Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Hotel Mumbai: Facing the New Template of Terror

Deadlier and more destructive acts of terrorism have been committed in recent years, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks were probably the most successful at instilling sheer terror. Part of the horror was the vicious simplicity of it all: teams of armed gunmen shooting civilians indiscriminately. The coordinated attacks paralyzed the city, culminating in the siege of the venerable Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The tragedies and atrocities of those dark days are vividly recreated in Anthony Maras’s Hotel Mumbai, which opens this Friday in New York.

This is not an action movie, but there is a weird parallel with Die Hard when Arjun starts his day having footwear issues. The hard-working Sikh is already expecting his second child, so he could not afford to miss a shift. Initially, the head chef Oberoi dismisses him for the day, but he relents, allowing him to borrow a pair of his ill-fitting shoes instead, thereby establishing him as both a stern taskmaster and a figure of compassion. Together, Arjun, Oberoi, and the rest of the Taj staff will do their best to save their guests when the terrorists start executing everyone, floor by floor.

Of course, there is a rather diverse clientele in the hotel that day. We soon meet the well-heeled Muslim Zahra and her Yankee newlywed David, who have a newborn baby and a British nanny up in their suite. Russian oligarch Vasili has two escorts waiting in his room, but the terrorists will get to them first. When news of the attacks first reaches the Taj they will admit a group of survivors, including Australian tourists Bree and Eddie. Unfortunately, the first pair of backpack-wearing gunmen also gain entrance with the group of refuge-seekers.

Hotel Mumbai is a harrowing film that will make many viewers uncomfortable (in ways that they should be discomfited). It is much like One Less God (a.k.a. House of War), another Australian film dramatizing the attacks in the Taj Mahal, but Maras and co-screenwriter takes it further and deeper. To their credit, they never obscure the Islamist ideology of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists committing the mass murders, with logistical support from elements within the Pakistani intelligence service. Chillingly, we hear a steady stream of the brainwashing encouragement from their Svengali, “Brother Bull,” which sounds like hate-speech seasoned with socialist class warfare.

Maras also strikes a good balance in terms of the violence presented on screen. A great many innocent hotel worker are executed at point-blank range, right before our eyes, but probably just as many are shot off-screen. As result, the film should not be accused of white-washing anything, but neither is it an endless cycle of death and sadism.

Dev Patel probably does his best work since Slumdog as Arjun. We can feel in our own guts the profound degree of his fear, which makes it so compelling each time he knuckles down and torques up his courage. Yet, if anyone emerges as an awards contender from Hotel Mumbai (an unlikely prospect, given the subject matter), it would be Anupam Kher, who radiates gravitas and gruff humanism as Oberoi. He practically becomes the personification of the stately hotel’s soul.

As the four primary on-camera terrorists, Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi, and Gaurav Paswala are terrifyingly young-looking and chillingly blood thirsty. Jason Isaacs chews up the scenery and everything else that isn’t nailed down as the lecherous Russian, but he still bears watching. Nazanin Boniadi and Tilda Cobham-Hervey have some quite poignant moments (distressing, even) as Zahra and Sally, the nanny, but Armie Hammer is blandly vanilla playing her blow-dried American husband.

There is no question the Mumbai attacks established a template that has already been applied in an organized manner in Paris and by at least one unsponsored wildcat zealot in New York, but the original 2008 events still remain largely under-reported and under-analyzed in the Western media. That makes Hotel Mumbai rather timely and pressing cinema. It also happens to be an engrossing (and emotionally draining) human drama. Highly recommended for anyone interested in serious movies for grown-ups, Hotel Mumbai opens this Friday (3/22) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.