Director: Anthony Maras
Writers: John Collee, Anthony Maras
Composer: Volker Bertelmann
Starring: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi
Genre: Drama, History, Thriller
Director Anthony Maras appears to have an eye for stories that involve a clash of cultures. In his first short film, Azadi, a father and son escape try to make a life for themselves in Australia after escaping the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, his breakout pice was The Palace; a short film that tackled the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
It took a while for Maras to select his next creative endeavor. Yet after watching the Surviving Mumbai documentary series, he found himself inexplicably drawn to the real-life tale of the Mumbai terrorist attacks that occurred back in 2008. “I was immediately captured by their stories. These ordinary people put in this extraordinary situation”, said Maras.
His fascination led him and fellow screenwriter, John Collee, to India for months at a time, listening, researching, and staying at the now notorious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. After filming half of the movie in India, and the rest in Adelaide, South Australia, (along with losing half his thumb thanks to an accident with a portable fan at the film’s wrap party!), the result is Hotel Mumbai–Maras’ first feature-length picture. Anthony Maras proudly presented his film at an advance screening on March 6, 2019, at Newtown’s Dendy Cinemas in Sydney, alongside John Collee and producer Brian Hayes. The following review contains extracts of what was divulged on the night.
Violence/Scary Images: Based on the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, this film heavily depicts terrorist activities. Multiple people (bystanders, tourists, staff) are hunted down and shot, some in execution style. There is a high death count and a good number are seen on screen (shots to the head, torso, legs, etc), with a realistic level of blood depicted. There are close-ups of bleeding gunshot wounds. Grenades are used, though there is no close up gory detail of a person being blown up. A fire burns through a hotel. A man jumps from a window and fractures his leg–we see the protruding bone. Real life footage is used, including one of a person jumping to their death (impact not seen). This movie is tense for the majority of its runtime and may be distressing to some viewers.
Language/Crude Humor: Little and sporadic use of major swear words (f-bomb, s-word). Exclamations of God are whispered out of fear and panic. A man jokes that a cranky older woman hasn’t had sex in a while.
Drug/Alcohol References: There is talk about purchasing wine. Characters are seen drinking alcohol in times of stress.
Sexual Content: A man looks at modeling headshots of women and asks over the phone about their nipple sizes. There is one sex joke. A terrorist is encouraged to check the bra for a passport of a dead woman, with the instigator declaring that isn’t a sin to molest an infidel.
Spiritual Content: Some culture and customs of Hindi displayed, and moderate and extremist Islam is depicted (e.g. bowing at a shrine, cows being sacred, cannot eat pork, the cultural significance of a turban). The terrorists frequently talk about the will of Allah, with their extremist ideals always justifying actions that would typically be a sin in Islam. Those trapped in the hotel frequently sneer at the idea of relying on prayer, though these ideas are later seen as ironic.
Other Negative Content: There is a scene where an innocent character encounters racial prejudice.
Positive Content: This film pays homage to the many acts of heroism committed by the victims of the 2008 terror attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel.
Hotel Mumbai delivers a chilling snapshot of the brutality of terrorism. It pulls few punches in its storytelling, with its politics as delicate as blunt force trauma. Unlike other films of its ilk, there is little to no information regarding the surrounding context. The audience is dropped off at the docks in the early hours of the morning alongside the terrorists, with no hope but to watch the horror unfold and its ensuing chaos.
This choice to leave the audience in the dark in regards to the history of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist network certainly adds an immersive quality to the film. Just as in real life, when horror unfolds, there’s no time to reason or understand in amongst all the confusion. There’s only survival.
With no narrative commentary, Hotel Mumbai offers a real sense of immediacy. People are reduced to their flight or fight instincts, where split-second decisions can spell their death. It’s a tense film that hardly ever gives the audience a chance to breathe. While that can at times feel exhausting, the movie continuously demonstrates that no one is safe, and the high stakes provide enough momentum to drive through a lengthy two-hour runtime.
When faced with terror, social constructs and appearances fall away, leaving behind raw human nature, and it was this concept that attracted Anthony Maras to the story in the first place. “This idea that you have these people from every conceivable religious, ethnic, socio-economic backgrounds, and all these different walks of life, and how when these attacks happened, all of that kind of evaporated. They were just a bunch of people and how they navigate this horror. You feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to get their stories right, to do justice to what they went through. But it was difficult to decide to do it,” Maras said.
It wasn’t a difficult decision for Dev Patel. As soon as he heard about the project, he signed on. Maras explained that the actor had a personal connection to the horrific terrorist incident that besieged Mumbai. Back in 2008, Dev Patel had just partaken in his breakthrough role in Slumdog Millionaire. Those who have watched the film will no doubt remember its joyous conclusion–a dance sequence set at a train station.
