The most chilling thing about the events depicted in “Hotel Mumbai” is not that they actually happened, not even that they could happen again, but that they are happening even as we speak.
A sombre, unsettling drama about the 2008 attack on India’s largest city by terrorists from Pakistan cuts so close to the bone that it was pulled from theatres in New Zealand in the wake of the recent hate-fuelled massacre in Christchurch.
As horrific as what happened in New Zealand was, it was not of the scale of the Mumbai events, which took place over four days in six locations and left more than 160 dead, not counting nine of the attackers, and some 300 wounded.
Director Anthony Maras (who also co-wrote with John Collee) has focused on what happened at the city’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a landmark of luxury since it opened in 1903 and one of the terrorists’ key targets.
A short-film director making his feature debut, Maras has settled on a strategy that combines harrowing re-creations with largely conventional character development to good effect.
He’s helped by an accomplished cast top-lined by Dev Patel, at his best as a hotel waiter caught in the crisis, and Jason Isaacs, Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi, solid as hotel guests forced to cope with situations they never dreamed of.
These characters are all composites of real Taj guests, and though what happens to them is not always predictable, they and their ability to rise to the occasion have an air of familiarity.
What ‘Hotel Mumbai’ does best is re-create — to an at times unrelenting extent — what the terror and confusion of being in this kind of situation must be like.
Intent on understanding the experience, Maras and his co-writer stayed in the hotel for a month, interviewing numerous employees who survived the attack.
More than that, though much of the action was shot (Nick Remy Matthews was the cinematographer) at another, shuttered Mumbai hotel, the director took pains to see that the actors felt the experience.
Among the tactics used to achieve that: Those who played the guests and those who played the terrorists did not mix off-camera, and large speakers on the set played amplified gunshots at unexpected moments.
The actors were, as Hammer notes in the press material, “essentially living inside of a manufactured terror attack for 12 to 15 hours a day,” and that has helped the film’s feeling of verisimilitude a great deal.
Also somewhat out of the ordinary is ‘Hotel Mumbai’s’ determination to add texture and character to the terrorists. Ruthless about taking life to a seemingly inhuman extent, they also have revealing personal moments depicting them as poor, uneducated and easy prey for manipulative radicalisers.
(The documentary ‘Surviving Mumbai,’ given an ‘Inspired By’ shout-out in the credits, featured readings from intercepted phone calls between the terrorists and their commander, and those calls are used to good effect here.)
It is with those 10 terrorists that ‘Hotel Mumbai’ starts, showing them arriving at the city’s edge on November 26 in a small fishing boat listening to an exhortatory taped message made by their never-seen leader: “You feel strong. There is no fear in your heart. You are like sons to me. I am with you. God is with you. Paradise awaits.” Knowing what is to come, this is chilling material.
Blending into the crowd, the men head off to different targets, including one of the city’s train stations, where more than 100 are killed.
Before any terrorists get to the Taj, we are introduced to the place itself, as well as some of the people who work there. Met first is Arjun (Patel), a caring father to a young daughter who works at the Taj as a waiter. (It was the actor’s idea to have Arjun be a Sikh, adding yet another cross-cultural dimension.)
Arjun’s boss, the no-nonsense chef Hemant Oberoi, is based on a real person and played with zest by the veteran Indian actor Anupam Kher.
We also see the enormous pains the Taj takes to ready its rooms for those staying there, not only drawing a bath, but making sure the temperature is just right. “Here at the Taj, the guest is god,” Oberoi says, and there is no point arguing.
This particular room is being readied for Zahra (Boniadi), a wealthy woman with local ties, her American husband David (Hammer), their infant daughter and accompanying au pair (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
Also wealthy, but of a very different sort, is hard-partying Russian oligarch Vasili (Isaacs), intent on nothing more than the festivities on tap for his rooms.
Once the quartet of terrorists get into the Taj and begin blazing away with their AK-47s, however, everyone’s plans get put on hold.
The staff, which knows secret ways out of the hotel, could have melted away, but the point is made that, echoing what happened in real life, many elected to stay to help the guests. “I’ve been here for 35 years,” one man says. “This is my home.”
With military special forces hours away, the guests and staff have no choice but to play an increasingly nerve-racking cat-and-mouse game with the attackers, trying to figure out how to stay out of the crosshairs of the killers.
“Who are these people, what do they want of us?” a guest asks at one point. No matter how much we eventually find out, that remains a question without a comfortable answer.
Don’t miss it
Hotel Mumbai is now showing across the UAE.