Fear, chaos, tension of being trapped

REVIEW / BIOPIC THRILLER

HOTEL MUMBAI (M18)

123 minutes/Opens today/ 3.5 stars

The story: At the posh Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, American businessman David (Armie Hammer) and his wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), their infant and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) are guests. Waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) shows up for work and is assigned duties by head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher). This is the day in November 2008 that terrorists will attack 12 locations in the city, including the hotel, leading to a hostage crisis that will leave many dead. Based on the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai.


The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks claimed victims at a railway station, in a college and near a newspaper office, among others. This Australian-American-Indian production puts a focus on one place, a luxury hotel. Because of that, its primary victims are white, wealthy, or otherwise foreign to India.

The optics might be off, but such is the perspective we are given for a film that has to be sold to global audiences.

Still, for what it is, this movie version of a well-regarded 2009 documentary compensates for its ethnocentrism by making it an ensemble effort, with Indian members of the hotel staff, played by Patel and Kher, given high visibility for their effort in keeping guests safe, at great risk to themselves.

The screenplay excels in conveying the tone of the crisis – one of fear, uncertainty and chaos. Loved ones are separated in different parts of the hotel; guests creep along corridors, playing hide-andseek with men armed with automatic rifles and grenades; whether one lives or dies hinges on whether a gunman opts to search a broom cupboard or move on.

The knife-edge tension of being trapped is occasionally broken by the sight of a group of guests hidden away in a well-stocked club room. In scenes that border on the surreal, the hotel’s starched-linen standards of service and social pecking order are observed while all hell is breaking loose outside.

At certain points, the point-ofview shifts from the victims to the gunmen. The shift does not quite humanise them, because the cowards execute men, women and children at point-blank range, but bawl like infants when they are hurt. However, it adds inflection to their primary goal, a suicidal act of religiously motivated revenge.

The film presses the buttons of optimism and the simple heroism of ordinary folk a little too hard, but to its credit, it also recognises that an honest portrayal – a proper cinematic portrayal, rather than, say, a Discovery Channel re-enactment – has a duty to show just how brutal the face of religious extremism can be.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2019, with the headline 'Fear, chaos, tension of being trapped'. Print Edition | Subscribe