Going to great lengths to depict, in nail-biting detail and with an impressive you-are-there quality, the terrorist attacks that targeted Mumbai and its legendary Taj Mahal Palace Hotel back in 2008, director Anthony Maras’ feature debut truly covers the event from all angles: the wealthy guests whose holidays transformed into a collective nightmare; the hotel staff who bravely stuck around and risked their lives; the cops who were overwhelmed by an unprecedented crisis; and the terrorists themselves, who mercilessly gunned down the innocent for a cause they too would die for.
Yet what’s missing in Hotel Mumbai, which had its world premiere in Toronto, is something close to an actual point of view. Eschewing any probing political or social commentary to focus solely on the event itself, while offering up a triumph-over-adversity tale we’ve seen too many times before, the film is both gripping in its execution — although a two-hours-plus running time feels a bit stretched — and totally bland in what it’s trying to say, with characters who don’t really stand out onscreen. Still, the true story could find a decent following both in the U.S., where Bleecker Street picked up the rights after original rightsholders The Weinstein Co. fell apart, as well as overseas.
A harrowing recreation of a horrible event. But what else?
Set during what feels like one never-ending night (in reality the ordeal lasted for three days), the script — by Maras and John Collee (Happy Feet, Master and Commander) — covers the hotel attack from top to bottom, following about a dozen characters from different backgrounds who find themselves caught in various parts of the immense building when the shootings begin.
There are the recently married lovebirds, David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), whose infant baby is stuck upstairs with their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). There’s the womanizing Russian businessman (Jason Isaacs, doing the accent et al). There are the faithful members of the Taj staff, especially the quick-on-his-feet waiter, Arjun (Dev Patel), and the courageous head chef, Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher). And there are the four assailants (Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi, Gaurav Paswala), who roam the lobby and hallways armed to the teeth, taking out guests and employees in a completely cold-blooded fashion.
With only a handful of shorts to his name, Maras does an excellent job on such an ambitious first feature, covering every corner of the hotel and making each gunshot or explosion feel like the real thing. And while he cuts away to omit the more gruesome violence, the film never ignores the truly horrific nature of the attacks — especially in a disturbing scene where the hotel receptionists are forced at gunpoint to talk guests out of their rooms, then are summarily executed for refusing.
The level of verisimilitude is so high that when Maras cuts in actual documentary footage, it’s hard to tell it apart from the fiction. Craft contributions, including uncanny set design by Steven Jones-Evans (The Railway Man) and kinetic cinematography by Nick Remy Matthews (also making his feature debut), enhance the idea that these are real events — or at least as close to reality as a movie can be.
Yet as you watch people getting shot left and right while the principals remain alive, at least for the time being, you start to wonder at one point: Why am I sitting though this? Perhaps if the characters felt like more than mere two-dimensional beings (the heroic dad, the loyal waiter, the frightened babysitter, the decadent Russian, the regretful terrorist), there would be something to maintain our interest, but all you can really do in Hotel Mumbai is wait for more bodies to drop until a rescue squad arrives. (The film repeatedly points out how the closest SWAT team was 800 miles away in New Delhi, which is why it took so long to liberate the hostages.)
Performances are fine across the board, with Patel and Kher particularly touching as two men dedicated to their clients (“The guest is god” is the mantra we hear repeated several times by the staff), while Hammer registers less as a father helplessly trying to save his family. The four men playing the terrorists are also convincing, switching between ruthless killings, moments of frustration or confusion and a few bits of comedy, which seems absurd but actually works quite well, helping to somewhat diffuse the tension.
Still, when the smoke clears — for those who don’t remember, the Taj eventually caught fire from the many explosions that were set off — and a few characters survive while a few others don’t, you can’t help but question the whole enterprise. Maras deserves credit for recreating the attacks so faithfully, and, one can say, so vehemently, and there are definitely a few unpleasantly intense moments in his movie. He also does a nice job underlining the heroism of the hotel workers who stuck around to save their guests. But those are just the facts embellished with some fiction. When you’re dealing with real lives and events like this, you need to dig deeper.
Production companies: Hamilton Films, Thunder Road Films, Electric Pictures, Xeitgeist Entertainment Group
Cast: Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Nazanin Bondiadi, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs
Director: Anthony Maras
Screenwriters: John Collee, Anthony Maras, inspired by the documentary Surviving Mumbai
Producers: Gary Hamilton, Mike Gabrawy, Julie Ryan, Andrew Ogilvie, Jomon Thomas
Executive producers: Ryan Hamilton, Ying Ye, Simon Williams, Anthony Maras, Dev Patel, John Collee, Mark Montgomery, Natalya Pavchinskaya, Bryce Menzies, Andrea Quesnelle, Joan Peters, Joseph N. Cohen, Gary Ellis, Richard Toussaint, Catherine Prosser, Anand Tharmaratnam, Manraj. S. Sekhon, Masaaki Tanaka, Simran Bedi, Min Li Tan
Director of photography: Nick Remy Matthews
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans
Costume designer: Anna Borghesi
Editors: Peter McNulty, Anthony Maras
Composer: Volker Berterlmann
Casting directors: Ann Fay, Leigh Pickford, Trishaan Sarkar
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Arclight Films
In English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Russian, Persian, Greek, Marathi, Arabic