On November 26, 2008, 10 members of a terrorist organization stormed Mumbai, targeting multiple busy, touristy places for maximum impact. They set off bombs and shot wildly into crowds. They entered the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and kept guests there hostage for four days. Many died. Hotel Mumbai is the story of that hotel’s siege, and of the people trapped inside, waiting to die.
Arjun (Dev Patel) is part of the wait staff at the prestigious hotel restaurant. He misses out on serving one of the night’s big spending VIPs, Vasili (Jason Isaacs) when it’s discovered by his boss that he forgot his proper shoes at home. Guest is God, Arjun is reminded, but instead of going home for the night, he borrows ill-fitting shoes and will spend the next 4 days regretting it deeply.
Beautiful Zahra is also dining among the guests that evening, newly arrived in Mumbai after a shotgun wedding to David (Armie Hammer) and the subsequent birth of their child. David is awestruck by the hotel’s luxury, but as they cower behind an upturned table when the shooting starts, the thread count of the tablecloth hardly matters as the new parents panic about the status of their newborn in an upstairs suite with their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
Hotel Mumbai is tense pretty much from its second or third minute, and it never lets up. It’s difficult to sustain such a pace – difficult for actors, for film makers, and for the hearts of all who watch. 125 minutes is a long time to be hanging on the edge of your seat, jaw clenched, barely remembering to breathe. But the cast collectively does such a good job reminding us that these are real people: people tired from travel, people just trying to earn a pay cheque, people just wanting to make it home alive to their families and friends who are watching events unfold at home, helplessly.
The stakes are of course very high as Hotel Mumbai does not flinch away from the unspeakable violence. The script of course dials up tension with the addition of a baby who could cry at any moment, giving them away to killers with no conscience. But for me it was the hotel workers, people who are paid a pittance to treat their guests like actual gods, who could have escaped themselves but chose instead to stay behind to help keep their guests safe. That said, I did wonder why, out of the 164 people dead and 308 wounded, the film chooses to focus on 3 white people, possibly the only 3 white people there. Does director Anthony Maras not trust that I will be sufficiently horrified by the deaths of brown people?
I’m a little squeamish about what this means. The movie criticizes the Indian government for inadequate resources and features a throw-away white English lady who accuses her rescuers who “speak their [the terrorists’] language” and wear turbans, of being terrorists themselves. Is this enough commentary on the inherent racism of such a movie? This story should be about the many Indian men and women who died that day, and the Indian heroes who helped others to survive. But it’s hard to believe in that premise when the camera lingers longingly on action hero Armie Hammer, while brown people fall behind him, like extras in their own movie.