On the 26th November 2008, a group of young men armed with explosives and AK-47s stormed the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the result of a terror spree sweeping across key locations in Mumbai. With instructions being fed to them through an earpiece, the amateur terrorists succeeded in laying siege to the hotel, spreading a trail of chaos and destruction across each floor, in a tragedy that remains seared in the minds of all those who survived.
In capturing the intensity of the siege, director Anthony Maras effectively splits the film’s focus between the staff and guests of the hotel in their fight to survive and the role of the perpetrators in co-ordinating the attacks. With the Mumbai police forces completely unprepared for an attack of this magnitude, the reign of terror lasted three days and the film is relentless in its display of gratuitous violence. Near the beginning, bullets scatter across a packed lobby as bodies drop like flies and the attackers continue their march to the upper floors where, room by room, they shoot unsuspecting guests. Thirty-one individuals lost their lives during the chaos and by not shying away from the ugliness of the act, Maras paints an unnerving picture of the callous disregard the terrorist showed their victims.
However, the film’s perpetual forward momentum means that the violence slowly becomes desensitising and at times teeters on the edge of exploitative Hollywood action territory. The film uses a fair amount of dramatic license to keep events thrilling and sometimes it seems to paint a real-life event in very broad action strokes. Luckily, any detour into action hero territory is quickly dispelled by a screenplay that presents heroes in all shapes and forms.
Indeed, what stands apart, is the strength of the character portraits that emerge amongst the violence. Dev Patel and Anupam Ker play hotel employees who stand by their colleagues and guests at all costs, while Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi play a married couple who risk it all to protect their child. While the characters may be fictional, it’s not hard to imagine numerous stories just like theirs having occurred in real life. Moreover, by interspersing their stories with first hand news footage of the siege, Maras injects an extra element of realism that convincingly ties the film together.
At its core, Hotel Mumbai is a celebration of human resilience and courage in the face of overwhelming evil. By focusing on the humanity amongst the carnage, Hotel Mumbai honours all those who risked, and lost, their lives in the attack.
Words by Dominic Kwaczynski | Film Editor