Anthony Maras’ “Hotel Mumbai” – Too much, too soon

I’ve already seen Hotel Mumbai. It was the first 45 minutes of a Paul Greengrass film from last year, called 22 July, about the eponymous attacks that killed 77 people, most of them children. The similarities between the films are legion. The first act is a dutiful recreation of events, distilling a complex series of attacks in multiple locations into a violent thriller narrative that is simplistic, but more or less true to life. First-time feature director Anthony Maras is capable at constructing these scenes, even if the script suffers from a few dubious choices of which characters to focus on. And while I praised 22 July effusively for its deft depiction of horrific real-world events, it was precisely that deftness – which, unlike 22 July, never shifts its focus from the killers’ exploits for long enough to justify itself – that disturbed me this time around. Instead, by the time the film moves on to a more tight-knit group survival story within a hotel under a multi-day terrorist siege and slaughter, I was already quite sure I’d seen the totality of what Hotel Mumbai had to offer. And then it just kept going.

About 30 minutes into this film, in a luxury suite at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a nanny, paces with a mildly feverish baby, waiting for a house call from a local doctor. The baby’s parents, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), a Persian celebrity of some renown, and her husband David (Armie Hammer), an American architect, are downstairs in the hotel restaurant, huddled under their table in the dark, with their server Arjun (Dev Patel) having thought quickly and darkened the room as a pair of terrorist gunman, members of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, arrived and began slaughtering guests in the lobby outside. The two parents, who have no other defining characteristics, have just frantically called Sally and begged her not to open the hotel room door for anyone, but someone is already knocking, the connection is too faint, and she opens it. In screams an elderly woman, covered in blood, having narrowly escaped a systematic, room-by-room slaughter down the hall. She runs into the bathroom and sits on the closed toilet. Sally takes the baby and hides in the linen closet. Two of the terrorists walk into the room, taking an uncanny interest in this particular victim, following the doomed woman into the bathroom and shooting her dead off-screen. Sally, meanwhile, clamps her hand over the baby’s face to physically restrain him from making noise. An attacker flushes the toilet, and marvels aloud to his comrade that “they have a machine to flush their shit”. The baby gurgles as the men’s radio crackles with a faceless voice of their master, The Bull (voice of Pawan Singh), who acts as the devil on their shoulder throughout the film, giving them helpful tips about how to kill more people, avoid crossfire, effectively use grenades, etc. As they clear off to go find more life to exterminate, Sally is finally free to let the baby cry. And oh, it does.

At this point, I’ll be honest, I very nearly stopped watching the film. I’m just sick of it all. A few of the characters in this film, Head Chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), are based on real people or composites of multiple real people (such as Patel’s waiter character, Arjun), and are included largely so that their feats of courage and peril can be dutifully told. Which is fair, and perhaps even laudable. But without exception, the attackers also use their real names, which I won’t repeat here. Neither will I speak the name of the man who opened fire in a Christchurch mosque two weeks ago, livestreaming his horrific crime for the entire world to see on Facebook. Or the infamous child-slaughterer of Norway, whom I referenced above. They did their deeds, and left behind long, wretched, internally inconsistent diatribes about why they did what they did, which aren’t worth reading, dissecting, or glorifying. And now, in 2019, eleven years after the events depicted in Hotel Mumbai, Lashkar-e-Taiba (and the Pakistani government by extension) has been blamed for an attack on Indian troops in the disputed region of Kashmir, an event that occurred after this film was produced, but which nonetheless makes it feel rather timely as a piece of bellicose propaganda, as military tension is escalating once again between a pair of nuclear powers that collectively hold a billion and a half human souls.

And as I watched bullets rip through bodies, fired by dehumanized, backwater monsters whose motivations are neither explored nor remarked upon, I knew I would finish the film for professional reasons, but I also knew that I’ve seen enough of this – or at least enough to recognize it for the demagoguery that it is. And I get the appeal, I really do. I watched every season of 24, even the pointless Legacy. I even watched Uwe Boll‘s Rampage. There’s a certain visceral appeal to getting whipped into a frenzy about the hateful monsters in the world, the better to respond (or vote for responding) with just as much brutality to people who kinda sorta look like them. On our recent podcast review of Triple Frontier, I found myself relieved to be watching a military action film that was largely apolitical. But in praising this characteristic, I was implicitly acknowledging that perhaps I’ve lost the appetite I had as a younger man for wholesale depictions of violence that seem to have no point and purpose but to whip me into a frenzy. Because if there’s one thing that has been true for the whole of the twenty-first century whether I’ve been mature enough to acknowledge it or not, it’s that violence is always political.

