In a post-credits message, Hotel Mumbai acknowledges that certain details of the film were enhanced or fabricated, but the heart of the story and the integrity of the characters has been maintained. (I’m paraphrasing.) While a little artistic dramatization is always expected in any movie claiming to be based on a true story, at least this one uses its adjustments to make the film tense and swift.
Hotel Mumbai begins with a group of well-organized men arriving on the shores in Mumbai. These men are quiet and calm, each with a backpack or duffle bag and an earpiece firmly planted in his ear. Given that the film is based on a series of terrorist attacks across the city in 2008, it’s clear that these men are not there for a leisurely vacation.
As we wait for the imminent attacks, we’re given a handful of emotionally anchoring characters. Arjun (Dev Patel) is a devoted family man who works as a server in the Taj hotel. He desperately needs money before his second child arrives, and is a good and honorable Sikh. Zahra and David (Nazanin Boniadi and Armie Hammer) are newlyweds with a baby in tow. Zarha is an heiress and David is her wealthy American husband. The attacks come to the hotel while they’re having a romantic dinner and their nanny tends to the baby.
From the start, we’re consistently reminded of the contrasts between the upper and working classes in India. Hotel Mumbai stops short of showing the two worlds in a similar style as Gosford Park, but the delineation between the haves and have-nots is just as bold. Even in times of great turmoil, the servants still exist to support the wealthy.
Hotel Mumbai excels at keeping tension high throughout the attacks with good old-fashioned Hollywood magic and an expendable cast. We see fairly early on that even characters with names are not going to be spared from the violence and body count. Most of the real violence occurs off-screen with echoing gunfire, but this only makes the rare on-screen death that much more jarring. The film’s score and shaky camera add to the feeling of chaos and dread, but it’s hard not to feel like all the apprehension is due to movie tricks and not genuine concern for the characters. With such a large cast, the shorthand is expected, but it does leave a bit of a hollow feeling. We care, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
Even with these obvious manipulations, Hotel Mumbai successfully tugs at the heartstrings. Best of all, it brings awareness of a horrible tragedy to audiences who might not know about this particular atrocity.