In the 2015 Palestinian film Dégradé, two hairdressers and their customers are trapped inside a beauty salon in the Gaza Strip, while a violent gang war rages outside. The women, who belong to different ages and identities, bid their time trading anxieties and snark. We rarely cut outside, as directors Tarzan and Arab Nasser funnel the enveloping horror to test the resilience of the locked-down bunch.
Hotel Mumbai, directed by Anthony Maras and centred on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, has similar ambitions.
Ditching commentary or political rage, it focuses on the human faces of the tragedy: a nanny clutching a newborn inside a closet, a chef assembling survivors like he assembles his crew.
It isn’t the most innovative approach — where else but in fiction do these ‘characters’ get their due? — and there are times the film loses sight of its humanist core. Still, a solid cast and an engaging screenplay (by Maras and John Collee) keep the tension palpable and the suspense taut.
On November 26, 2008, it’s business as usual at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The guests are pouring in — among them, the newly married David and Zahra (Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi), their infant child, and a caretaker (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
Harry Potter veteran Jason Isaacs plays Vasili, a Russian ex-Spetsnaz on tour. Downstairs, the staff is vigilant and abuzz.
There’s some Robert Altman-esque cross-cutting between the rich patrons and the regimented staff: baths and baby towels are prepared in advance, and, in the kitchen, head chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) has had enough with Arjun (Dev Patel).
A Sikh attendant in the kitchen crew, Arjun has dropped his footwear on the way, drawing looks from his boss.
The ornate orderliness of the Taj is presented with care. This informs our anticipation of the oncoming chaos. The four Pakistani terrorists who enter the hotel, having bombed the nearby Leopold Café, are stunned by its grandeur.
The film treats them as a bunch of poker-faced schoolboys, pumping bullets with wide-eyed glee. Their flippancy is contrasted with the muffled horror of the hostages.
The suspense unfolds in two tracks: David attempting to rescue his child from their hotel room, sneaking past the armed gunmen, and Hemant bunkering his guests inside the ‘Chamber Lounge’.
For a foreign audience, these scenes may have the pull of an intense survival thriller, but watching this film in Mumbai, in the 11th anniversary week of the attacks, it’s hard not to feel a strong emotional wrench.
Anthony Maras, Hotel Mumbai’s director, is an Australian. His outsider’s perspective lends a strange dichotomy to the film. He handles the subject matter competently, offering a sturdy production with genuine technical flair.
He is also objective in his research — something that cannot be expected of a Bollywood production of late. And yet, for all the journalistic poise and flattened humanism of Hotel Mumbai, it lacks the crucial sting of memory.
More than once, I had the feeling of skimming through a well-transcribed interview, a respectful and harrowing recreation yet not the same as the real account. “Who are these people?” we hear a white character shivering aloud… “And what do they want from us?” Even in that pulsating moment, this sounds like an admission. An admission of dread, yes, but also of ignorance.
Movie: Hotel Mumbai
Director: Anthony Maras
Cast: Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Armie Hammer