Based on a documentary describing the harrowing attacks on Mumbai in 2008, HOTEL MUMBAI is a gripping and tense thriller. However, its characters and messages are far too simplistic, with their actions becoming increasingly patience-sapping as the film proceeds.
The film focuses on several individuals throughout the story – which develops into siege-cum-hostage situation – but the moral centre lies firmly with Dev Patel as Arjun: a young worker at the opulent setting of the Taj Hotel. We also follow American David (Armie Hammer) and Indian Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), who are a couple with a young child and nanny in tow. Peripheral characters around this include Jason Isaacs as misogynistic Russian Vasili, the rest of the Taj Hotel staff, and the terrorists themselves.
It is always difficult to portray real events on screen, particularly those based on harrowing events such as these attacks. There is an imperative to balance accuracy of events with dramatic momentum. To create something cinematic creative license must to be taken without disrespectfully sensationalising events. On this front, HOTEL MUMBAI does reasonably well. It comprehensively rejects any sort of white saviour narrative it threatens early on, and early attack scenes are horrifying without explicitly portraying injury on screen. However, the dialogue and little embellishments to the characters, particularly background ones, are what present the film’s bigger problem.
Motivations and actions are often spoken aloud. One of the terrorists explaining “I’ve just finished killing another woman” like he has just finished a stir-fry seems ridiculously pedestrian. This is especially when half-hearted efforts are made to humanise another member of the gang, Imran (Amandeep Singh), and highlight the fact this is not an everyday activity: these men have trained and prepared for this day. When deciding whether to assist guests or escape home, an elderly staff member declaring “I’ve been here 35 years, this is my home” could have been established in a less groan-worthy fashion (his longevity and experience is already clear from the opening sequences).
A film about radical Islamic terrorism wouldn’t be complete, of course, without inserting a random racist old white lady into the mix. Quite how this woman made it to Mumbai being so deeply suspicious of Sikh people is quite the mystery. Arjun calmly explains to her the meaning of his dastaar (of which she is ‘suspicious’ he is told), and somehow Dev Patel – by far and away the most accomplished performance in the film – manages to sell this moment. His skill, however, is still immediately undermined by being lumbered with vocalising that to “get through this we must stick together”.
It becomes very hard to root for characters who are either racist idiots (see above, or Vasili’s “Fuck your prayers, that’s what started this shit”) or make uniformly terrible decisions. More problematically, any sense of plot progression feels like it is predicated solely on people making Very Stupid Movie Decisions™®©. The situation depicted is high stress, therefore it is reasonable to expect questionable decision making – indeed, some fine cinema has been created based on the fallout or rowing back from a terrible decision. When any sense of progression, however, is reliant upon a cycle of it, the goodwill is sapped and replaced with frustration. Whether these are the true actions of the survivors is immaterial: it is up to Anthony Maras’ filmmaking and his co-writer John Collee to make this believable in a cinematic context. With rushed interactions, peripheral characters, and motivations flip-flopping, the film does not.
There are plus points – tension is built up fantastically with the score, just precisely to the point where it can be sustained. Maras also frames shots of the survivors skulking around just out eyeshot of the gun-toting terrorists with considerable detail to dovetail with this. Dev Patel is the lead actor who sells his motivations, creates empathy and is the much-needed heartbeat of the film. His selfless acts are fully believable. Anupam Kheras as chef Oberoi deserves mention, and probably more screen time. Jason Isaacs does very well with the limited role he has, raising chuckles and revulsion in a delicate balance.
HOTEL MUMBAI is excellent at creating tension, but terrible at turning it into any meaningful empathy with or understanding of its wider roster of characters, despite the best efforts of Dev Patel.