Greetings again from the darkness. A group of quiet and focused young men with backpacks arrive by boat and then split into taxis. We hear the calm voice being fed into their ear buds. The voice assures them that “God is with you” and “Paradise awaits.” Of course, since this is based on true events from 2008, we know the horror that is about to be unleashed by these terrorists (more than 170 killed).
This is the first feature film from writer-director Anthony Maras, and with his co-writer John Collee (MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, 2003), we are taken to CST, the train station which is one of the 12 terrorist targets. Actual footage is mixed in, leaving no doubt as to the panic and violence that unfolded. As the individuals in the group divide into their well-orchestrated terrorist teams, we flash to the morning routine at a nearby home. Arjun (Dev Patel) is frantically getting prepared for work before heading to his pregnant wife’s place of work. He is dropping off their young child since the sitter was a no-show.
Arjun is part of the staff at the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel Palace, affectionately referred to as “The Taj”. The service is impeccable … to the point of checking the temperature of bath water for one of the guests. Those who stay here are accustomed to and demanding of the very finest. However, on this stay, they will experience the sharp contrast of ultimate luxury and raw terror. As viewers, our guts sense the feeling of dread, even as the hotel managers and staff are welcoming arriving guests such as a retired Russian Special Forces officer turned wealthy playboy (Jason Isaacs) and newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “Homeland”), along with their newborn baby and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
As the cold-blooded attack is carried out by the terrorists at The Taj, we witness so many innocent people mowed down with precision – some execution style. Many hotel guests find hiding spots, including an exclusive club in the heart of the hotel. The staff, including Arjun and renowned Chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), courageously try to survive while also protecting the guests. David and Zahra get separated from each other and from their baby, leaving the nanny desperately trying to keep the oft-crying infant from being heard.
We also witness the local police – undermanned, under-armed, under-trained – try their best to defuse the situation, knowing that Special Forces are “hours away”. Courage is on display throughout the film, but this is no Jason Bourne or John McClane scenario. These are cooks and waiters and hotel guests caught in one of the most frightening situations imaginable.
For cinematic effect, the attack seems to take place over the course of a single night, whereas the actual events were over 3 days, resulting in 31 deaths at The Taj. The level of tension is maintained throughout … it’s a well-made thriller centered on actual events and real people. The filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid any political, social or religious commentary or insight. We only know the terrorists are told to take American prisoners and “Go and do Jihad”. It’s described as “indiscriminate terror” and that they are reclaiming what has been taken from them over the years. It is a difficult film to watch, though we understand there will always be bad people doing bad things for what they believe are the right reasons. Fortunately, there will also always be courageous and good people. More than once we hear the staff mention “Guest is God” … but not all of these guests were welcome.