Hotel Mumbai has to be the most sadistic, grim and distressing narrative film this critic has seen since Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Anthony Maras’s debut feature is an utterly relentless, chilling depiction of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, centred on the assault in the Taj Mahal when Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists stealthily entered the Grand Hotel and set off several explosions, killing dozens of civilians. It’s tough to watch and tough to recommend.
The director’s biggest misstep is in his choice of principal characters – they include American hotel guest David (Armie Hammer), his British-Muslim wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and their English nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), the palace’s chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and his scrambling underling Arjun (Dev Patel), Russian rich man Vasili (Jason Isaacs) and a white couple on the run from an attack elsewhere in the city.
Prominence is given to the white characters – dozens of affected brown citizens are reduced to bokeh – and by spending more time with them than with the natives being gunned down, it seems as though Maras wants us to feel especially sorry for them at the expense of the hundreds of Indians who were injured and killed that November.
Strikingly enough, the single most powerful moment isn’t with Hammer or Isaacs or any other primarily Anglophone character, but with Patel’s Sikh waiter, when he explains the significance of his turban to a prejudiced old woman at the height of her paranoia. Likewise, Boniadi’s character offers a valuable perspective as a Muslim. Isaacs offers comic moments that are not necessary but definitely a relief.
However, the Indian performers who play the Pakistani killers get equal – or perhaps greater – time on screen, commanded over the phone by a ruthless mastermind named Bull. They’re devoid of any humanity, completely inconsistent in their religious beliefs, framed like horror movie characters lurking around corners and dispatching innocents on sight. Hotel Mumbai’s craft is astonishing, making for a truly intense experience, but this reviewer will be eternally debating whether this was the right way to have told the story, as Maras walks the ultra-thin line between authenticity and exploitation in his choice to put the terrorists front and centre.
Hotel Mumbai is released in select cinemas and on Sky on 27th September 2019.
Watch the trailer for Hotel Mumbai here: