Film and TV

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
Hotel Mumbai

Title: Hotel Mumbai

Describe This Movie In One Eagles Quote:

DON HENLEY: I was thinking to myself/This could be heaven or this could be hell.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Fanatics kill a bunch of people with no direct connection to their grievances.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 3.5 sensible work shoes out of 5

Tagline: "November 26, 2008...Terror struck the heart of India."

Better Tagline: Maybe that Onion headline about God clarifying his "don't kill" rule.

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: On November 26, 2008, 10 members of the Pakistani-based Islamic terror organization Lashkar-e-Taiba attached various locations in Mumbai, India. Using AK-47s and grenades, they killed more than 160 people and wounded hundreds more.The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was under seige for hours as terrorists hunted for guests who were being hidden by hotel staff.

"Critical" Analysis:
 The 2008 Mumbai attacks were — at the time — the culmination of decades of back and forth violence in India between Muslims (backed by Pakistan) and Hindus: the coordinated assault by Islamic fanatics following earlier bombings that themselves were in retaliation for earlier anti-Muslim riots. And *those* were caused when Hindu militants tore down a mosque they deemed to be standing on Hindu holy ground.

First-time director Anthony Maras wastes little time. The opening scene shows the ten terrorists arriving via inflatable boat on the shores of Mumbai's Colaba district and dispersing to their targets, including the massive Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station, the Oberoi Trident, and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where the majority of the film's action takes place.

The primary hotel characters (for our purposes) are Taj waiter Arjun (Lion's Dev Patel), a composite of several real people, and head chef Hemant Oberoi (veteran Indian actor Anupam Kher). Guests include American architect David (Armie Hammer) his Persian wife, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), and Vasili (Jason Isaacs), an unrepentantly scummy Russian businessman. Maras throws us a good head fake early on when it looks like David or even Vasili may be set up to save the day, a la most other Western action movies. Hold that thought. 

Hotel Mumbai
 is so effective because of its matter-of-factness. Maras doesn't worry much about engendering sympathy for the terrorists, even though it's clear they've been heavily indoctrinated and are directed (over the phone) by an anonymous ringleader. The sole exception is when one of the shooters, wounded by police fire, calls his father and tearfully pleads with him to make sure he pressures the mission's handlers to pay them the promised reward for his jihad.

This unsentimental approach also applies to the simple bravery of the Taj staff — many of whom risked their own lives to save hotel guests (and some of whom didn't), the outgunned Mumbai police officers who rushed in to the hotel, and guests like Zahra who faced down almost certain death.

And to Americans accustomed to seeing local police kitted out in military grade equipment while handing out traffic citations, it's baffling that a city the size of Mumbai had no rapid response force. It took nine hours for reinforcements to arrive from Delhi, 800 miles away.

Maras doesn't dwell on the gaping class divide in the city, but he doesn't shy away from it either. Arjun lives in abject poverty, like many of the folks dwelling on the Colaba coast. Meanwhile the hotel's staff are constantly reminded "guest is god" while making sure Zahra's bath is a perfect 48 degrees Celsius and Vasili's room is stocked with his favorite cognac. But the devastation wrought by these fanatics crosses income lines. And even then, Zahra can't escape suspicion from terrified white guests who hear her speaking Persian to her mother, or who recoil at Arjun's beard and turban.

Hotel Mumbai isn't the kind of movie you "enjoy," exactly. It's a gut-churning and pitiless experience, much like United 93. The similarity is apparent when you realize that while we're over a decade removed from the attacks (almost 20 since 9/11), it's a mere blip in millennia of sectarian violence. At one point, Vasili tells Chef Oberoit, "Save your prayers. That's what started this shit." It's the closest Hotel Mumbai ever gets to editorializing, and speaks to the utter futility of the whole thing.

How's that for an endorsement?
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar