In its graphic depiction of Islamic-terrorist gunmen’s 2008 siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Hotel Mumbai far exceeds the discomforts of such similar fare as The Impossible, Patriots Day, 22 July or United 93. Fictitious reenactments of people dying — here so frequently depicted that we may very well see each of the deaths — are rarely so unnerving and relentless. Outside of an introductory 10 minutes — even those filled with roaring words of zealotry that the perpetrators use to light their ideological fire — Hotel Mumbai is a film during which violence knows no lulls.
Co-writer / director Anthony Maras (making his feature-length debut) and co-writer John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) have structured Hotel Mumbai as an action-thriller, which is both a detriment and a discussion point. (They even give a John McClane-esque shoe problem to Dev Patel’s Arjun, a Sikh waiter and family man who stays behind to help the guests.) Perhaps because these attacks were an international incident less familiar to domestic audiences back then, let alone 11 years on, the filmmakers felt even more pressure to put butts in seats with familiar rhythms. While their skill is appreciable and never less than compelling across both hours, it creates a sense of unease throughout — perpetually forcing you to wonder about the ends toward which they’re applying all this polish. Their only misstep is in the sketching of a Russian brute played by Jason Isaacs, who seems to have sauntered in from the Roland Emmerich version of this film. (More on him in a moment.)
Maras and Collee also make intriguing choices in dramatizing the introduction of inciting incidents at the hotel, as well as the standards to which its employees have grown accustomed. Having first targeted a train station and a café, the terrorists know survivors of those attacks will try to make their way to the Taj — desperate, panicked and equating the Taj’s opulence with certain safety if they can only get inside. Beyond exploiting that presumption, the gunmen make their way in with the fleeing horde and proceed to immediately level that presumed shelter of class and privilege.
Sometimes that privilege manifests itself in baths drawn to a guest’s preferred temperature, as confirmed by a concierge with a thermometer. Sometimes it extends to a guest who endangers staff in ways that managers shrug off because they’ve got a lot of money to spend. The last time Isaacs’ character stayed at the hotel, it’s broadly mentioned, there was some sort of an incident with a waitress. “We don’t want what happened last time,” says a supervisor to a female waitress who volunteers to pick up big tips at his private party full of booze and escorts. Later, Maras lingers on Arjun spotting the now-lifeless body of a colleague he’d earlier hoped to one-up for a big-money event, as if to wonder: What occupational pride and honor are those who’ve stayed really upholding?
Weird, then, that a rah-rah reality postscript celebrates the custodians, servers and chefs who went back to work as “veterans of the battle for Hotel Mumbai” (to use the movie’s words). Is there supposed to be something reassuring about upholding the, uh, indefatigable spirit of low-wage workers walking a tightrope of poverty and returning to their jobs of pleasing and placating the rich and sometimes dangerous? (Arguably, these guests have even more clout to throw around by saying they could have chosen a “safer” hotel.) “Guest is God” reads a folksy customer-service homily hung in the Taj. We all know the currency, monetized or otherwise, for which “guest” is truly pseudonymous.
Then again, Hotel Mumbai doesn’t marginalize the presence and actions of its Indian or Islamic-faith characters in favor of more-recognizable white actors. It depicts the terrorists in a manner that is never sympathetic but instead suitably understanding of how the greedy and vile have perverted their faith, right down to a climactic cue in the score from Volker Bertelmann that sounds like a ringing dialtone bound to go unanswered.
Sometimes these terrorists joke with each other. So do the hostages. None of these are ill-timed or exploitative wisecracks but instead displays of emotion, nervously honest on all sides. The script attempts, with an endearing earnestness, to scale the heroism and humanity that was on display, regularly arriving at harrowing, hard-edged truths about both notions — especially in the story involving Armie Hammer as an American architect and Nazanin Boniadi as his Islamic wife.
The question with films like Hotel Mumbai is generally not whether you will ever want to watch them again, but more about whether you’ll want to watch them at all. Rarely has that answer been so difficult to discern with definition as it is here. However, on balance, Hotel Mumbai is a threnody worth enduring, even amid its many discordant notes.