirits and acts of heroism by regular people.
Have you seen HOTEL MUMBAI? Let me know what you think!