TIFF 2018: ‘Hotel Mumbai’, Starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, is a Tense and Empathetic Thriller Based on a True Story
I’ve struggled to find the right words to describe Hotel Mumbai, the new film from Anthony Maras based on the 2008 terrorist attacks of Mumbai and the siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. I’ve seen the film referred to as a thriller, which it is but it still feels like an awkward label for a film based on a real-life event that killed dozens of people. The Guardian called it a crowd-pleaser, which wouldn’t be inaccurate going by the reactions I saw at the screening I attended, but how do you categorize such a story as fun for all ages? The events of a decade ago remain raw for hundreds of millions of people in India, long after the rest of the world stopped noticing, so how does a white Australian director turn this into entertainment? We will always have movies like Hotel Mumbai, using the tragedies of history for suspense fodder.
Sadly, they are seldom so empathetic and carefully made as Maras’s effort, and in that context, Hotel Mumbai feels oddly refreshing. Maras and screenplay co-writer John Collee take the events of the siege and turn it into an ensemble drama, focusing on the hotel’s staff, some of its more prominent visitors, the handful of policemen on the scene, the city’s residents watching the carnage unfold, and the terrorists themselves.
Dev Patel plays Arjun, a Sikh staff member of the Taj having a tough night at work before everything unfolds; Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi are newlyweds, one of whom comes from major money, who have brought their newborn son to India along with their nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey); Jason Isaacs is an arrogant Russian businessman used to the best things in life; and legendary Indian actor Anupam Kher (who you may recognize from The Big Sick) plays head chef Hemant, the de facto leader of the rescue mission from within the hotel. Every actor gets their moment and feels organically integrated into the story, although Isaacs’ character remains somewhat inexplicable. Dev Patel remains a particular stand-out. His subtle performance offers a glimpse of the all-consuming terror of the situation as well as the necessity of keeping calm when it seems impossible to do so. Patel’s a Bafta winner and Oscar nominee who is long past having to prove himself as a leading man, but Hotel Mumbai is another helpful reminder of his capabilities.
For such a large ensemble that has so many strings of plots to tie together, Maras is remarkably skilled at keeping everything tightly constructed. The story switches from character to character and that almost unbearable tension is sustained throughout. There is no lingering where it is not necessary, no needlessly overwrought exposition (the film uses real news footage to quickly keep audiences up to speed, which is a savvy storytelling tool but may raise some ethical questions for some).
A lot of the story is also focused on the terrorists themselves. I’ve seen some critics claim that the film humanizes these men but that doesn’t feel accurate to me. Rather, the narrative shows the seemingly contradictory ways these violent men commit heinous crimes but still find time to be very human amid the bloodbath. In one scene, two of the men joke around about some pizza and it’s almost immediately followed by them gunning down a defenceless woman. This could present tonal issues but Maras is more focused on conveying that old idea of the banality of evil as well as the mental strength of self-martyrdom: If you don’t believe what you are doing is bad, then why wouldn’t you be able to joke around with your mates while you commit mass murder?
A story like Hotel Mumbai cannot help but be driven by issues of race and class. The terrorists targeted the luxurious hotels because they were seen as symbols of corruption and colonialism. The head chef reminds his staff of their motto, ‘guest is God’, before sending them out to prepare baths of exact temperatures and wait to pour the right kind of wine. Most of the people who died in the siege at the Taj were staff members who had stayed behind to protect their guests (the film reminds us of this point in the closing moments). This is a defining part of the story - the resilience of humanity and our default mode of empathy - but the film doesn’t fully confront the dynamics at play here. It’s striking how the staff remain staff and the guests remain guests even as the hotel is on fire, although the film’s clumsier attempts at tackling the systemic racism at play fall with a thud. One moment where Patel calmly and kindly explains to a super racist rich white lady why he wears the dastaar so she doesn’t think he’s a terrorist plays as immensely condescending. It’s to the film’s credit that this moment is an exception in a narrative that does away with the ‘hero American in a foreign land’ trope we’re all way too familiar with.
In many ways, Hotel Mumbai is a best case scenario for a film like this: A tightly constructed piece of film-making that’s truly human and avoids tired Hollywood pitfalls. For some, that will be enough and they will be as entertained by this thriller as it is possible to be.
Hotel Mumbai will be distributed in America by Bleeker Street, although it currently does not have a release date.
Header Image Source: Courtesy of TIFF