This was a film that nearly didn’t get here. Director Anthony Maras’ first feature was shot three years ago, premiered at Toronto last year so that Hotel Mumbai should have been released in November 2018 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the events that inspired the film. But, with the rights belonging to the Weinstein Company, it became mired in the bankruptcy proceedings. Cue Sky Cinema to the rescue, which means it now gets a digital and cinema release at the same time.
Worth the wait? On the whole, yes. It tells the story of the events at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India’s financial centre, when over 100 guests died in a terrorist attack at what their killers regarded as a symbol of western affluence, exploitation and decadence. But the focus of the film is just as much on the hotel staff who managed to protect many guests and lead them to safety, often at the cost of their own lives. So it’s harrowing stuff, potentially horrific, but with such a vast setting and hundreds of people involved, how on earth do you whittle that down into a film?
It starts off quietly, as we get to know one of the members of staff. Waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) is a family man with a young child and, on what turns out to be the day of the attacks, he arrives for work incorrectly dressed and is almost sent home. Just as well his boss changed his mind, as the young Seikh turns out to be one of the heroes of the hour. It’s apparent he’s a composite character and Maras uses a similar technique with some of the others. Armie Hammer’s David, for instance, is a parallel for Arjun, an American architect staying at the hotel with his wife and young baby. It’s doubtful, though, that the description fits Jason Isaacs’ Vasili, an unpleasant Russian who nonetheless provides some humour amidst the grim goings-on and who turns out to be the kind of person you want on your side in a crisis like this. We all have our strengths.
And it’s a terrible, shocking situation. The gunmen slip into the hotel in the midst of the chaos outside that they’ve already created – the hotel, as well as being a landmark, is a haven from the noisy outside world and a natural place of refuge when things turn violent. The scenes where the gunmen mow down staff and guests without a second thought are chilling and yet never over-explicit – what you imagine is always far worse than what you actually see. And, despite there being so many people, which means you can only become invested in small number, it’s still affecting. You might not think you’re getting involved in what’s on screen, but you definitely are.
Maras manages to maintain the tension partly through the emotional appeal of Hammer, his wife and baby, and partly through the mounting number of hostages taken by the gunmen. It’s made all the more chilling by the detached voice of the mastermind behind the attack in the earpieces of the various gunmen. We never learn his name – he’s only ever referred to as Brother – which makes him even more sinister. Their conversations are based on transcripts of the actual calls between them and, indeed, the film itself is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with witnesses and survivors of the attack. It all adds up to a thoughtful thriller, one that tries to introduce some balance by showing the terrorists’ connections with their own families, and one that conveys the fear and brutality that went with their actions. It’s not a film that reaches stellar heights, but it will capture your attention, despite the knowledge that so many met a terrible and tragic fate.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Thriller, Drama, True Life | UK, 27 September (2019) | Sky Cinema | Dir. Anthony Maras | Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher