If you’re unnerved by movies that exploit real-life tragedy for dramatic momentum (22 July, Patriots Day), Hotel Mumbai is not going to alleviate your concerns as terrorists armed with semi-automatics shoot down hotel guests in India like ducks in a barrel. That said, Aussie director Anthony Maras, in his feature debut, brings a Hitchcockian feel for suspense and a documentarian’s eye for detail to the brutal events that transpired over three days in November 2008 when the Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba initiated an attack on the city of Mumbai. Many locations were affected, but Maras and Scottish screenwriter John Collee — far from the animated frivolity of Happy Feet — focus on the violence that erupted at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a.k.a. the Taj, a deluxe retreat for wealthy tourists who insist on the best their mostly Western money can buy. Such infidel decadence inflames the four jihadists (Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi, Gaurav Paswala) who set up shop at the Taj and take their orders from the Bull, an unseen presence in Pakistan who barks orders to kill from his radio and pumps up his charges with promises of the paradise that awaits them in the afterlife.
And we’re off with a cast of characters — composite and completely made up — meant to provide a rooting interest. And they’re predominantly white. Armie Hammer does what he can with the underwritten role of David, an American architect visiting the Taj with his Middle Eastern wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi). Leaving their infant child in their room with their live-in nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), the couple dines at the posh hotel restaurant when the massacre erupts upstairs. Jason Isaacs lays on the accent as a thuggish Russian skirt-chaser, occupying the next table as he tries to organize a prostitute for the night. Maras cuts expertly between these pampered guests and the cold-blooded executions occurring above. One sequence in which hotel receptionists are shot for refusing to talk guests out of their rooms is blood-curdling. The escalating savagery pushes David and even the Russian into uncharacteristically heroic responses meant to save the day.
These invented scenes are pure Hollywood, though Maras works hard to give time to the Indian characters. Dev Patel brings his customary verve and compassion to the role of Arjun, a kitchen worker with a wife and child who nonetheless remains at the Taj to help the guests when he could escape and save his life. And the superb Indian actor Anupam Kher (Silver Linings Playbook, The Big Sick) is outstanding in the fact-based role of Hemant Oberoi, the head chef who takes a leadership position in the escape plan. “The guest is God,” is a phrase Oberoi doesn’t just repeat to his staff; he means it.
Maras deserves credit for not reducing the assassins to villainous caricatures. They’re more like brainwashed pawns in a political game. Even in the chaos of bullets and bombs — kudos to ace cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews — Maras creates a sense of actual lives hanging in the balance. Still, Hotel Mumbai remains an uneasy blend of fact and fiction that feels dwarfed by the documentary footage that ends the film. You can’t quarrel with hard truth. Hotel Mumbai is something else. Releasing the film now, so soon after the grisly carnage in Christchurch, New Zealand, will only fuel the ethical debate about gilding the lily of real-life horror and marketing it as entertainment. There is solid professionalism in the way Hotel Mumbai gets the job done. But to what end? Your call.