“Hotel Mumbai” dramatizes the horror and heroism in India’s largest city during the 2008 terror attacks. The movie is gripping, yet a bit problematic.
First-time feature filmmaker Anthony Maras delivers a disaster thriller of both the 1970s-popcorn and the Paul Greengrass kind as he depicts the three-day assault on Mumbai by 10 young jihadists from Pakistan. More than 170 people died in a dozen attacks. The luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the site of one attack, is the focus of Maras and John Collee’s screenplay.
Characters include a Sikh waiter, Arjun (Dev Patel), who works at the hotel. His boss is the esteemed chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), the movie’s only non-fictitious character.
Hotel guests include an American named David (Armie Hammer) and his wife, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), visiting Mumbai with their baby and nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Sitting nearby in the dining room is a sleazy Russian tycoon, Vasili (Jason Isaacs).
Four gunmen enter the hotel and start shooting. They throw grenades. They take hostages.
Oberoi and Arjun, though terrified, act to protect their guests. They hide people in the exclusive Chambers Club, for starters.
Despite staff efforts, many experience harrowing ordeals.
Mumbai police, meanwhile, are ill-equipped to handle the siege of the city.
As a director of fact-based suspense and visceral action, Maras may not display the skills of Greengrass or Kathryn Bigelow, but he isn’t bad. He delivers intensity without sensationalism. A scene in which a hiding nanny stifles the cry of a baby when a gunman is within earshot is hard to forget.
Maras’ humane focus also merits note, whether we’re watching hotel workers risking their lives to help others survive, or viewing the gunmen as full-fledged characters, in some cases as developed as those played by Hammer or Isaacs. While not ignoring their despicable actions, Maras movingly presents the terrorists as human beings — poor, uneducated, indoctrinated young men who believe that their suicide missions are noble and will result in money for their families.
Unfortunately, however, the movie contains enough trite mini-dramas and Hollywood cliches to cheapen the portrayal of Mumbai’s real-life tragedy.
Do we need a shot of dark clouds to signal catastrophe? When a character states, “You’re safe here,” those words, this being a thriller, are laughable. A scene involving a bigoted woman’s complaints about Arjun’s turban, though well-intentioned, is embarrassing.
Patel is as deep as a tea saucer here, but the likability and ease he brings to his character make the hackneyed material bearable.
The strongest performance comes from Kher, in the Oberoi role. Fear and courage winningly battle for dominance on the veteran Indian actor’s face, with courage, stirringly, winning.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi
Written by: John Collee, Anthony Maras
Directed by: Anthony Maras
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes