FILM REVIEW: Hotel Mumbai
A gripping true story of humanity and heroism, Hotel Mumbai vividly recounts the 2008 siege of the famed Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists in Mumbai, India. Among the dedicated hotel staff is the renowned chef Hemant Oberoi and a waiter, who choose to risk their lives to protect their guests. As the world watches on, a desperate couple is forced to make unthinkable sacrifices to protect their newborn child.
Director: Anthony Maras
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher
Review by Jean Wong
Hotel Mumbai (2019) starts with a picture of serenity, one of the few rare moments in the film. The terrorists are making their way to India on a dinghy while verses from the Quran are recited to them via their earpieces, and consequently to us as well. Knowing what they’re about to do next draws out a chilling effect in the wake of this scene. In the distance is Mumbai, a rowdy and bustling city, unperturbed.
As the terrorists begin preparing their coordinated attacks in various parts of Mumbai, a feeling of unease washes over us. By the time the terrorists make their way to the hotel, we are completely swept along on the wave of terror that is taking over Mumbai. In this way, director Anthony Maras knows to jump straight into the action to swiftly and effectively raise fear in us.
And this is totally justifiable. Hotel Mumbai is, after all, a grave film based on true events of the Taj Mahal Hotel attacks in 2008. Perhaps in a safe city like Singapore, we are often sheltered from such devastating occurrences that incidents like these may seem unreal to us. Films like Hotel Mumbai remind us that the world can still be a cruel place.
Rather than following a single protagonist, Maras (who also co-wrote the film) switches around between a handful of characters to include a variety of perspectives that are unified under one commonality — fear. Head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher), waiter Arjun (Dev Patel), newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) as well as Russian guest Vasili (Jason Isaacs) are amongst the more prominent characters in the film.
By having a variety of characters to play around with, Maras manages to provide subtle commentary on topics such as religion. Arjun, a Sikh, faces scrutiny from a racist guest questioning his turban. Zahra, in the darkest moment of the siege, begins reciting Muslim prayers. And Vasili fiercely protects his symbol of faith — a necklace of a Christian cross — when the terrorists attempt to pull it off him. Despite the difference in faiths between all these characters, we witness brief moments of solidarity when they all fight for their lives and help each other to survive. It is these moments that give the film a sense of tenderness amidst all the violence.
The terrorists are introduced to us as heartless and bloodthirsty — but that portrayal does not stick throughout the film. The conscious choice not to paint the terrorists as completely inhumane nudges the audience away from the easy solution of condemning them. As one of the perpetrators calls his family in a show of love and concern, we feel strangely conflicted when we end up empathising with him. Terrorism — and other crimes — are not always a simple case of good versus evil, and Hotel Mumbai does a delicate job in succinctly showing that grey areas exist.
The film, however, had unintentional moments of humour that may perhaps have been there for brief comedic relief but took me out of the experience. The execution of such scenes was, although funny, done in bad taste. The solemnity of the topic dealt with in Hotel Mumbai would hardly warrant the insertion of a few distasteful jokes — for me, it seemed to make light of the tragic events that actually took place.
Still, Hotel Mumbai redeems itself through incorporating real news footage from the 2008 attacks. Maras dares us to shrug off the gripping horror of it all. While Hotel Mumbai may just be a film, the use of the news footage once again drives into us the severity of the situation. When the credits roll, the film may be over, but such attacks are still happening. Real lives were lost that day and are still being lost. Hotel Mumbai may be a graphic and sometimes uncomfortable reminder of a tragedy, but it is one that is much needed.
Hotel Mumbai is currently showing in cinemas across Singapore.