When making a movie based on a terrorist attack or a tragedy or some combination of the two, the film-makers have to perform a balancing act. They have to balance a compelling story that honors its victims and pay tribute to the events that unfolded. If it goes the wrong way, it could come off as tasteless and exploitative, existing only for thrills and violence for the audience to eat up like empty calories. Hotel Mumbai sometimes steers into the latter category, but for the most part is respectful.
The movie is based on a series of terrorist attacks that took place in Mumbai, India in late November 2008. While the attacks in question were in at least a dozen locations, the movie focuses on the events in The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. At the heart of the film is Dev Patel as Arjun, a worker at the hotel. We’re introduced to him as he’s running late for work. We see his pregnant wife and child, and we see he’s dedicated to his job at the Taj, where they say “Guest is God”.
There are a few significant guests at the hotel that the movie also focuses on. Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniandi play a husband and wife on vacation with their infant son, while Tilda Cobham-Hervey plays their nanny. Also in the film is Jason Isaacs as a Russian businessman named Vasili. We’re introduced to his character looking up call girls over the phone loud enough so everyone can hear him describing women.
I was worried going in that most of the film would feature white savior clichés with Hammer and Isaacs serving as the heroes. Thankfully, for most of the film, it’s Patel’s show. I’ve heard rumors about him being the next James Bond if they were going to take the films in a different direction, and this film makes a solid case for the Oscar nominee to take those shoes. He has his share of heroic moments, never wavering in the face of danger and putting the guests ahead of his own safety.
Two scenes that Patel was in stood out to me that tie into each other very nicely. The first shows him talking to a woman who expressed discomfort at his beard and turban. Instead of complying and taking it off, he shows the woman his family and explains the significance of the turban in his culture, saying how it’s a symbol of honor. The second scene shows him trying to take care of a woman in danger of bleeding out, where he makes a bold move and takes his turban off to apply pressure to her wound.
Hammer and Boniandi are also really good in this movie, showing some solid chemistry even in the face of danger, while Cobham-Hervey is faced with the near impossible task of keeping the baby quiet enough so the terrorists won’t find her. Jason Isaacs, meanwhile, has a nice redemption arc through the movie. He goes from a self-absorbed business man to providing comfort to Boniandi when she and her husband get separated.
Hotel Mumbai doesn’t come without its shortcomings though. My main complaints lie with the terrorists, who are quick to kill men and women without batting an eye. It isn’t until the third act where we see humanity in one attacker, who hesitates to kill a woman while she’s speaking a verse from the Quran. It also unintentionally comes off as exploitative, holding on shots of bloody bodies or fixating on a TV showing news footage of the attacks unfolding.
I’ve seen my fair share of hostage situation/terrorist attack/based-on-a-true-story thrillers. The high mark for me would be two films of Paul Greengrass (United 93 and Captain Phillips). Anthony Maras’ directorial debut remains a few steps below those two movies but is still entertaining. When all was said and done, 31 hostages lost their lives in the Taj. Around half of that number were staff members who stayed behind.
While not without its faults, Hotel Mumbai pays tribute to their heroic actions while remaining a solid popcorn movie.