“Hotel Mumbai” is a road map of atrocity.
Starting with the landing of a team of Pakistani Muslim terrorists on the waterfront of India’s most populous city on Nov. 26, 2008, it tracks them as they massacre their way from the main railway station through crowded streets, to a popular restaurant, and finally ending up at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the most luxurious hostelry in the town. There, for four agonizing days, they hunt and slaughter staff members and guests with AK-47s and hand grenades. The ultimate toll is around 31. An estimated 450 guests were in the building at the time of the siege. The total of dead citywide exceeded 160, including nine of the 10 attackers.
The number of sites actually targeted was more extensive than shown in the movie. For the purposes of simplifying the narrative, director/co-writer Anthony Maras (John Collee shares screenplay credit) narrowed the focus mainly to the events at the Taj.
The victims, both inside and outside the hotel, are of many nationalities and ethnicities. The terrorists are indiscriminate killers. Men, women, the young, the old, all are murdered. The hotel topped their target list because it hosted many rich foreigners, including Americans. The terrorist leader, who communicates with the attackers via cellphone and is never seen, directs them to seek out the rich and execute them in as public a manner as possible. He wants the screams of the victims to be heard around the world.
It’s a horrifying tale, and Maras, a Greek-Australian filmmaker, does not shy away from showing the carnage.
Amid the scenes of massacre and terror, a tale of heroism emerges as the hotel’s distinguished head chef, Hemant Oberoi (a real person played here by famed Indian actor Anupam Kher), and a waiter (an invented character played by Dev Patel) risk their lives to herd panicked guests into a nearly impregnable hotel safe room. The chef ascribes to the mantra “guest is god” and, by reminding his staff of that belief, inspires them to fight their own fears and help the guests.
While focusing on the quiet heroics of the hotel staff, Maras gives what feels like an inordinate amount of attention to the plight of a few Caucasian characters: the rich American father of a crying infant (Armie Hammer; Iranian-born Nazanin Boniadi plays his wife); the baby’s nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and a mysterious, harsh-mannered Russian businessman (Jason Isaacs). Fictitious characters all, their behaviors are less than smart.
The reasons for putting so much emphasis on these individuals no doubt has much to do with making the picture more commercially viable by appealing to Western audiences. But portraying guests of other ethnicities would have given the movie more balance.
The terrorists, young men in their 20s, are well-trained fanatics whose religion has been weaponized by their trainers and who kill without the least compunction. They’re puppets, guided by remote control by the voice of their unseen leader. They come from poor backgrounds (one claims never to have seen a flush toilet), and they harbor well-cultivated hatred of the rich and non-Muslim. They view their victims as less than human. Trained to commit monstrous acts, they are monsters.
★★★ “Hotel Mumbai,” with Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs. Directed by Anthony Maras, from a screenplay by Maras and John Collee. 123 minutes. Rated R for disturbing violence throughout, bloody images, and language. Opens March 29 at multiple theaters.