I don’t remember the events of Hotel Mumbai happening in late 2008, though I was following the news pretty regularly by that time. I’m not sure whether I just didn’t read the paper that day (we got a real newspaper back in those days, the kind that was tossed out a minivan window early each morning), or whether the story was buried under post-election rants. Regardless, I wasn’t familiar with the story prior to watching this film.
Based on the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai (which I have not seen), the film details the events of November 26-29, 2008, in Mumbai, India, where ten young men, radicalized in Pakistan by one of the largest Islamic terrorist groups, wreaked havoc on the city. From shootings at a train station, to gunfire and grenades at a café and a multi-day standoff in the renown Taj Hotel, the event ended with the deaths of around 166 individuals and nine terrorists.
As the title indicates, Hotel Mumbai focuses primarily on the events that unfolded within the hotel, with Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Nazanin Boniadi, and Armie Hammer in central roles as hotel staff and guests.
Arjun (Dev Patel) is a waiter at the Taj Hotel, who reports for work late, and without the proper shoes. He’s saved from being sent away by the head chef, Hement Oberoi (Anupam Kher) who lets him borrow a pair of shoes, albeit a couple sizes too small. Whether this act of kindness is a blessing or a curse is up for debate. Meanwhile, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), an Iranian-British heiress and her American husband David (Armie Hammer), arrive for a stay with their infant son and the nanny. They are at dinner in one of the hotel’s fine restaurants when the attack begins. David is able to sneak back to their room for the baby and nanny, while Zahra shelters in the restaurant with Arjun and other guests.
With “Brother Bull,” the mastermind of the operation, calling at regular intervals to advise them, the terrorists continue blazing a path of destruction through the hotel, shooting anyone who moves. While some of the guests and hotel staff are able to move to a more secure location within the hotel, David, the nanny, and the baby begin a treacherous journey to try to meet up with them. Outside, local police assemble, waiting for tactical teams from Delhi to arrive before breaching. One of the terrorists from a different attack site is captured and another killed.
With police finally closing in, Brother Bull authorizes the final phase: burning the hotel and killing the hostages. Zahra, singing a Muslim prayer, manages to avoid execution, while David and the others in the room are killed. The nanny and baby, who’d hidden in a storage closet, escape, and Chef Oberoi and Arjun shepherd a group of guests to safety.
The intensity of the film is both surprising and sobering. And it’s not just me; I’ve heard the same from several others as well. It’s not easy to watch, and it’s rated R for a reason, so if blood and killing aren’t your thing, it might be best to sit this one out. With that said, the intensity and violence displayed here strikes a far different tone than the one found in many films today. There’s nothing gratuitous or celebratory about the violence, nor does the camera linger on the destruction unnecessarily.
Rather, much of the death and violence occurs either off-camera or almost off-camera. Most of the time, we see more of the aftermath than the action. We hear the bark of semi-automatic rifles and see the flash of muzzle fire, and we see the death both have wrought. But close-up images of people shot at point-blank range are rare, few and far between. It’s as if the filmmakers give their audience the building blocks and allow each viewer to assemble the pieces. Which, if anything, creates a more intense and disturbing experience than one in which nothing is left to the imagination.
Hotel Mumbai highlights the individual heroism of staff and guests, and wraps up with footage of the actual reopening ceremony, which occurred a mere twenty-one months after the attacks. If you have the opportunity, it’s well worth a watch on the big screen.