Hotel Mumbai | Anthony Maras | March 22, 2019
There’s a fine line to be drawn about how to handle bringing a real-life tragedy to life in the world of cinema. How do you bring the truth to life and make the raw truth exist in the cinematic world, but also try to find a way to not just make it a sadistic experience for both those making the film and those sitting in front of the silver screen taking it in? This is a tricky balancing act, one probably not made any easier by how numb we are as a society to the near-normalization of shootings that seem as daily an occurrence as the president sending out a questionable tweet.
Director Anthony Maras tries to find this balance with Hotel Mumbai, which shows the real-life tragedy of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, mainly focusing on the siege of the famous Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists in Mumbai.
Making his feature-length film debut, Maras sets it all up in familiar fashion. We see our main protagonist Arjun (Dev Patel) at home with his wife and kids, so occupied with making sure they’re all right that he manages to lose a shoe on his way to work, which displeases his boss Oberoi (Anupam Kher). We see the hotel staff who take their job very seriously, worried about important guests, such as couple Zahra (Homeland and Ben-Hur‘s Nazanin Boniadi) and David (Call Me By Your Name‘s Armie Hammer), to the extent that the temperature of the bath must be perfect down to the exact degree. This goes to show us just how devoted that the staff is to both the customers and the hotel, practically a character in itself.
This is all set up prior to the arrival of four young men whose dangerous ideas are set into motion on this fateful day, as they cause terror across various center points of Mumbai. Our main focus is with four young jihadists (Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi, and Gaurav Paswala) who take orders from a faceless voice who promises that their sacrifice and acts of violence will gain them a first class ticket to the promised land.
As we meet all these likable guests and staff workers working and breathing within the hotel, it’s hard to stomach the senseless acts of brutal violence that unfold. Maras and cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews frame it all in a brutal unflinching manner that doesn’t shy away from showing the graphic violence, putting you into the inescapable reality of the situation, one that none of us could possibly want to experience firsthand; it’s truly unimaginable.
The shocking violence, mixed with some cliché characters and arcs, doesn’t allow Hotel Mumbai to become anything that you haven’t already seen before. When we first meet the foul-mouthed and rude Vasili (A Cure for Wellness‘ Jason Isaacs), it doesn’t surprise that he ends up evolving as a character during the adversity, eventually undertaking heroic acts. There are instances like this that seem to be taken right out of the tragedy movie playbook. But the reality of this situation is that many innocent people lost their lives, and so it also should be noted that Maras and his fellow screenwriter John Collee don’t shy away from killing main characters, some that would probably be safe in a more Hollywood version of this tragedy.
Dev Patel offers a typically warm and relatable performance as Arjun, a man who truly puts the customer first, like many of the brave employees of the hotel really did during those tragic days. There are plenty of tense moments and violence on screen, with a well-needed balance of warmth that Patel inhibits well. There are also equally solid showings from Nazanin Boniadi, Armie Hammer, Kher, and Isaacs who each have their effective moments of harrowing humanity.
It’s understandable that some viewers may sit through Hotel Mumbai and wonder what the purpose is of seeing people ruthless murdered on screen. If nothing else, it illuminates the brave men and woman of the hotel who willingly stayed behind instead of escaping to put their lives on the line to maintain their duty to their customers. It’s a reminder that even though there is so much evil in the world, there always remains a small sliver of hope and that, in the end, there are enough truly good people out there who will help us maintain our humanity.