Hotel Mumbai movie review: Dev Patel shines in cathartic cinematic experience; an antidote to populist propaganda
Hotel MumbaiDirector - Anthony MarasCast - Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs
Exhilarating but never exploitative, Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai does for the survivors of 26/11 what Paul Greengrass’ United 93 did for the heroes of 9/11. So of course it makes sense that it took over a year for the film to secure distribution in a country whose people it honours so graciously.
Unlike the sort of chest-thumping films that are usually made in India these days, Hotel Mumbai isn’t a glorification of our security forces, nor does it make any broad religious generalisations. It instead champions the people of Mumbai; those who weren’t trained to defend, but at a time of tremendous peril found heroism within themselves.
Despite some morally debatable execution, Maras’ film is a tribute to the resilient spirit of a nation — perhaps the best foreign film of its kind since Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire or Garth Davis’ Lion, both of which, incidentally like Hotel Mumbai, star Dev Patel.
The 26/11 terrorist attacks, conducted in coordination across several locations, claimed over 150 lives and put the city under siege for four days. Those of us — myself included — who don’t live in Mumbai, remember images of the tragedy as if it happened yesterday -- of news reporters bravely venturing into the war zone; of smoke billowing out of the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel’s windows and of poor men and women attempting to escape out of them; of NSG commandoes infiltrating Nariman House and of the terrorist Ajmal Kasab, walking nonchalantly with an AK in his hands at the CST train station. We remember those who fell; but we also remember those who survived.
And at a time when blatant populism appears to be the preferred method of communication, Hotel Mumbai makes the frankly radical decision to tell a humanist tale devoid of politics.
There isn’t a more powerful moment in the picture than when the young Sikh waiter Arjun, played by a stoic yet vulnerable Dev Patel, offers his turban as a bandage to an injured woman. It might come across as a contrived exchange, dripping in saccharine sentimentality, but it also wordlessly conveys the multicultural beauty of our nation, and ever so subtly makes a comment on the true virtues of religion.
Shot with a white-knuckle realism by cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews, Hotel Mumbai is a frighteningly tense film — filled with expertly choreographed standoffs, but also moments of quiet reflection, sentimentality, and even humour.
Maras and his co-writer John Collee confine inside the hotel a diverse ensemble cast that includes Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as a wealthy young couple, Jason Isaacs as a suspicious Russian, and Anupam Kher, who plays head chef Hemant Oberoi. Patel is reliably strong; his Indian accent, however, is still a tad too exaggerated, lacking any sort of cultural specificity. Hammer, after trying and not quite succeeding in establishing himself as a Hollywood leading man, seems to have found that his talents lie in playing character roles, much like Kher, who instils in Oberoi a delicate balance of dignity and daring.
I also admired the film’s accurate use of local languages. While the cops speak Marathi, the terrorists speak authentic Punjabi. It’s a relatively small detail in a film with so many moving parts, but it goes a long way in bringing a believability to the proceedings, especially since most foreign films set in India, including Slumdog, simply have their characters speak in English or Hindi. Heck, most Bollywood films can’t be bothered to be culturally responsible.
The chilling conversations between the terrorists and their commander, who is in constant contact with them wirelessly, never would’ve worked had Maras not made the effort to do proper research. To foreign ears, it might not immediately be clear that different languages are being spoken, but to local audiences, it is the difference between a lazily put together outsider’s perspective and a thoughtful eulogy.
Maras’ treatment of the terrorists, however, might ruffle some feathers. Perhaps this is why Netflix, after announcing its acquisition in 2018, dropped the project from its slate. Unlike the more popular depiction of Islamic fundamentalists in our films, which invariably includes incendiary speeches and a great deal of kohl, Hotel Mumbai shows the 26/11 attackers not as brainwashed barbarians, but as human beings. Those of you who’ve seen Ajmal Kasab’s interrogation tapes would remember how insignificant he seemed on his hospital bed; how pathetic his justification for his actions was. Stripped of big guns and buddies, he was simply a man, exploited by his masters.
Maras’ humanisation of the terrorists shouldn’t be misinterpreted as some sort of endorsement of their actions, or even an explanation. It is, instead, a vital creative choice that adds to the experience, and ever so slightly hints at a larger systemic problem.