The timing of the release of Hotel Mumbai is an unfortunate coincidence. The film is about the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, in which a group of men who claimed to be acting in the name of the Islamic faith coordinated a dozen attacks and killed more than 170 people. And it arrives in theaters one week after a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which a white nationalist opened fire in mosques during Friday Prayer for Muslims, killing 50 people.
The horrifyingly unsettling nature of our current reality is that terrorism—often acts of mass gun violence—comes in many forms, as justification for a variety of religious and political belief systems. And to its credit, Hotel Mumbai—the release of which has been understandably canceled in Christchurch—makes it clear that this sort of violence can happen anywhere, by anyone, to anyone.
The film from first-time director Anthony Maras compresses the four days of the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, focusing on the attacks in the famed Taj Hotel, where the staff are precise and dedicated. Their motto is “Guest is God,” and they check the bath water with a thermometer, offer all sorts of services, and care deeply about how the hotel is presented. Sometimes that leads to friction—like when renowned chef and longtime employee Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) lectures waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) about failing to wear proper leather shoes to work—but overall, the staff is thoroughly committed to offering luxury and comfort to hotel guests.
And those guests are mostly quite wealthy, including well-off couple David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, playing a character of her own Iranian heritage) and their newborn son, and Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs), who we see ordering escorts from his dinner table. They’re all thrown together when the attacks begin, and as they put their lives in the hands of the hotel staff—who immediately mobilize to protect their guests—tension grows, clashes between guests and staff occur, and fear is omnipresent.
Hotel Mumbai backs away from being exploitative in the way films based on real-life tragedies can often be, accomplishing this by sticking to the story and not adding too many overly dramatic flourishes, and by offering interiority to both the attackers and the attacked. The men stalking through streets, listening to their faceless leader through headphones, and indiscriminately shooting and throwing bombs are monstrous—but Hotel Mumbai also makes clear that most of them are controlled, brainwashed, less flatly evil than taken advantage of and manipulated into action. They do exceptionally awful things, but they cry on the phone with their parents, they’re worried about whether their families will be taken care of after the attack, they are afraid to touch a woman’s chest when their leader compels them to try and find her passport, they are unmoored when they realize that some of their victims will also be Muslim.
And of course, Hotel Mumbai also rightfully devotes more attention to those devastated and traumatized by this violence. In an early misstep, when the attackers have already killed dozens of Indians, the film focuses on a pair of Americans as our entry into the story—prioritizing the impact on them above all others—but the film eventually shifts into an ensemble work, where Patel, Kher, Hammer, and Boniadi are all impactful in their respective roles. Particularly good are Patel and Boniadi, whose characters must grapple with being distrusted by others who don’t understand why Zahra is speaking Persian or why Arjun is wearing a turban. The moments where those characters stick up for themselves to the same bigoted woman may read as somewhat simplistic, but their refusal to deny who they are in the face of violence from the attackers and skepticism from their fellow hostages lands well emotionally.
What feels off about Hotel Mumbai, though, and keeps it from truly connecting, is a sense that the film is fundamentally concerned with the hotel as a business, with its staff as representatives of that business, and with the end of the attack as a return to business as usual. There is such a focus on how well the hotel staff caters to its guests that a variation of classism seems to appear in the narrative. This is buoyed by the film’s end note, which informs us that the hotel restaurant re-opened within three weeks and the hotel itself was restored to its “former glory” within 21 months. What of the people who worked there? What of Mumbai overall? The film’s focus becomes so narrow that it almost veers into a marketing purpose rather than a cinematic one.
Still, the steady tenseness of Hotel Mumbai is effective, and its exploration of perspectives of both sides of the attack gives the narrative additional depth. Hotel Mumbai is ultimately a grueling watch that in its conclusion wrongly indulges the idea of this terrorist attack as an opportunity to sell a product, but before then, is buoyed by strong performances and a demonstration of the strength of human will—in both its terrible and its life-affirming forms.