Most Hollywood films about terrorism have a pretty consistent narrative: Bad Men (usually of some ambiguous Arab ethnicity) do violence; Good Men (usually white, in some cases maybe a woman, almost always American) stop them through a series of near-superhuman feats.
So, when the initial casting notices for Hotel Mumbai prominently boasted Armie Hammer alongside Dev Patel, Nazanin Boniandi and Anupar Kher, I worried we might be in for another “America Saves the Day” scenario. Instead, Anthony Maras’ harrowing feature debut depicting the 2008 Mumbai attacks transcends those tired tropes to deliver one of most breathlessly stressful, emotional and insightful depictions of terrorism and its victims I’ve ever seen.
The film focuses on the three-day siege on the world-famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India, when jihadist gunmen belonging to Lashkar-e-Taiba stormed in and held hundreds of guests and employees hostage, before going on a killing spree that left at least 167 people dead. Maras and co-writer John Collee reportedly interviewed survivors of the attack and committed to hundreds of hours of research to craft a script interweaving stories from multiple angles and perspectives.
There’s American architect David (Hammer) and Middle Eastern heiress Zahra (Boniadi), on vacation with their baby son and nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Harvey, who met boyfriend Patel on set); sleazy Russian oligarch Vasili (Jason Isaacs); and an army of staff led by head chef Hemant Oberoi (Kher), including Arjun (Patel), a Sikh waiter with a young child at home, and another one on the way.
But what’s striking is that Maras takes just as much care to flesh out the Islamist perpetrators. They’re not just nameless thugs, but men with backstories and motives. From the very first scene, which shows a group of young men making their way towards Mumbai, Maras puts us inside their head — literally. Each man wears an earpiece through which they can be sermoned to by Brother Bull, their leader and mastermind behind the violence. Whenever one falters or shows doubt, we hear Bull urging them forward, towards more victims, more blood.
Without exonerating or absolving these men, Maras gives them a dose of humanity. One scene depicts a wounded gunman placing a call to his family in Pakistan, asking them if they’ve received the money he was promised for taking on this jihadist crusade. Another shows them incredulously tasting leftover food in a service elevator, marveling that people could casually eat this way every day. And yet, those same men calculatingly pose as hotel staff in order to rack up the highest death toll possible.
The film dwells in those uncomfortable grey areas. Just as the gunmen aren’t made out to be caricature Bad Guys, neither are the affluent guests of the hotel saints. There’s a distinct vibe of the sinking Titanic in the air as privilege and entitlement dominate even in the thick of the shooting. The class divides that govern this vestige of colonialism don’t magically disappear once the violence takes hold, nor does the casual racism that groups together all people with brown skin as “suspect.” While placing a phone call to her mother, Zahra (who is Muslim) gets accosted by a posh British lady convinced she’s feeding information to the gunmen. That same woman later tells the staff that Arjun’s turban makes her nervous, prompting him to have to explain his native culture to a tourist, even as they both fear for their lives. (It’s a moment that would have felt cringe-worthy in a film single-handedly focused on Western victims, but Patel sells it with a quiet but passionate performance.)
Even more interesting is a moment between Zahra and one of the gunmen, who is utterly bewildered when she starts to pray, so convinced is he that everyone in the hotel is an infidel. That kind of nuance is all the more valuable given the recent massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, when a white gunman open-fired in two mosques, killing at least 49, and wounding dozens of others. Muslims can be, and are, victims of targeted terror attacks.
To call this film intense is an extreme euphemism. (In fact, screenings of the film have been suspended in New Zealand, out of deference for those in mourning.) It challenges viewers to put themselves in the uncomfortable position of asking: What would I do? Where would I hide? And would I be able to survive?
The sumptuous interiors of the Taj, expertly recreated (the exteriors are real, with some added CGI) offer stark contrast to the deadly devastation unfurling within. But even worse is the pervasive sense of chaos: those within the hotel are cut off from the rest of the city, which is itself under siege from yet more attacks. Nowhere feels safe, and what’s worse, not much can be done about it until Special Forces arrive from New Delhi, hours away. Without an obvious hero scenario, Hotel Mumbai instead shifts the focus on the acts of heroism carried out by the Taj staff, many of whom stayed behind to protect foreign guests.
For once, the would-be white saviors aren’t all-powerful beings with an unflinching moral compass; they’re just regular people at the mercy of circumstance, relying on the kindness of those who could so easily have left them behind. (Although the film doesn’t judge the staff who escaped early on.) The result is a haunting, visceral and unsettling film that is hard to watch, even as it feels more and more important that we do.
"Hotel Mumbai" will hit theaters in limited release on March 22, with an expansion to follow on March 29.