Completed in 2018 and rolling out in India a year later, Hotel Mumbai is a perfectly adequate horror movie about the dangers that lurk just beyond the door. Using cinematic devices usually associated with the spine-chiller or the suspense thriller, Anthony Maras’s 128-minute drama is about a very real kind of terror, with flesh-and-blood monsters driven by a powerful and persuasive higher force.
The movie picks the chapter from the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai that riveted the world: the siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood between November 26 and 29. More people died at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj railway station on November 26 than at the luxury outpost. Yet, it is the hotel that inspired Nicholas Saada’s 2015 French production Taj Mahal and continues to guide filmmakers looking for a real-life example of unvarnished horror and unrelenting human drama.
The attack was carried out by Pakistani terrorists who were guided over the phone by their handlers in real time. In the movie, the handlers are represented by the single voice of Pawan Chopra. He exhorts the highly trained, singularly motivated young recruits to show no mercy. They are sickeningly obedient, and the movie’s most harrowing portions are the ones that show the methodic slaughter of innocents.
The documentary-like recreation of events inside the hotel are sought to be humanised through a set of key characters. The Indian characters mostly serve as support staff for their privileged guests. Anupam Kher plays chef Hemant Oberoi, among the Taj staff who stayed behind to carry out the maxim “The guest is god” to the fullest. For some, this meant losing lives in the bargain. Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi are David and Zahra, an inter-faith couple accompanied by their infant son and his nanny Sally (Tilda-Cobham-Hervey). Jason Isaacs plays Soviet businessman Vasili, who proves that appearances can be deceptive. Nearly every guest shows exceptional bravery in unimaginable circumstances, but only Vasili emerges as a well-rounded character.
The movie eschews heroics, opting to celebrate everyday valour – best exemplified by the pathetic attempts of the targets to protect themselves against sophisticated weaponry with kitchen knives and candle sticks. Dev Patel’s waiter Arjun comes the closest to a conventional leading man. Patel’s happy-to-help skills were previously deployed in the British productions The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and the sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). Patel and hotels are clearly a lethal combination, as revealed by Arjun’s initial workplace challenges. Arjun is late for work and the shoes don’t fit, earning a reprimand from the pernickety Oberoi.
And yet, Arjun proves to be a valuable accidental soldier, shepherding guests to safety and helping the Mumbai police in important ways.
Patel’s Hindi accent has a hint of Peter Sellers from The Party (1968). The British actor’s Indian heritage has resulted in him being cast in roles that might have been better executed by local talent. Patel is undeniably sincere, but his goggle-eyed reactions and earnest attempts to placate a blatantly racist guest are clumsy spots in an otherwise smooth and well-performed film.
Since Hotel Mumbai mostly focuses on the “how” rather than the “why”, there isn’t any scope to explore the delayed response of Indian security agencies, which led to the siege lasting longer than it should have. The movie compresses the duration of the attack on the Taj, sidestepping larger questions on intelligence failures and the Indian government’s ham-handed response.
Rather than point fingers, the screenplay by Anthony Maras and John Collee focuses on the visceral experiences of the guests. In this regard, Hotel Mumbai rarely disappoints. Jump scares, sudden deaths, mistimed escape attempts, escalating dread and ominous background music combine to ratchet up the tension, providing a full measure of what terror looks and feels like.
No Indian production has come close to reimagining the Taj attack in such sickening detail. The movie is made more effective by the actors who play the ruthless terrorists. Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Manoj Mehra, Dinesh Kumar, Amritpal Singh and Kapil Kumar Netra have the unenviable job of portraying killing machines, and they prove to be excellent choices. As they scour the hotel’s innards and unerringly pick out their victims, they put their stamp on the recreation of an episode that Indian viewers, especially residents of Mumbai, perhaps didn’t need to revisit, but might nevertheless feel compelled to. As a voyeuristic action spectacle, the movie is all too effective, even though the “why” of it remains as elusive as mercy in Mumbai for four terrible days.