Watching a filmed dramatization of a historic terrorist attack can be tricky. Such depictions of Mumbai’s coordinated terrorist attacks on November 26, 2008 — which ultimately claimed the lives of 166 victims — are much like films about the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S. It’s a very delicate subject matter with varying types of passionate feelings associated with them.
Hotel Mumbai, as it happens, is a multinational production of Australia and the U.S., in addition to India. Much of the action was filmed in Adelaide, which is where the director, Anthony Maras, is from. The large ensemble cast is quite deliberately international, including the likes of Dev Patel as a hotel attendant; longtime and prolific Indian actor Anupam Kher as the Taj Hotel’s head chef; Jason Isaacs (known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) as a Russian model agent of some sort; and Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as a well-to-do couple with a newborn baby looked after by a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), to name but a small fraction.
This is a film about heroism, sacrifice, and even a pointed lack of judgment toward those who specifically choose not to be heroes or make sacrifices. There’s a real respectability in that, which is really never seen in films. Were this a typical American production, there would be pointed focus on the heroes and survivors. Well, you should know this: not all of the principal characters make it.
These attacks in Mumbai may have been coordinated, but their execution and fallout were largely chaotic. The attacks included bombings and shootings in multiple locations, which Anthony Maras shows unfolding in a way that serves the narrative. But he smartly chooses one part of it on which to narrow the focus for this story: namely, the many staff of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel who chose to stay and attempt to protect their guests. Many of them made it out — many of them did not.
There is too much going on and far too many characters to get to know any of them truly; as such, Hotel Mumbai is less of a narrative story than simply a very humanized depiction of a terrible event. Something like this doesn’t quite qualify as entertainment, but it is both gripping — and sobering. The fact that not all the characters the story singles out actually live to the end is a key element, underscoring an essential truth about senseless attacks. You don’t get to just choose to zero in on the “good” people who made it out alive.
And given the sensitivity of the material, Maras depicts the events with respect and tastefulness, showing violence in ways that effectively convey the horrors at hand without once even hinting at sensationalizing them. Regardless, it’s easy to see how it could be difficult for some to sit through. After the screening I attended, I walked past an evidently South Asian couple, the young man consoling the crying woman. Do they have some personal connection to this event? Are they just random, unusually sensitive audience members? Does it matter?
Apparently quite a lot of films have already been made about these 2008 Mumbai attacks. This happens to be the first one I ever saw, and its angle is the Taj Hotel staff and the sacrifices they made as they were stuck inside the hotel for hours, waiting for special forces to come from Delhi to this city otherwise defenseless against an attack of this magnitude.
And Hotel Mumbai is nothing if not consistent: an equal level of quality in every aspect of its production. It can be difficult to sit through, but at least from an outsider perspective, it seems to honor the many victims well, from the hotel staff to the guests to the local law enforcement who did their best with what little resources they had. It’s heartening, at least, to see that within a couple of years the Taj Hotel was rebuit, as the closing title cards state, “to its former glory.”