From Nov. 26 through Nov. 29 in 2008, the city of Mumbai, India came under siege from a squad of 10 jihadists who entered the metropolis via a hijacked fishing vessel and proceeded to create chaos and carnage through a series of shootings and bombings at key targets throughout the city. The central assault took place at the fabled Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a seven-story luxury jewel in the heart of Mumbai where some 500 guests and staff were trapped by four of the terrorists. By the time the attacks were over, more than 170 were dead throughout the city, including 32 at the wrecked hotel.
The events inside the Taj are the central concern of Hotel Mumbai, the feature directorial debut from Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras. Mixing a traditional narrative style with judicious use of actual footage from those three horrific days, Maras has concocted an undeniably tense, gripping thriller that will make the viewer feel exhausted once it’s over–while also wondering exactly what the point of the film was to begin with.
Maras sets up his story like a disaster movie: We briefly meet most of the principal characters, including some based directly on real-life people like the hotel’s head chef Hemant Oberoi (played by Bollywood legend Anupam Kher), and others that are composites, such as gentle waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) and a wealthy couple (Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi) traveling with their baby and nanny. Meanwhile the terrorists arrive stealthily in the city, encouraged on their mission by an unseen leader who declares from a mobile phone, “Look at all they’ve stolen from your fathers and grandfathers.”
That statement and the glaring dichotomies inherent in Mumbai itself–the opulent Taj is literally blocks away from neighborhoods of abject poverty–could provide some context for a film with larger thematic concerns. But once the attacks begin, Hotel Mumbai turns into more or less an action thriller, albeit a more intense, dread-soaked one than any we’ve seen in a while, in which the characters ensnared in the hotel’s labyrinthine corridors and rooms play cat-and-mouse with their attackers.
The cast itself is almost uniformly terrific, even if they’re given precious little to work with in terms of characterization. Leading the way is the great Kher, whose own natural dignity and warmth turn Oberoi, who did lead a contingent of staff members on a quest to protect their guests, into a model of grace and courage even as he makes mistakes and doubts his decisions. Patel, Boniadi, and Hammer are effective but have more stock roles. In one heavy-handed moment, Patel tries to calm an elderly white woman who objects to his turban; Boniadi fares better in an excruciating sequence where she begins reciting a Muslim prayer and throws the terrorist who was about to murder her into confusion.
The attackers themselves are even more thinly sketched, although there is some sort of black amusement in their reactions to the hotel itself when they first walk in: one half-expects them to toss away their weapons and book a room instead. But the composed, methodical way in which the foursome go about their rampage is chilling to the bone, especially in one sequence where they slaughter the hotel receptionists in cold blood after forcing them to call up to several rooms and lure guests out.
Fortunately, Maras and co-writer John Collee veer away from going the full action-movie route. There are a number of unexpected deaths in the film (killings which might not pass muster in a larger Hollywood spectacle) and even the heroics of someone like Oberoi are handled in a restrained manner. But once the smoke clears and the film reaches its conclusion, one has to wonder what are the filmmakers trying to say? Is there an objective to recreating theses horrendous events in such a heavily fictionalized manner?
There’s little mention made of the terrorist group itself (reportedly the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba), and the only passing reference to the possible religious background of all this comes when a decadent Russian guest played by Jason Isaacs objects to a waiter saying he’ll pray for him (confusing two entirely separate religions while doing so): “Fuck your prayers. That’s what started this shit.” That and the idea that the jihadists are somehow avenging how wealth and resources have been snatched from them provide a few seeds for debate and dramatic perspective, but they’re just left sitting out there while we watch Armie Hammer slink through the hotel to rescue his baby.
Hotel Mumbai doesn’t quite sink to the level of exploitation (it’s too well-made for that), but it doesn’t rise to the heights of great drama either. It’s hard not to get drawn into the narrative, but it’s not “entertaining” and it doesn’t feel edifying either. The need to create compelling cinema clashes with the tragic reality and in some cases the open-ended manner in which the actual events occurred. Like Paul Greengrass’s 22 July or Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, Hotel Mumbai lets the incident play out and leaves the viewer wondering, “Was I supposed to be enlightened somehow?” Because I sure as hell don’t feel it.
Hotel Mumbai is out in theaters Friday, March 22.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye