If I’m being honest (and that’s what they pay me for, right?), I was initially a bit skeptical about this film, as it appears to be another glossy remake of a perfectly good documentary (Marwencol vs. Welcome to Marwen; Until the Light Takes Us vs. Lords of Chaos), and so far I’m not really digging that trend. Hotel Mumbai draws its inspiration from the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai about a series of large-scale terrorist attacks carried out by a group of young Pakistanis in November 2008, starting with a dozen different locations, including a train station, a cafe, and even a hospital, and eventually laying siege to the Taj Mahal Palace hotel (and everyone in it) for four days. (Because there were no special forces in Mumbai at the time, the local police had to wait for reinforcements from New Delhi, 800 miles away.) While the documentary interviews survivors, Hotel Mumbai takes a much more dramatic approach in portraying the events, and the finished product is two hours of fist-clenching action, suddenly violent and steadily horrifying.
In a lead-up similar to Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, only done with much more economy and finesse, the main characters are established with just a sliver of backstory. The terrorists who infiltrate the hotel are guided by ominous voiceover instruction from their leader “The Bull,” who has offered to pay their families handsomely for their sacrifice to this “jihad.” Newlyweds Zahra (Boniadi) and David (Hammer) arrive with newborn baby and nanny (Cobham-Hervey) in tow, while staff member Arjun (Patel) shows up for his shift with inadequate footwear but refuses to be sent home, as he needs the hours to provide for his young family.
Very quickly a dichotomy is established between the very wealthy (mostly white) tourists and guests at the hotel and the struggling labor force working to please them (there’s a touching scene in which a waiter has trouble pronouncing the name of a French cognac). The same kind of strategy is used to characterize the group of men (young boys, really) carrying out the attack, when one of them marvels at the advanced technology of a flushing toilet. The effect is twofold: At once, the audience gets a vivid image of the abject poverty they’re used to, while there’s just a mote of empathy for the circumstances from which these cold-blooded killers came. While the motivation behind the attacks is pretty overtly religious, Hotel Mumbai paints the event as an act of class warfare and it does so with subtlety and tact. As the attack is getting started, head chef Oberoi (Kher) offers his staff the chance to leave out the back and save themselves, but most of them choose to stay. They have a motto, “the guest is god,” and while that has heavy connotations of never-ending servitude (not super great), I think the real message here is wonderfully humane.
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