While still on tour with the film, Patel remembers receiving a painful call from his parents. They wept over the phone as they informed him of the terrorist attack, in particular, that many innocent people at that very same train station were murdered, forever tainting that location’s history. From that moment forward, Patel knew that he needed to take part in a film about the subject, as a way to personally grieve over a place that he held so dear.
Dev Patel delivers a heartfelt portrayal of a loyal waiter. However, the actor was worried about how many times he has played such a role. The audience laughed when Maras joked that he hoped his film wasn’t mistaken for a sequel to the Marigold Hotel series as a result of Patel’s casting! To differentiate himself from his previous roles, it was Patel’s idea to play a Sikh. Many of the guards at the Taj Mahal Hotel were Sikh’s and Patel wore the turban as a way to represent and pay his respects to those people.
Patel’s character, Arjun the waiter, is based off a true story, though his characters’ actions are combined with the real-life account of one of the hotel’s security guards. He and Anupam Kher’s roles represent the bravery of the staff during the attack. Their unrivaled loyalty to the hotel’s patrons in severe times of crisis has not only been studied by Harvard University’s psychology students but was also the aspect that inspired director Anthony Maras the most. Sadly their roles feel sidelined, making room for the tales of several tourists (played by Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, and Nazanin Boniadi among others). As a result, Hotel Mumbai feels like a detached Westernized retelling of a tragic piece of India’s history.
When it comes to adapting a true story, it is natural to wonder just how much the movie reflects real life events. While the film portrays some of the horrific shootings that occurred elsewhere in the city, its main focus is the drama that unfolded within the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. However, in the interest in streamlining the story and reducing the number of characters on screen, most of the real-life stories have been conflated just like Arjun’s, with each person representing at least two separate accounts. The length of the siege has also been cut, leaving the false impression that it lasted only one night when in reality it went for days.
Yet the events in the film are still true. People did jump from windows. A husband did try to save his baby. Maras had a smile on his face when he remembered interviewing members of the police, and how they really were wannabe Rambos, trying to storm the hotel with only a rifle and six bullets in their pistol!
Maras commented that the production design was also incredibly accurate, to the point where they experienced a little bit of trouble. They used the same type of boat the terrorists used, sailed to the same wharf, at the same time as the real-life events. It was so accurate that unfortunately, it freaked out the few locals that hadn’t received the memo about the film shoot! Thankfully the misunderstanding was quickly resolved, and Maras and his crew managed to talk to some who were actually present on that fateful morning.
It is clear that Maras has tried his best to remain faithful to the events that occurred back in 2008, though screenwriter John Collee lamented that for a film to work, some scenes needed to be manufactured. “It becomes a bit of a scientific problem”, Collee admitted. In many ways, the hotel is itself a character that must be understood. If the audience failed to learn the physical layout of the building, then all the action sequences would suffer, leaving viewers confused as to everyone’s movements and relations in space. “There’s an element of screenwriting on a story like this, which is just purely getting the geography straight. And then you work out where the story is going to take you, through that geography, then you work out the very end. You often don’t get it until the film has been made what is uniting all these stories,” Collee said.
As the interviews progressed, it became clear that Hotel Mumbai was created out of interest, and not necessarily because they had a message they wished to convey, apart from displaying the heroism of the people involved. The movie does suffer from that lack of vision. The film offers a highly realistic experience of what it feels like to be in a terrorist situation. It’s brutal, and it exposes our diets of Hollywood happy endings, where we constantly expect a good guy to burst in and save everyone. But this is real life. Our expectations are constantly met with the fragility of life and the futility of the situation on hand.
The question is: why do we need to put ourselves through such an experience? It’s not a matter of relevance. In the time between Hotel Mumbai’s release in Australia and the United States, India and Pakistan have almost declared war, whilst yet another horrific terrorist attack happened, this time in the once peaceful town of Christchurch, New Zealand, where the unforgivable act was live streamed all across social media. At least in this period of time, Hotel Mumbai’s story will sadly be a reflection of the issues we still face today, hitting so close to home that it has since been suspended in New Zealand cinemas. It’s hard to argue that Hotel Mumbai isn’t a relevant film.
Violence is a powerful tool in cinema, and when it’s wielded deftly, such as what is seen in City of God and The Passion of the Christ, it can produce some of the most life-affirming pieces of art committed to screen. When there’s a strong level of violence present, it needs to work alongside and assist the message of the film, lest it simply slip into exploitation. In the Bible, there are many violent acts; in the climax, a man is mocked, whipped and brutally executed through crucifixion, and yet the violence only adds to the message of the literature’s over-arching narrative.
