Hotel Mumbai review: A fitting tribute to the unarmed heroes of 26/11

Australian director Anthony Maras observes great sensitivity in giving a gripping account of the 26/11 terror attacks, mainly the attack at the iconic Taj Mahal hotel. The Dev Patel, Anupam Kher-starrer international film honours the brave staffers of Taj for saving many lives

Rating: 4 /5

Dev Patel (l), Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs

Film: Hotel Mumbai [American, Indian, Australian co-production]

Director: Anthony Maras

Cast: Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi

By Mayur Lookhar

Time heals all wounds, but some wounds scar one for life. The terrorist attacks of 26/11 [2008] is a dark unforgettable chapter in the history of Mumbai, India.  Over 170 people were killed across different strikes in Mumbai.  Nine Lashkar-e-Taiba [Pakistani terror group] terrorists were neutralised, while Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist captured alive, was later sentenced to death. 

Given the sentiments attached, a Mumbaikar or any one afflicted wouldn’t ideally be comfortable seeing those horrific scenes play out on the silver screen. Ram Gopal Varma’s The Attacks of 26/11 [2013] evoked mixed response from critics and audiences alike. May be, people needed time more for the wounds to heal.

11 years on, Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras revisits the horrific tragedy.  Why reopen old wounds?  Some would say, and perhaps it’s a fair argument.   Maras’ Hotel Mumbai [2019] primarily focusses on the attacks on the famous Taj Mahal hotel.  It recognizes the valour of Mumbai police and Indian commandos but more importantly, it pays a fitting tribute to the unarmed, hospitable but brave staff of Taj Mahal hotel who risked their lives to save over 1500 guests.

Based on true events and inspired by the documentary Surving Mumbai, Maras gives us a gripping, spine chilling dramatic account of the selfless acts of the hotel staffers. Anupam Kher plays Hemant Oberoi, the former star chef of Taj Mahal hotel.  The other characters – staffers, guests, appear to be fictional characters inspired by the real life stories.

No terror act can deflate the famed ‘spirit of Mumbai’. Politicians, celebrities, TV news anchors have repeatedly toed this line each time Mumbai faced terrorism.  After repeated terror attacks, these words did little to assuage the fear among people. Maras’ Hotel Mumbai doesn’t harp on any misplaced sense of spirit. It honours not just the grit but the humble values on which Taj Mahal is built.

Post the terror attack,  Harvard university and a few others did a study on why most staffers chose to remain in the line of fire, shield their guests.  This selfless behaviour is attributed to the Taj group’s recruitment polices where humility, character is given preference over grades, degrees. Interestingly, the Taj Group largely hires folks from small town, people who truly imbibe India’s ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ [Guest is God] spirit.

Maras creates Arjun [Dev Patel], a humble proud Sikh waiter in the Shamiana restaurant at the Taj Mahal hotel. He’s worried that he may never be able to see his pregnant wife Dimple [Adithi Kalkunthe] and his little daughter again.   They live-in a humble by lane that reflects the hardships men like Arjun face.  “A turban is a Sikh’s honour but ma’am if it makes you feel uncomfortable, then I can take it off,” Arjun tells his petrified guest .  Arjun, like the others, is the epitome of Taj hospitality where men and women would put their guest over anything.   

The Taj had never witnessed any such scenario before. While they hold their “Guest is god’ value dearly, Hemant Oberoi [Kher] doesn’t imposes it on anyone. A fearful Dilip [Vipin Sharma] apologises and leaves, but Oberoi and others don’t hold anything against him.  Oberoi, Arjun and co. brave through the odds to rescues their guests.

The staffers reflect the Taj values, but Maras throws up an intriguing mix of guests.   There is David [Armie Hammer], an American married to a Muslim Zahra [Nazanin Boniadi]. They’ve checked in to the Taj along with their infant and baby sitter Sally [Tilda Cobham-Hervey].   There’s Bree [Natasha Liu Bordizzo] perhaps a Chinese or Japanese woman and her boyfriend Eddie [Angus McLaren].  There’s also a haughty Russian Vasili [Jason Isaacs] who you wish is the first one to be killed.   Remember 26/11 was an attack not just on a country but an attack on humanity.   The terrorists targeted not just the locals, but they wanted to kill foreigners to spread global fear.

When faced with death, Zahra recites the kalima.  The visual is a firm reminder that Maras’ film is against terror but not any particular religion.  Zahra embodies the true spirit of Islam.

No empathy, but Maras’ film brings out the naivety, the ignorance of the terrorists. Here were young indoctrinated poor men who easily succumbed to the false belief of jannat [heaven] and economic rewards. One of them calls his family in remote Pakistan to ask whether his poor parents have received the money that was promised by the jihadist group.  Trained to kill, these men send shivers down your spine, but when faced with the dark truth, their vulnerability comes to the fore.  

 As they go about wreaking havoc, the terrorists also experience a sense of bewilderment. None more palpable when they see a Western toilet for the first time, or when two of them grab their hands on never-eaten-before delicacy.  Killing machines they were, but without being empathetic to them, Maras also brings out the human side to these men. After all, these young men were just pawns. The real culprits still enjoying military and political patronage in Pakistan.

It would be wrong to call Hotel Mumbai an action-thriller for this is not your archetypal Hollywood/Bollywood action film.  Hotel Mumbai is a peek into the emotional state of being of the staffers and the guests when confronted with such grave scenario.   The ‘ooh-aahs’, oh-no’, OMG’ from the audience give a sense of the horror that the Taj staffers, guests went through during those two dark days. 

John Collee and Maras’ edgy, spine chilling screenplay is backed by emotionally gripping performances from the cast.  For a change Dev Patel plays a rooted Indian character where he doesn’t really carry his British accent.  Though Arjun is an uncommon name among Sikhs, Patel put up fine shows that helps him connect with the desi audience.

Iran-born British actress and human rights defender Nazanin Boniadi is a pure delight.  Boniadi and Cobham-Hervey’s many edge of the seat moments gives you the chills, leaving you teary-eyed like their characters.

Armie Hammer is best known for his role in the Johnny Depp-starrer western The Lone Ranger [2013].  David [Hammer] is fearful but he still shows composure to brave through the bullets and a grenade attack.   Hammer has this innocent, nice guy looks to him which make very likable on the screen.

Indian fans will remember Jack Issacs as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter franchise. Vasili is an intriguing character.  His brattish, crude behaviour is synonym with the American stereotype of Russian men.  His cockiness makes him unpopular, but Vasili also provides a bit of unintentional humour.  Foul-mouthed he may be, but the former Russian [Afghan] war veteran eventually wins over you with his bravado.

Most actors are competent but one is a little confused about Anupam Kher’s showing.  As the top chef at Taj, a Hemant Oberoi ought to maintain his composure in this hellacious environment.   All through the film, Kher largely sports a straight face.   It’s not a critique, but you wish to see a bit more passion from him.

Maras’ terrorists communicate in Punjabi. Quite a few of them hailed from Pakistan’s Punjab belt.  All the terrorists were said to be young men. Physically, there is nothing intimidating about the militants in Hotel Mumbai.  Without the guns and grenades, these men would like ordinary citizens.  It’s their cold-blooded intensity that gives you the chills.  A wounded Imran [Amandeep Singh] may appear hesitant at times, but the others, led by Abdullah [Suhail Nayyar] are mean killing machines.  Nayyar is the meanest of the lot, striking fear/bullets not just in the hearts of his victims, but also intimidating the audience.

Often radical Islam considers singing/movies as haram [forbidden acts].   We don’t know the truth, but seeing a terrorist sing a folk song does take you by surprise.  Presumably, this behaviour could be an eye witness account.  However, you ought to question how Abdullah, who in a previous scene doesn’t know a word of English, is able to read the name of slain officer Mohit Singh from his identity card.

With the focus primarily on the hotel staff, Maras underplays the heroics of the commandos. Some may not approve, but more space to commandos would have shifted the focus from the staffers.

Security reasons didn’t allow Maras to touch the Taj and so the interior of the hotel are the creation of production design.   The back ground score is kept to a minimal and reserved only for the pertinent edgy scenes.  Maras uses actual footage of the outdoor action [ presumably sourced from the documentary] that only add to its overall appeal.

Maras’ film ticks most boxes on the creative and the technical front, but its biggest plus is the sensitivity with which he’s handled such a dark, emotional subject.  They serve you with a smile, and though unarmed, they will shield you from the bullets.  Taj’s staffers upheld the Atithi Devo Bhava values and Hotel Mumbai is a fitting tribute to these unarmed heroes.

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