DRAMA; 2hr 3min
STARRING: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi
Softly, softly: Patel
Amid the beauty, squalor and teeming humanity of the Indian city of Mumbai, the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel stands as a beacon of elegance and solidarity. As depicted by Australian director and co-writer Anthony Maras in his fact-based feature debut, the hotel is also the tightest of ships staff-wise, with exacting standards of service dedicated to its cashed-up glitterati and cognoscenti occupants. What could possibly destroy this oasis of serenity?
Recent history has already recorded the answer. In November 2008, over three days and nights, the Taj was one of a series of targets in the city attacked by a pack of young Islamic terrorists. Of the 500-plus people in the hotel, 32 were killed—half of them staff members attempting to safeguard their guests. Ice-cool in the certainty of their conviction, the gunmen in Maras’s exacting and exhausting account prowl through the splendour with their backpacks, mowing terrified people down with a casual contempt that begins to crumble as the slaughter takes its toll.
With a roll call this horrific, all any responsible filmmaker can do is pay homage to it. Maras and his hard-working cast do exactly that, detailing the quiet courage of staffers (Patel is a waiter; Anupam Kher the hotel’s real-life Chef Oberoi) and the fortitude of certain guests (Hammer and Boniadi as husband and wife). The film also tackles the overwhelmed state of play for local police, along with, of course, that catalogue of killings.
And there’s the proverbial rub: Hotel Mumbai’s scrupulous respect is both its badge of honour and its paradoxical central drawback. It was never going to be an easy experience—either to make or to watch—and as the hours wear on, its meticulous reconstruction can’t help but reek sadly of voyeurism. Philosopher George Santayana wisely said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it—a fine justification for a cautionary film. But author Kurt Vonnegut begged to differ. “I’ve got news for Mr Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”