Many of the movie’s small interior scenes were filmed in Adelaide, the director’s home town. (Supplied: Icon Distribution)
It’s understandable that filmmakers are drawn to real-life atrocities. But dramatising evil can be a tricky endeavour if you’re hoping to say something meaningful.
The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks serve as inspiration for Australian director Anthony Maras’s debut feature, the second Australian film in as many years depicting the event (after 2018’s One Less God).
The real-life atrocity involved three days of multiple attacks across the city that left over 170 dead, but in Maras’s chilling thriller, shot in Adelaide and on location in Mumbai, the street-level shooting sprees soon segue into the carnage at the exclusive Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a Victorian gothic pile overlooking the city’s bay.
When the heavily armed young men enter the marble clad lobby one of them remarks that it looks like “paradise”, but they soon unleash hell, spraying it with bullets.
It’s particularly unsettling to watch these men methodically searching hotel rooms for anyone left hiding after the initial attack, and in an early scene even shoot an elderly woman as she begs for mercy.
Maras approached Nazanin Boniadi to appear in the film after watching a speech she delivered for Amnesty International. (Supplied: Icon Distribution)
Her body is still warm on the floor of a bathroom as her killer — an arrogant, handsome zealot named Imran played by a wonderful Amandeep Singh — marvels at the technology of a simple flushing toilet. It’s one of the few glimpses we get into the humble background of the attackers.
Maras, who co-wrote the script with screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander), received acclaim for his 2011 short film The Palace, about the invasion of Cyprus.
Hotel Mumbai fashions the idea of a siege as a disaster movie, recalling classics like The Poseidon Adventure in its set up of vastly different characters flung together in a sudden, life-or-death crisis.
Dev Patel plays a Sikh waiter with a heavily pregnant wife and young child at home who becomes one of the unlikely heroes. Armie Hammer is a wealthy American whose wife (Nazanin Boniadi) is the film’s only identifiable non-terrorist Muslim. They arrive with their newborn baby and an Australian nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
Jason Isaacs is an enigmatic Russian gangster — a more-than-meets-the-eye figure you might find in an Agatha Christie novel — and Bollywood veteran Anupam Kher plays the hotel’s Chef, one of the few characters inspired by a real life hero of the siege.
Actor Dev Patel suggested his character be rewritten as a Sikh after spending time at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. (Supplied: Icon Distribution)
Before Maras unveils his smorgasbord of carnage, he offers a blood-soaked morsel with a massacre in a crowded train station. He shows two jihadists loading AK47s in the toilets, but doesn’t follow them onto the platforms, choosing instead to keep the camera on the elderly bathroom attendant who practically jumps in his chair as the first bullets pierce the soundtrack.
The rest of the film is much less coy.
The body count ticks over in full view, and Maras skilfully intercuts between the auto-pilot calmness of the killers and the mad scurrying of hotel guests and staff.
The essence of the film’s drama is kept simple.
Stay to help, or save yourself?
Maras shows a considerable talent for the ticking clock tension of thriller plot mechanics.
His depiction of the beleaguered nanny trying to muffle the baby’s cries while hiding from the jihadis in a broom closet is excruciatingly effective, as is the plotline of a woefully outgunned group of local police who infiltrate the building, impatient with the slow arrival of the anti-terror squad from New Delhi.
If the film has a main hero it’s Patel’s waiter — who embodies a spirit of selfless loyalty that the film is at pains to attribute to the hotel staff as a whole. He even removes his turban to use as a tourniquet, just seconds after explaining to a suspicious old white lady — and you feel, to the audience — about his deep religious attachment to the head dress.
In contrast, the jihadists remain largely inscrutable despite appearing on screen for long stretches. We learn little about them, or their unseen leader “The Bull”, who eggs them on via their mobile earpieces with a hate-fuelled invective about infidels and Muslim victimhood.
To recreate the mood of the original attack, on-set speakers randomly played terrifying gunshot noises and explosions. (Supplied: Icon Distribution)
By the time Imran, the only one we get to know in some detail, shows a skerrick of regret, it feels like the film is finally trying to make a larger statement.
But it’s not clear — as tears roll down his face — if he feels any remorse, or if he’s just pissed at the mess he’s landed in.
His breakdown is triggered, not unexpectedly, by Boniadi’s character — the film’s one “good Muslim” — who stares him down as she recites a verse from the Koran.
It’s a key dramatic moment, where evil is finally challenged head on by a gesture of remarkable courage from a fellow believer.
Maras’s 2011 breakout short, The Palace, was also a thriller based on historical events. (Supplied: Icon Distribution)
But as a counterbalance to the relentless images preceding it of young brown men gunning down people in cold blood, the moment doesn’t feel enough.
Hotel Mumbai paints a particularly odious vision of religious extremism, and there’s a possibility that it might inadvertently inspire some in the audience to hate back.
While it essentially takes a humanist view that the tragedy of Mumbai extended not just to the victims but also to those brainwashed into carrying out the attacks, the horrific, cruel violence it dumps on the screen tends to crowd out space for any level-headed analysis.
The paucity of details about the attackers doesn’t help. With a more robust exploration of how they ended up here, Hotel Mumbai might have become the more thoughtful thriller it aspires to. As it stands it’s an accomplished horror ride from a director with much promise.
Hotel Mumbai is in cinemas from March 14.