If we have to keep making action movies out of the most unspeakably horrifying terrorist attacks of the 21st century (and that’s still up for debate), they might as well be as lucid and humane as Anthony Maras’ “Hotel Mumbai.” A dramatization of the November 2008 ambush on India’s largest city, the film — it should go without saying — is harrowing to the extreme. Almost unbearable, in fact.
However, Maras’ powerful debut feature only deserves so much credit for its immaculate craft. It isn’t hard to pillage riveting entertainment from the scene of a real massacre, and scavenging the dead for cheap suspense often is closer to robbing graves than it is to making art. The value of a movie like “Hotel Mumbai,” or “U-July 22,” or “United 93” is not and cannot be measured by how engaging it is to watch. The grisly spectacle is only a means to an end. What redeems “Hotel Mumbai” from morbid opportunism is that, in all but its slickest and most Hollywood moments, the thrills of Maras’ heart-wrenching re-enactment are never an end unto themselves. Even when a desperate Armie Hammer is running around in search of his missing baby, or a stoic Dev Patel is delivering a covert audition to be the next James Bond, the movie is leveraging its sick violence to humanize the people on either side of it.
Shot with quiet confidence, “Hotel Mumbai” begins with the terrorists, as 10 members of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba land their inflatable speedboat on the city shores. Within minutes, two of the jihadists are indiscriminately shooting up the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, while the others spread the bloodshed across the city. Meanwhile, at the monumental Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a low-ranking employee named Arjun (a movingly heroic Patel) is having a rough day; his sick baby made him late to work, and he’s lost a shoe on the way. That kind of thing doesn’t fly at a five-star luxury resort that prides itself on excellence — an excellence embodied by world-class chef Hemant Oberoi (the great Anupam Kher, recently seen in “The Big Sick”), who is the only real person represented in the movie aside from the terrorists.
Everyone else is a fictional composite of victims, survivors, and police, all of whom have clearly been engineered for maximum narrative efficiency. While Arjun is almost sent home for his misconduct, the rest of the staff at the five-star luxury resort are racing to get things ready for their VIP guests, including a white architect called David (Hammer, convincing in a thankless role), his beautiful Middle Eastern wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), their babysitter (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), and their baby.
The other high-roller we meet is a (very) lecherous (and very) Russian businessman played by Jason Isaacs, who starts off as something of a heel before the terrorists storm the hotel and the battle lines are redrawn. His accent alone is thick enough to tip the movie toward Hollywood every time he speaks, but Isaacs’ over-the-top performance is comic relief in the truest sense. After sitting through the savageness of the attack, which Maras stages (on a convincing Adelaide set) with excruciating but unostentatious clarity, any respite is welcome.
Of course, Isaac’s ultra-affluent character also serves a deeper narrative purpose: His white and wealthy entitlement allows him a presumption of survival. Everyone flees to the expensive hotel when the shooting begins on the streets outside, and Vasili epitomizes why: Money and class are naturally conflated with safety. There’s a good reason why the terrorists knew that indiscriminate bloodshed would funnel people toward such a towering symbol of wealth and progress. Needless to say, a large bank account is no guarantee of coming out alive, and “Hotel Mumbai” dismantles the notion that it should be. It’s not that Maras suggests the rich deserve to be murdered, but rather that he sees this vivid nightmare as a reminder that social hierarchies — and the otherness they inspire — are anathema to what little solidarity still keeps this world cinched together.
There’s a big sign in the employee area of the hotel that the staff is forced to read aloud every day and repeat as a mantra: “Guest is God.” If the terrorists are motivated by one demented ideology, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the staff is motivated by another — some of them are even willing to risk death for their faith in customer relations. In a lesser movie that fixated on its Western victims, this might have gone unquestioned; in a lesser movie, it might have been taken for granted that brown lives were somehow worth less than the white ones they served.
But, with the benefit of facts on its side, “Hotel Mumbai” leverages the broken dichotomy between guests and staff as an opportunity to celebrate the heroism of the Taj’s Indian employees, who don’t abandon their clientele just because they can. When the world is upside down, and the people who work in the bowels of the hotel are given the greatest chance of escape, most stay behind (though the film makes a point not to shame the ones who leave). They refuse to make the distinction between tourists and natives, refuse to be clouded by the shadow of colonialism, refuse to believe that they were stronger alone than they were all together. Even when Maras’ script (co-written by John Collee) is a bit clumsy about how it pushes Arjun and Oberoi into leadership roles — brace for a racist old white lady, and a scene in which Arjun dissolves her fear by explaining the meaning of his turban — Patel and Kher are believable enough to push through these eye-roll moments.
That makes for a transparently stark contrast with the terrorists, who have been indoctrinated to think about their targets as if they’re animals. And yet, Maras’ script even affords the murderers a measure of humanity without absolving them of their sins. The terrorists are almost as scared as everyone else, instilling fear in others in order to obliviate their own. They tell jokes. They call their parents. The movie doesn’t ask its audience to forgive the killers, or to sympathize with them in the slightest; it just argues for the unrealized potential of these lost young men, who were nurtured by a hatred that didn’t come to them naturally.
As effective as “Hotel Mumbai” can be at illustrating these optimistic ideas, its obvious fictions can’t help but cheapen them; the decision to intercut real news footage from 2008 might have been necessary to make this dramatization more believable, but it also underscores the full extent of the film’s artifice. That the screenwriters’ guiding hand — and not the wrinkles of history — determine who lives and who dies, needlessly complicates the suspense. But if any of the humanity mined by Maras’ film ever takes root, perhaps the real victims who inspired these fine stand-ins will not have died in vain.
“Hotel Mumbai” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release the film in theaters in 2019.