As a thriller, I found myself more engaged by the second half, but I still got the feeling that the scenes were just ticking boxes. This may or may not be a fair assessment, as the film is apparently based on a documentary and reportedly stays true to real events, but it’s no less true that in an attack like this, there will be dozens of true stories available for focus, and these are artistic choices worthy of judgment even if they’re based on the real fates of real people. Hammer and Boniadi’s characters (based on multiple people staying at the hotel) are a baffling choice of focus, acting as useless ciphers for the audience, perhaps to remind them that even if you’ve got the chiseled good looks of a Hollywood leading man, you’ll be just as outgunned and terrified as anyone else when an ad hoc militia shows up. The most baffling inclusion had to be Jason Isaacs as an eccentric Russian businessman who spends a significant portion of his first scene loudly discussing which women from a literal menu of prostitutes he’d like delivered to his room that night, and then acting as a confidante and drinking buddy for Zahra. If nothing else, this trio serves as a reminder that the staff of the Taj put themselves in harm’s way to protect their guests, sequestering them in an exclusive, windowless club in the hotel’s interior. And yet these cooks and waiters largely remain nameless and faceless even as many of them are killed in action (with some surviving staff referred as “veterans” on-screen before the film’s credits). The same goes for a squad of the Mumbai PD, who are utterly outgunned by the terrorists as they wait for their government’s special forces to arrive from hours away in Dehli, and decide to courageously enter the building to try to find the security room, so that they can provide information to their comrades outside about the number and strength of the terrorists. Again: reportedly based on true events, if barely dwelled upon or consequential to the story.

While I found myself emotionally invested in the perfunctory heroics and perilous group dynamics in the last half, the film still seemed happy to sprinkle in more anonymized, procedural horror. The terrorists force an unnamed desk clerk to call rooms on the fourth floor one by one, so that the guests will step out into the hallway and be killed. She cooperates once, then refuses, and is killed. Another clerk also refuses, and is promptly killed. I can only give the film a modicum of credit for visual restraint here – by this point, it seemed to have lost its appetite for showing bullets ripping through bodies, and largely confined the victims to an offscreen fall. By the time this scene unfolds, we’ve already seen myriad acts of equal brutality, and it’s hard for it not to feel sadistic to dwell on it. What am I meant to take away from this? That the terrorists are clever in enlisting these poor women as forced accomplices? As if the terrorists’ actions aren’t disturbing enough, we constantly hear the voice of The Bull in their earpieces, reminding them that their victims are like cattle, and they shouldn’t think of them as real people. Which is ironic, because they never quite feel like real people in the film either.

Director Anthony Maras is quoted in TIME regarding his motivation to make this film:

“I simply couldn’t believe that you would have not one or two, but the entire staff of the Taj Hotel spontaneously, pretty much en masse, remain to protect their guests,” says Maras. “It was something I couldn’t get my head around. Who were these people and what drove them to do this?” Those acts of extreme bravery, he says, were a major part of his inspiration to make the film.

I can see some of this intent in the film’s text. But ultimately, the film’s balance of anonymous heroes and fictionalized victims feels off-kilter. Compared to Hammer’s formulaic thriller moments and Boniadi and Isaacs’ patter in the trenches, I found myself far more invested in Arjun’s fleeting moments of humanity, including offering to remove his Sikh head-covering because it makes an especially sloppy Islamophobic guest uncomfortable. Or in Oberoi’s clear protectiveness of his staff and his guests, and desire, reminiscent of the captain of the Titanic, to see them through a fundamentally doomed situation. There’s a nugget of a well-made thriller here, but it never quite succeeds in justifying its brutality and excess, a choice that seems intended to glorify the victims, but feels, in the end, more like it glorifies their killers.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

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