At least 166 innocent people were killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, 31 of whom lost their lives inside the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Anthony Maras’ latest film Hotel Mumbai, while featuring fictional characters, is based on the attacks that were carried out at the hotel over a three-day period.
Following the real timeline of events, the film opens on a group of terrorists arriving by boat on the Mumbai coastline. They disembark and pile into separate taxis, keeping in contact through earpieces. Across town, Arjun (Dev Patel) drops his young daughter off at his wife’s workplace, kissing them both goodbye as he sets off for his shift at the hotel. Meanwhile, American tourists David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) arrive at the hotel with their baby, and with childminder Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). David marvels at the hotel’s interior, and for good reason. The Taj is the stuff of dreams: a pristine paradise of marble and gold, where the guests are treated like gods and the staff are expected to look their best. Arjun, whose shoes fall out of his bag on his way to work, is reprimanded by head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) for turning up in sandals and is told to go home. Needing the money for his family, Arjun squeezes his feet into a spare pair of shoes that are two sizes too small and starts working despite the pain. Before too long, the shoe issue becomes a petty misdemeanour as the hotel becomes aware of two shootings that have taken place at a nearby café and a major train station. The main doors of the hotel are locked and bolted but swiftly reopened as a crowd of people fleeing from the attacks beg to be let in. Among them are several of the terrorists posing as escaping civilians, who soon open fire on the main lobby before moving through the hotel floor by floor, room by room, indiscriminately gunning down guests and staff.
The violence depicted is unrelentingly brutal and realistic, replacing the sensation of edge-of-your-seat suspense with an unshakeable visceral fear; you couldn’t recoil further back into your chair if you tried. The emotional impact of such terror is amplified by the sound editing where, in many scenes, silence is abruptly punctured by gunfire. In the same way that the sound viciously oscillates between two extremes, the film’s narrative deals with opposite ends of a multitude of spectrums: glimpses of poverty in the slums are intercut in the exposition with shots of the luxurious hotel; in a later scene, racial privilege and racial discrimination both rear their ugly heads when a panicked white guest feels threatened by Arjun’s turban, and also accuses Zahra of being a terrorist. While these rifts are eventually rendered trivial, the one that remains constant is the division between hatred and humanity. As the terrorists persist with their vile rampage, many members of staff, including Arjun and Oberoi, selflessly commit to protecting the guests, helping groups of them to move to secure locations around the hotel. The characters take courage and resilience to a whole new level, sparking a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation.
There is no single standout performance in the film; the entire cast is equal in playing their roles with authenticity and dogged determination. The concept of the ‘collective protagonist’ works extremely well, with no character being prioritised over another. Admittedly, certain lines of dialogue sound corny within such a realistic setting, but they are delivered with conviction nonetheless.
Putting a film like Hotel Mumbai into the category of ‘drama’ or ‘thriller’ does not even begin to do its harrowing images justice; this is a horror film through and through. It is an unforgettable portrayal of an atrocity that many, like myself, may have little recollection of, which undoubtedly makes the story all the more important to tell.
by Holly Weaver
Holly Weaver is currently studying French and Spanish at the University of Leeds, and has spent her year abroad studying film in Montréal. An old soul, she is enraptured by pre-1960s cinema and some of her favourite films include Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Her life ambition is to dress like Phillip “Duckie” Dale from Pretty in Pink, her one true style icon. You can find her tweeting and letterboxd’ing at @drivermiller.
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