- Run Time
- 2 hours 3 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- 7 / 10
- 1 / 10
- Sex / Nudity
- 1 / 10
- Star Rating
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but violence takes lives away.
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
“Harrowing” is used by about everyone to describe Anthony Maras’s film about the 2008 attack by the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Landing in a rubber boat at Mumbai, India’s largest city, on November 26th, 2008, the ten terrorists, their duffel bags loaded with rapid fire guns and magazines. They attacked 12 targets in the city, creating terror-filled turmoil until November 29. The nervous young men wore phone ear pods through which their leader, referred to as The Bull, safely back in Pakistan, assures them that they are doing God’s will by killing infidels and that they will soon be in Paradise.
The killing begins in the crowded Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station, and quickly moves to other locations, the two which we will see being a small cafe and the massive Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Before the mayhem, we are introduced to the prestigious hotel’s kitchen staff presided over by head chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), a spit and polish disciplinarian who lines up his staff so he can insure that their hands are spotlessly clean. Arjun (Dev Patel), one of his waiters who has a sick baby at home, arrives late, his feet still shod in sandals due to his haste. Chef Oberoi almost dismisses him but relents when the man pleads that he needs the pay for his expectant wife’s medical bills. He is sent to put on an extra pair of Oboi’s shoes. Though too small, Arjun forces them onto his feet.
Meanwhile in a busy café Australian backpackers Eddie (Angus McLaren) and Bree (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) have finished their meal when one of the terrorists lobs a grenade into the room and follows up by gunning down several of the stunned customers. The two hide beneath a table and manage to flee, joining a crowd of other terrified people running in the street. They seek safety at the Taj, but the uniformed greeters bar their entrance until a hotel manager arrives and gives permission for the refugees to come in. Mingling with the crowd, several terrorists also gain entrance. They find quiet places where they can take their guns out and prepare for the carnage. Soon they have gunned down everyone they can find in the lobby, and then they move upstairs where they methodically knock on doors. Woe to the poor guest who opens up.
Among the guests dining in one of the restaurants are architect David (Armie Hammer), his Middle Eastern wife Zahara (Nazanin Boniadi), and at a separate table, Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs). The latter has just booked two escort girls for an upcoming party, and the marrieds have left their infant son with their nanny Sally (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) in their room. Poor Sally is going to have to deal with the baby’s constant fussing and crying when she hides in a close closet from the intrusive terrorist who enters the suite and shoots an old woman who moments earlier had fled there in a vain attempt to save herself.
An important part of the constant suspense focuses on the parents’ anxiety for the safety of their child and Nanny and David’s decision to leave his hiding place and sneak through the hallways to find them. Indeed, many a character will be faced with the terrible decision of whether to remain in hiding or attempt to venture into the hallways and flee downstairs and out the doors to safety. Some will decide to stay, and others will try to flee, only to be gunned down. In the kitchen, once he realizes the hotel is under attack, Chef Oberoi gives his staff permission to flee or stay to help the guests—the hotel motto is “Guest is God.” Only two choose to leave. He tells them there is no shame, in that they have loved ones to be concerned about. The loyal group will soon be in charge of almost a hundred people in a special conference room chosen because it will be difficult for the attackers to break through its thick doors.
Outside the hotel, crowds and the Mumbai police have assembled. The Indian special forces group is hours away, so the orders are for no one to try to enter the dangerous hotel, even though fire and smoke are consuming parts of it and on occasion gunfire can be heard and seen, accompanied by screams of victims. One policeman can no longer bear standing down, so he decides to enter along with three very scared volunteers.
In the usual Hollywood thriller, the brave policeman and a Liam Neeson-like hero would rise to the occasion and take out the terrorists after a series of gun blasts and fist fights. That does not happen in Anthony Maras’s film, which he co-wrote, as well as researched over a period of months during which he interviewed many guests and staff. Although the movie’s guests are fictional compilations of real persons, two of the staff depicted, Chef Oberoi and Arjun, are real persons with their names intact. These are all realistically portrayed as ruled by fear and, at times, panic. Influenced by typical thrillers, I expected some of the victims gathered in their sanctuary to gather on either side of the door and ambush with makeshift weapons their attackers when they broke in, but these people were too fear-ridden to do this. Flight was all they could perceive at the time. Late in the film one of them does try to overcome his captor, but…
If the victims were shown in all their human weaknesses, so were the Muslim attackers given a touch of humanity. Despite believing they would be killed and go straight to Paradise, they are nervous, very much in need of the assurance and directions from their distant leader. They are awed at the splendor of Mumbai’s world-famous hotel when they enter, and when one of them is checking a room’s bathroom, this first look at a flush toilet so impresses him that he tells his friends about it. Another admonishes his companion that one of the pastries from a cart he is sampling contains pork. Another killer, a teenager, is timid, hesitating when The Bull orders him to search a dead female’s bra to see if she has ID papers. Three days later when a counterattack by special forces that finally have arrived is imminent, the terrorists call their families to express their love and goodbyes. They are no doubt ruthless killers, but they too share a common humanity with their victims.
A young wounded terrorist is told by The Bull to kill the hostages they have captured. He does so without compunction until he comes to Zahara, who is reciting a Muslim prayer. He hesitates because she is a Muslim, but The Bull urges him to do so anyway. Here and earlier, it is chilling to see how this leader has twisted Islam into an instrument that inspires hatred and violence. He selectively separates its teaching about jihad from its teaching that Allah is a god of mercy, so similar to those Christians who teach that it is God’s will that abortion clinics should be bombed, and its doctors shot. That the Bull’s ruthless training has not extinguished every trace of humanity in the young killer we see by what the latter does.
The film shows how it is possible for a small group of determined terrorists armed with rapid-fire weapons can paralyze a huge city like Mumbai by their malicious tactics. 164 people were murdered and 308 were wounded over four days at the 12 sites attacked. The untrained local police are helpless, dozens of people killed while they hang back awaiting the arrival many hours later of the special forces. The recklessness of the media also is exposed. The terrorists are monitoring the newscasts, and so know when and where the special forces have arrived. Worst, when word that a large group of victims are leaving their sanctuary for a frantic rush downstairs, the media reports it, thus alerting the terrorists who rush to the conference room to intercept them. Many lives are lost because of such thoughtlessness!
This is a film in which the suspense never lets up because, unlike the typical thriller, we do not know who survives and who does not. The film is always in danger of sensationalizes the terrorists and their violence but stops short of doing so. It does raise questions as to what we viewers might do in such a situation. Better, it celebrates the courage and resoluteness of the hotel’s staff and the four policemen who tried to come to their aid. These are the non-heroic heroes, generous people who risked their own lives so that others might live. They live up to the Proverb, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but violence takes lives away.” Thus when you tell others about this violent film, be sure to say that it is about the brave efforts of ordinary people to save their guests–and not about a team of brutal Islamic jihadists. In the latter we see how religion can be twisted and used by those with twisted values and minds. In the former religion can be a motive for self-sacrificing service.
This review will be in the April issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.