When United 93 came out in 2006 watching it felt like a necessity. With the 9/11 terrorist attack happening just five years prior, there wasn’t necessarily a question about whether it was in good taste but that it was important to honor the victims by enmeshing ourselves in what they went through. Experiencing the movie at the time was intense and haunting – and brought a healthy dose of nausea considering director Paul Greengrass’ penchant for handheld cinematography. What we were left with was a movie you didn’t necessarily ever want to see again, but that you would never forget. Watching director Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai elicited similar feelings. Maras’ unflinching portrait of a city under siege will leave you shaken as it explores an event most Westerners probably don’t even remember.
In 2008 the city of Mumbai suffered a coordinated series of attacks by a terrorist group who eventually made their way to the prominent Taj Mahal Hotel in the city. Taking control of the hotel and executing the guests en masse, a group of hostages must band together in order to escape alive.
November 26th, 2008 started off like any other. Maras presents the city of Mumbai as bustling and crowded. Dev Patel’s Arjun, the closest thing we get to a protagonist in a movie that’s an ensemble piece, gets ready to go to work, kissing his wife and daughter goodbye. Arjun works at the Taj Mahal Hotel, referred to as “the Taj.” The Taj is known for its five-star comfort and quality with scenes of Mumbai’s city streets being sharply contrasted with the Taj’s opulence and affluence. At the Taj the “guest is God” in a city where most people don’t have running water and peppered throughout this movie filled with violence and trauma is a pointed class critique. The terrorists themselves are wowed by the beauty of the Taj, mesmerized by flush toilets and the food that’s in abundance. At one point a terrorist calls his father to ask if the money that is being paid for the attack has been sent. The script begs the question of how much are attacks like these motivated by money and the belief that a certain group is superior?
Hotel Mumbai eschews much of the jingoistic patriotism often found in movies like this. This isn’t American Sniper or Lone Survivor wherein good-hearted Americans are the only ones able to save us from the evil brown baddies. In fact much of the script focuses on the Indian cast, which outnumbers the two American actors being prominently used in advertising. There’s an emphasis on showing not just the class distinctions within Mumbai itself, but also the racism that comes from being a staff member in an Indian hotel known for isolating itself from India proper. In this case, the staff at the front are all English speakers with lighter skin compared to the kitchen staff. Once all hell breaks loose a white woman immediately starts to grouse about Arjun’s turban and a woman speaking in a foreign language. Are they terrorists? The movie immediately calls out this behavior, with Patel giving an impassioned speech that condemns racism without being rude or over-the-top.
In fact, the tempering of characters is necessarily in a movie that is so unrepentant in its violence. Hotel is a bleak, oppressive movie where once the terrorists enter the hotel, the horror is non-stop. We watch the practicality of these men as they start going room-to-room shooting people, opening fire in a crowded lobby, at one point they force the receptionist to call guests. The evil on display is insidious and yet the script understands that to present these young men – at one point a cop notices in bewilderment that they look like children – as simply bad is pointless. However by the second hour there’s a limit to the amount of headshots you’re willing to watch.
Make no mistake, everyone is expendable in this movie and half of the film’s shock is realizing how your own movie-going experiences end up being wrong. If you look at the cast list you’d expect certain people to become the heroes, or at least make it to the end, and the script doesn’t even give you that comfort. In fact, it leaves you questioning what it says about the audience that you expect the Americans to live or the Indians to die. Patel is heartwrenching as Arjun. He’s empathetic and a solid leading man who gives you an anchor by which to walk through the movie with.
As Zahra, a wealthy daughter of Mumbai returning to the city with her new husband (played by Armie Hammer) and baby, actress Nazanin Boniadi finally gets a chance to prove she’s not just a pretty face. She captivates as a woman put into a situation she never anticipated. Her scenes opposite Hammer aren’t treacly in the least but authentic, which only makes you bond with them more when they’re both taken hostage. There’s a scene between the two of them that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I saw this three weeks ago. Hammer, to his credit, takes on a smaller role that doesn’t necessarily require an actor of his caliber but it shows that he easily slips into a character who is just an average guy. He’s kindhearted, but never situated as the action hero despite what the trailers are selling you. The weakest link in the cast is Jason Isaacs. Playing the slimy Russian, Vasiliy, his character actually contains all the stereotypical American traits you’d expect in a Lone Survivor ripoff. He hates brown people and generally is just a dick. It’s unclear why, in a movie that has an abundance of nuanced characters, he’s present.
Hotel Mumbai is a pulse-pounding feature that will give you nightmares while simultaneously breaking your heart. An unpredictable, percussive story of survival that doesn’t let up until the final minutes, the movie leaves you thinking about everything from class to movies themselves. Don’t watch the trailers, just go see it.