We live in a manifestly unjust and violent world; no surprises there.
So it makes sense that Hollywood, in an crowd-pleasing attempt to fill the void, often sees fit to serve us up movies in which justice is served, wrongs are rightly avenged and death is treated in almost cartoon-ish fashion in which the hero of the hour dispatches villains and evildoers with surgical precision, each death barely registering as a real person losing their life.
Even the victims are little more than grist for the narrative mill, their mortal coils shuffled off so quickly and with so little regard for them as actual people that any emotional impact passes off us like we’re coated in Teflon.
But in the Anthony Maras-directed Hotel Mumbai, which retells the horrific events of 26 November 2008 when a number of sites including a cafe, the CST train station and two hotels were attacked by 10 members of a Pakistani Islamic terrorist organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba, resulting in 174 deaths and at least 300 people injured, we are never allowed to treat anyone’s death as a glib blip on an action hero’s radar.
Using a sparse storytelling technique which eschews over-dramatic build-up and emotionally-manipulative music for the quiet, often near-silent horror of events unfolding in real time, this highly-intense film presents death by violent brute force as the terrifyingly nightmarish scenario it is.
There is no sugarcoating here.
We see people die, often and awfully, not in some gratuitous or exploitative way but in a manner which conveys the terrifying suddenness of losing your life to a gunman’s bullet, especially when, in the case of the hotel guests as Mumbai’s venerated colonially-ornate Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, they were there for a raft of different reasons, none of which, in any right-thinking person’s mind, came with the possibility of loss of life.
The lead-up to the unprecedented events of the day and night – the killing and hostage-taking, spilled into the 27 November as the terrorists set of explosions and killed hotel guests and staff in a haphazard but deadly manner, spurred by an unknown voice known simply as Brother Bull – is told without fanfare or any kind of melodramatic prologue.
We see hotel worker Arjun (Dev Patel) setting off for his night shift at the Taj, dropping off his toddler daughter to his wife and arriving to find he’s left his black leather shoes at home; in many respects it’s just another day at the office, one in which life at the hotel is proceeding much as it ever does.
Without his own shoes and crammed into a too-small spare of spare ones lent to him by head chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), Arjun is taken off a lucrative party on the sixth floor where large tips would be abundant and placed on duty in the hotel’s luxury restaurant, an act which is instrumental in determining whether the brave young Sikh survives the terrible ordeal.
While the hotel staff busy themselves catering to the needs of high-end guests such as rich socialite Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American husband David (Armie Hammer), who are staying with nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and son Cameron in tow, and Russian businessman, ex-military man Vasili (Jason Isaacs) who has a fondness for wild parties and prostitutes, ten young radicalised men are closing in on a range of targets, nervous and uncertain but very much committed to their grisly goal.
This elegantly simple contrasting of the normal pace of Mumbai life, particularly at the higher end of things, with an attack by young men who, by the sheer fact of their poverty and sheltered lives, see Westerners and upper class Indians are usurpers of their rights and material advancement, is highly effective – both in setting the scene but also in giving us insight into why the terrorist blitzkrieg took place and why it was so deadly.
Simply put – men with a mission and grievance, however delusional and evilly executed it is, come head-to-head with a world in which there is nothing, seemingly, that money can’t buy, including a buffer from the injustices and violence of the world. (There are, of course, many staff affected by the attack too; in fact, over half the deaths at the Taj were of staff that stayed behind to protect their guests.)
So when the two collide, the effect is understandably seismic, with people plunged into the kind of nightmarish scenario for which there is sadly often no escape, no one good response, and no guarantee of life continuing afterwards.
Hotel Mumbai presents all this in a sobering, raw and realistically-confronting style that cuts you to the soul; you cannot pretend, nor should you, that this is some Die Hard tale that will resolve itself well though bloodily.
Rather, death after bloody needless death, and moment after terrifying moment, we come face to face with the gruesome reality of a terrorist attack, the sense of hopelessness, fear and helplessness all too real, coupled with a powerlessness to have any effect whatsoever on the outcome.
While we do witness some heroic acts by the likes of Arjun and Oberoi, who sacrifice a great deal to shepherd hundreds of people to safety, and we are given time to get to know the characters so we have some form of emotional investment in them, this is almost not needed with the horrific sequence of events alone bringing home the sheer pointlessness and destructiveness of attacks those of November 2008.
In other words, Hotel Mumbai relies less on creating some sense of character involvement, though that is important especially in the stories of Arjun, and Zahra and David, than in presenting events as they really are; these attacks need no narrative gilding or augmentation, the monstrous events speaking volumes about the best and worst of humanity without recourse to storytelling add-ons.
Again, they are there, of course, but unlike many other blockbusters which overplay their hand, Hotel Mumbai lets the events tell their own monstrous story, leaving us looking on in abject horror.
This is not a movie that won’t affect you; whether you are impacted by the deaths that play out in what feel like real time, or the identification with people trapped in situations from there is no good or easy escape, or simply feel a kinship with people you have never met but with whom you share a universal humanity, Hotel Mumbai is a movie that consumes you heart, mind and soul in ways that will affect you long after you leave the cinema.
It will also leave you praying, religiously-inclined or not, that the days when anyone thinks the best solution to any kind of grievance, real or imagined, religious or otherwise, is to be found in violent acts such as those depicted in the film, will soon, and very soon, come to a close.