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Hotel Mumbai review: Visceral experience of the terror-filled days within the Taj brought to life

Release Date: 29 Nov 2019 / Rated: U/A / 02hr 08min

Cinestaan Rating

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Shriram Iyengar

Anthony Maras manages to recapture the fear, horror and sheer terror of 26/11 and layer it with human and emotional drama to create a moving film.

Often, there is a disconnect between the violence that takes place on cinema screens and the viewers. This helps us to ignore the pain caused by a bullet shredding a person in a Salman Khan film, or world-ending moments in Marvel movies.

With Anthony Maras's Hotel Mumbai (2019), that does not happen. Perhaps the setting and nature of the story make it more personal for a Mumbaikar. The sight of the famed Taj Mahal hotel dome wrapped in flames sends one back in time to the terrifying night when those visuals were real, and that fear was not cinematically recreated.

Maras and John Collee recreate the story of the dreaded night in 2008 when the guests of the Taj in Mumbai found themselves trapped in gunsights. Maras does not allow any sentimentality or delay to creep into the story and keeps it moving at pace. While it begins outside, with a snapshot of the attack on Cafe Leopold (named Cafe Lilopal here), most of the film takes place within the Taj. The lack of any side stories or diversions enhances the experience of suddenness and cacophony that makes the experience feel raw. The camera's intensive closeups also leave a searing effect on the viewer.

The film is an intensive experience of the events that took place within the Taj. From the moment the four terrorists walk into the hotel, the tension never abates. The drama is heightened by the interactions among the few characters who step out of the crowd. This ensures that despite the documentary-style filmmaking, Hotel Mumbai retains that sense of drama necessary for a feature. Credit to the sound design as well for making the gunshots in close quarters seem more real and effective.

While there are few characters, they are crafted just enough to flesh out the basic story of survival. Anupam Kher plays Hemant Oberoi, the former head chef of the Taj, who was among the survivors of the day. It was Oberoi and his team at the hotel who put their lives on the line while trying to protect the guests.

Dev Patel in a scene from Hotel Mumbai

Maras's film switches between the staff's constant vigilance to save their guests and the human drama running behind the screen. It does not do this through jingoistic moments of heavy dialogue accompanied by a musical crescendo. It is a simple line: 'This is my home, Sir. I am not leaving.' It is the little things that made the ordinary people seem great that day. The reception staff, the managers, the ill-equipped cops who stepped into the danger zone as the first rescue are the people who hit you as the more remarkable characters despite a small presence.

Of these, Nazneen Boniadi and Armie Hammer play an American couple trapped with a baby as the terrorists murder indiscriminately around them. The scenes with the baby make for some of the most heart-stopping moments in the film. They are accompanied by Jason Isaacs as the rough Russian whose uncouthness does not wilt even under fire.

Dev Patel plays the earnest waiter Arjun, whose poverty and love face a constant struggle with his honest efforts to save those around him. The actor plays it well enough but is crowded out by the others. Then there is Kher as the calm, composed Oberoi directing play. Kher is poised and elegant in his role, and plays it with the restraint it requires. 

Anupam Kher as chef Oberoi

While these form the key protagonists, the film's high points lie in its portrayal of the antagonists. Dinesh Kumar, Manoj Mehra, Suhail Nayyar and Amandeep Singh play the young, baby-faced terrorists wreaking havoc. Their conversations with their handler on the phone and their own internal conversations are as chilling as they are revealing.

From the prank on eating pork to the struggle to speak English, there are some chilling reminders that despite the act, these were very young men barely in their twenties. It makes one wonder how these kids were driven to massacre, to carry out an attack the like of which had never been seen, before or since. But in their conflict, fears, and hurt, Maras manages to reveal the absurd and inhuman nature of terror itself.

Hotel Mumbai revels in the details. From the secretive chambers in the Taj to the stairwells and the language of the terrorists (a very familiar and easily understandable Punjabi), the film offers insights into moments that heighten the emotional experience. 

For someone who has sat in front of the television screen hours into the morning watching the events unfold, dialled tens of numbers to ensure that everyone she knew was safe, and prayed for strangers and unknown faces into the night, Hotel Mumbai is a difficult film to watch. It is a terrifying memory of an attack that, while never forgotten, is difficult to relive and remember. That Maras manages to make us feel that way is credit to his film.

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