The tragedy that unfolded in Mumbai, India, between November 26 and 29, 2008, when ten Islamic terrorists from a radical Pakistani group undertook a bloody assault on various targets in the city, is the subject of Anthony Maras’ film, the latest in a succession of reenactments of such horrible events that stretches back to Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” in 2006 and has continued through his “July 22” of last year. It’s an expertly made example of its type, but raises again the question of whether such films serve a useful social—or entertainment—purpose.
The film shows the assaults the terrorists waged at the train terminal and a diner, as well as their seizure of a police car after killing its occupants. It also shows the chaos they brought to the streets, and uses news reports to allude to the violence they left in their wake throughout the city. Its main focus, however, is on the takeover of the sumptuous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel by four of the terrorists and the slaughter of staff and guests that ensued for three days before Special Forces arrived from New Delhi to end the catastrophe, with the structure left in flames and the terrorists dead.
While substantial footage is devoted to showing the four Pakistanis (Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi and Gaurav Paswala) carrying out their mission—receiving regular radio encouragement from their handler back home called Bull, who urges them on whenever their enthusiasm seems to flag—the major emphasis is on a relatively small group of those under siege, desperately trying to escape the gunmen, and the workers who decide to remain in the building to guide them to safety.
These are the heroic figures of the story, with Chef Oberai (Anupam Kher) and one of his kitchen workers, Arjun (Dev Patel) standing out among the staff. The guests who take center stage are a married couple, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and David (Armie Hammer), who are trapped in the dining room when the chaos begins and worry about their infant son, whom they’d left in their suite with the nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), and one of their fellow diners, a hard-bitten Russian named Vasili (Jason Isaacs). Zahra, David and Vasili will all become hostages in the terrorists’ plan to maximize coverage of the massacre they’re perpetrating.
One has to credit Maras and his craft team for the sense of visual authenticity they bring to the screen; Steven Jones-Evans’ production design is extraordinary, while cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews and editor Peter McNulty work with Maras to blend recreation and location footage seamlessly. They also present their fractured narrative with a degree of energy and tension that rivals the work of Greengrass and Peter Berg in this particular subset of disaster movie, which represents a modern take on the sort of pulse-pounding filmmaking that Irwin Allen used to aim at in fictional terms.
Of course, even when scrupulously researched, a film like “Hotel Mumbai” inevitably raises issues of fact versus speculation. There are scenes involving only characters who do not survive, for example; is there solid evidence that they occurred in anything like the form in which they’re depicted? That’s only the most extreme example of the skepticism one must inevitably exercise with respect to any docu-drama, including those depicting horrific events such as these.
That being said, “Hotel Mumbai” is as urgent and compelling an example of this kind of fact-based thriller as any, with not only exemplary production values but a cast capable of sketching their characters’ outlines—which is about all they have time to do—quickly and decisively. But whether all such films play off these kinds of tragedies without telling us much more than that they happen remains an open question.