Sadly, Hotel Mumbai doesn’t appear to have anything to say. It merely operates as a catalog of events. The topic of terrorism is relevant to the modern world, though the story’s execution lacks a sense of purposefulness, where it doesn’t manage to justify the level of violence displayed on screen. It all just seems rather senseless, though that wasn’t the point the crew wished to make.
When the questions were opened to the audience, it didn’t take long to address the elephant in the room: the film’s portrayal of the terrorists. It would be disingenuous to describe the film as being sympathetic to their plight. It’s not. Though the movie’s tone remains consistent when the villains are on screen, continuing its fly-on-the-wall impartiality. We see their silent, stone-cold killings, alongside scenes where they admire the hotel’s extravagance and play jokes on each other.
Producer Brian Hayes comes from a legal background and was instrumental in acquiring many aspects for the film’s production in India. Most importantly, he managed to secure a transcript of an interview with the only surviving terrorist. “Those conversations were transcribed word for word”, Maras announced. Viewers may take issue with how the terrorists are portrayed, however from Hayes and Maras’ admission, it seems that part of the film is the closest to what happened in real life. The question is whether the movie is merely being faithful by taking an impartial documentarian approach, or whether such scenes should have been left on the cutting room floor due to their insensitivity. I’ll let you be the judge.
The last questions of the night didn’t stray from the same topic: what would possess a person to commit such a crime, does it reflect badly on Islam, and does such a film unintentionally inspire wicked people? The director has already thought long and hard about such issues during the writing phase.
“There has been talk about whether a film like this paints Islam in a bad light, or has negative connotations in that regard. I was asked this question earlier on today. This is something we thought a lot about, before even writing the script and interviewing a lot of the people. A lot of the Taj staff are actually Muslims. There are many Muslims who are very much behind the film. The response to that question is that you don’t see what those young men were doing specifically to do with Islam… It was Extremism,” Maras clarified. Indeed, there are a number of scenes in the film that demonstrate the hypocrisy of the terrorist’s version of faith.
After spending a number of years studying the events surrounding this attack, Maras acknowledged that it wasn’t an issue that could be summarized simply as Muslim vs. Hindu. It’s a deeper and more nuanced problem, and while the media may play a part, it cannot take all the blame.
“Since 2001, what do you see on TV? One film is a drop in the ocean to what is going on, with the sensationalization of everything, day in, day out of terror and its place in society. What we try to do in the film is to put a human face to it, to try and put people inside of the experience of what it would be like to live through one of these attacks,” Maras said.
“But I take your point,” he continued. “Which is to say, what if a young kid in some way watches this film and says ‘I wanna end up in a movie like that’? I get that concern. We live in a free society and if we live our lives as artists and writers, or as people wanting to comment on the world we’re worried about, or what the worst of us would think, then we’ve already lost what it is we cherish in a free society”.
“Maybe sunlight is the best disinfectant?” Maras wondered. “I think the day that we say to artists, to filmmakers, to any kind of creative, ‘that subject matter is off limits because desperate people are going to use that to kill;’ I think that damages us as a society. I for one am all for freedom of expression, and I think there are far more complex reasons as to why terror happens. I don’t think it’s just because of what happens in the media. I think it’s geopolitical concerns, I think it’s because of impoverishment, a lack of education, a lack of opportunity,” he surmised.
“We’re trying to honestly show another perspective; a perspective that terror is something that we live with, that exists. And I don’t know if our film achieved it, but to try and put ourselves in the shoes, not only of the guests but of the gunmen in there. That was the intention of the filming,” Maras said.
Whether Hotel Mumbai achieved its goals, it does deliver what is advertised: a tense, realistic thriller that captures the chaos, the horror and the bravery that occurs when people are pushed to extremes. Whether that’s something you wish to experience is only something that you can decide.
+ Brutally realistic. + Tense. + Never get the sense that any of the characters are safe. High stakes. + Production design. + Acting.
- A diluted Indian story, as it’s predominantly told through the POV of Western tourists. - Runtime on the lengthy side. - The message doesn’t outweigh or justify the level of violence. - Lacks an over-arching narrative to bring everything together.
The Bottom Line
Hotel Mumbai is a brutally tense movie that immerses the audience with all the horrors associated with a terrorist attack. It delivers what is advertised. The question is more whether this is something you wish to experience, as the violence tends to outstrip the narrative’s message. The topic is relevant, but sadly this is a scenario that is all too familiar. Nothing new is really learnt here, apart from the specific details of heroism.