By Jana J. Monji
The supposed motto of a particular hotel is “Guest is God.” But not all guests are good and sometimes gods cannot save themselves. Hotel Mumbai is, like Hotel Rwanda, based on true events. The events in Rwanda were of ethnic origin and lasted several months ( (7 April to 15 July). Those depicted in Hotel Mumbai were a long, dramatic weekend.
Although at some points, Hotel Mumbai dangles potential movie clichés, this Indian-American-Australian thriller directed by Anthony Maras (who, with John Collee, co-wrote the script) gives us ordinary Asians Indians as heroes.
Based on the 2009 documentary, Surviving Mumbai, the movie begins with two different story lines. Sikh Arjun (Dev Patel) prepares for work. He must attend to childcare before commuting to his waiter job in the exclusive Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, but he drops one of his uniform dress shoes on the way. As a result, he loses out on a choice opportunity. The head chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) is strict and the staff is told, “Guest is god.” Yet Oberoi finds a painful solution to Arjun’s dilemma and allows him to work that day instead of dismissing him.
In another part of the city, ten young men cross the border by boat. They are members of an Islamic terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba. The date is 26 November (Wednesday) and the 2008 Mumbai attacks will be over by Saturday (29 November). By then, 174 people will be dead including nine of the terrorists. Different areas were attacked: Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Oberoi Trident, the Taj Palace Hotel and Tower, Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital, the Nariman House Jewish Community Center, the Metro Cinema, and in a lane behind the Times of India building and St. Xavier’s College.
After one of the initial explosions, people seeking shelter run toward the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and, in an act of kindness, the hotel staff unwittingly let in a group of four terrorists. The killing soon begins. Some of the employees become hostages, coerced into cooperating and killed when they refuse. This is a brutal movie.
The head chef takes charge of the staff and it becomes a cat-and-mouse game of survival. Of the sites, this hotel will be the last held by the terrorists. Here, real news coverage is mixed with re-enactments. The terrorist handlers are also listening and watching the news as they advise the young men in their actions.
A young couple, David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), are amongst the guests under the protection of Oberoi but they attempt to reunite with their baby and their nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). A man of action but questionable morals, Vasili (Jason Isaacs) is also among the hotel guests under siege, but the real focus is on the fictional waiter (a composite) and the very real head chef, Oberoi.
This is director Anthony Maras’ first feature film and he’s also co-written the script with John Collee (Happy Feet and Walking with Dinosaurs). Quickly paced and nuanced, the movie even provides us with the jihadists who are not two-dimensional fanatics. You might even feel a moment of pity for these misguided souls, particularly the surviver. Maras and Collee reviewed footage for the Surviving Mumbai documentary and spent time reviewing the transcripts of the satellite-phone conversations between the terrorists and their handlers. They also spent time at the Taj Mahal Hotel, walking the same hallways. Some of the scenes were filmed on site but others in re-constructed sets in Adelaide Studios in Glenside.
Hotel Mumbai is a well-told, well-paced harrowing story about a heroic staff, an unprepared police force and a sometimes careless press and how fate can be kind even when one suspects cruelty. Hotel Mumbai opened on 22 March in the US. In English with Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Urdu and Farsi.
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