Keeping within the genre of disaster/survival movies, writer-director Anthony Maras zooms into one of the sites of a horrific attack on Mumbai on 26 November 2008. The Taj Mahal Hotel and Mumbai city were under siege for 72 hours as terrorists rained bullets indiscriminately around the city.
Maras and co-writer John Collee’s film opens with the arrival of a group of young men with heavy bags on their backs and a voice in their ears that constantly directs them and reminds them of their mission and the promise of heaven.
In the plush Taj Mahal hotel, the staff is preparing for a busy evening. The screenplay tracks into a few guests and hotel staff. Among the guests are a newly married couple (played by Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi) with an infant child and nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a Russian businessman (Jason Isaacs), a backpacker and his girlfriend. It’s curious that the only real life character is that of chef Hemant Oberoi, played by Anupam Kher. Oberoi is one of the heroes of this piece, supported by a fictitious hotel staff member called Arjun, played by Dev Patel.
Through them we witness the devastation, fear, horror, and resilience of those that made it and those that shepherded them through the worst nightmare imaginable. Patel, Kher, Hammer, Boniadi capture the stress, desperation, resolve, bravery and sacrifice remarkably.
Not only is the film based on the Emmy-nominated documentary Surviving Mumbai but the makers also got access to the transcripts of the original phone conversations between the hotel staff and rescue team. But the script has fictional attributes too (the café under attack is called Lilopal) and blends assorted incidents and stories from that time.
The language shifts naturally between Punjabi, Hindi, English, Marathi, Russian etc., but the put-on Indian accents adopted by the foreign actors are jarring at times and an ignorance of Indian culture is sharply in focus when Maras shows a couple publicly kissing each other goodbye in their low-income housing colony. The decision to humanise the terrorists is also questionable.
The hotel set is cleverly designed and Nick Remy Mathews moves his camera swiftly around the heavily armed terrorists. The intercutting of real-life footage and news clippings with recreated action is a reminder of the chaos and horrors unfolding around the city.
Maras directs with a sure hand and his actors approach the subject with sensitivity. Hotel Mumbai is a disturbing and haunting reminder of what so many endured. It’s a tribute not only to those who did not survive but also to those who took infinite risks for the survival of others.