Released 2018. Director: Anthony Maras
A TERRIFIED NANNY PEERS THROUGH THE SHUTTERS FROM INSIDE A CLOSET. Outside in the suite two men with machine guns have just killed a defenceless old lady and are now pacing to check for signs of survivors. What makes this scene particularly tense is the nanny is stifling a baby, her hand tight over the baby’s mouth to prevent the little one from making any noise. The baby is choking, the nanny is shaking, the terrorists are mere steps away, and the audiences are holding our collective breath.
Moments like this in Hotel Mumbai are skilfully cut together with just the right amount of suspense and shock. Director Anthony Maras does not overplay his hand when he aims to put us in a hostage situation to feel the fear and uncertainty his characters feel.
Hotel Mumbai is based on the attacks by religious extremists in Mumbai in November 2008. Shootings and bombings occurred across several locations, culminating in the prestigious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The siege lasted from Wednesday to Saturday morning, though the ordeal has been cut short in the movie for dramatic purposes.
Maras doesn’t show us any back story of how the group of terrorists were recruited or any of the planning. Dispensing with build-up, he launches into the attacks pretty much straightaway as the men land in Mumbai and head towards their targets. Receiving instructions from their mastermind in Pakistan on their phone, the men start blasting their weapons at a train station, then a café, and continue their trail of carnage as they blend in with panicked crowd into the hotel.
A quick round of introductions set the scene for people we should keep an eye out for, including hotel staff and guests. Dev Patel leads the cast as waiter Arjun, Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi are an affluent couple, Jason Isaacs is an obnoxious Russian entrepreneur, and head chef Oberoi played by Anupam Kher. Throughout the rest of the movie, attention is divided fairly among the main characters. Unlike most Hollywood movies of this genre, there is no spotlight on a singular hero that saves the day. Courage is found in this group of frightened hostages whether it’s a small act of dialling an in-house number to warn a guest to remain in the room, or physically fighting with the attackers. Some of the characters are practically nameless before they are brutally gunned down.
Arjun is given a little more attention than the others. He is the only character whose life we see outside the hotel, with his wife and young daughter. This is not the usual confident role that Patel normally plays. Arjun is basically a servant in a big establishment trained to follow instructions to a tee. Patel essays this role with a sense of humility. He bends his tall frame as he rounds up his guests to hide for safety, struggling with his own escape because his shoes are too tight. He’s a Sikh who willingly takes off his turban because a guest feels uncomfortable with the way he looks, out of terrorist stereotyping. Even in a life-threatening situation, his foremost concerns are for the people he serves.
The deadly game of hide and seek favours the terrorists. They move from room to room, floor to floor, weapons strapped to their bodies. The survivors hide in rooms, stairways, behind pillars, under the counters, and dash silently across marble tiled floors when they think it’s safe. Every now and then, a deafening clatter of firearms punctures the silence.
Inside, while the terrorists comb the hotel in their killing spree and everyone else try not to be found, outside, rescue is almost non-existent. The movie’s depiction of this critical situation adds to the helplessness and nail-biting set-up. At the same time, it also points to the appalling inadequacy of India’s counter terrorism measures at the time. As Mumbai is besieged under multiple attacks and hundreds of people are held hostage, the authorities are woefully slow in responding. The National Guards takes 12 hours to be dispatched from New Delhi. That’s twelve hours. Crisis control is left to the local police with little to go on in terms of personnel or tactics.
In moments like this only one thing connects us all, and that’s the message we take away from the movie. The low-pay workers in uniforms that their rich guests don’t normally care about help one another get out alive. In its enactment of a massacre, Hotel Mumbai finds a ray of light in a very dark, perilous place where even a baby’s innocent cries could mean death for all.