Recently released in the United States, Australian director Anthony Maras’s film Hotel Mumbai is about the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, focusing almost exclusively on the ordeal at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. But it is also about so much more.
Most of all, the movie is about heroism. But Maras takes a far different tack than that depicted in typical Hollywood and Bollywood action/rescue films. He does not feature tough guy soldiers riding to the aid of hapless prisoners, then confronting and wiping out murderers in an emotionally satisfying manner.
Instead, the heroes are the people trapped in the hotel, striving to survive, as hotel staff seek to save their guests and guests try to save each other. There are a few scenes involving a few brave, outgunned Mumbai police officers who take on the terrorists, and faceless Indian Special Forces units enter the fray at the end. But the bravery is mainly about those aiming to avoid death and to shield others – strangers and loved ones alike – from it.
Thankfully and rightfully, Maras makes two Indian characters the most important heroes in the fray. Dev Patel plays Arjun, a Sikh room service waiter who repeatedly risks his life for others trapped in the hotel, even as we know from his backstory that he has a young, pregnant wife at home fearing his fate. In one of many touching, powerful moments that mark the movie, he reassures a frightened, apparently racist guest worried by his dastaar. Patel explains its significance and why he always wears it when outside his home, yet offers to take it off if doing so will assuage her fear. In another, he removes the turban to try to staunch a wounded guest’s bleeding.
Though occupying a less central role in terms of screen time, the other leading Indian hero is hotel executive chef Hemant Oberoi (played by Anupam Kher), the one would-be victim based entirely on an actual participant in the event. (Other central characters are fictional or, like Arjun, amalgams of more than one real-life individual.) He in effect saves many lives, including by rallying staff members to stay on to help guide the guests to relative safety in the hotel.
There are other courageous acts, including by the two other central characters, a wealthy American (Armie Hammer) and his Iranian wife (Nazanin Boniadi) as they desperately seek to save their infant trapped elsewhere in the Taj, as well as by their nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) frantically quieting the crying baby as the attackers hunt for her and by an otherwise boorish Russian tycoon (Jason Isaacs) demonstrating defiance. Most of all, however, the heroes of this real-life drama are the hotel staff.
Especially for a film consumed by so much carnage, Maras provides considerable nuance along the way, including in how he portrays the terrorists. Even as he highlights their lack of humanity (more on that below), he also allows brief flashes of their being human beings, such as when one plays a small prank on another. He also implicitly contrasts a terrorist tearfully phoning his parents back in Pakistan with Boniadi calling her own mother in a different scene. There is an excruciating subsequent confrontation between the two.
Which brings us back to the horror. The Pakistani death squad members are ruthless, relentless, casual, and cruel as they gun down their victims, meticulously checking to ensure they have not missed anyone in a given spot. Though there is undoubtedly a sickness to their actions, these are not pathological psychopaths, raving egomaniacs, or craven criminals on the prowl. With the exception of a rare flash of rage, they are cold and calculating. All the while, this death squad is continually urged on over their cellphones by their leader back in Pakistan. He justifies their rampage by slurs against supposed infidels and promises of paradise.
The movie’s nuanced approach confines the sickness to the perpetrators of the act and the fanaticism they represent. Another praiseworthy aspect of Maras’s treatment of the topic, then, is that he portrays the heinousness of the crime without extending the condemnation to the religion in whose name the terrorists ignorantly act. As the recent events in Christchurch, Myanmar, and elsewhere make clear, no faith has a monopoly on fanatical violence and no people are beyond its reach.
Hotel Mumbai has received overall positive ratings (75 percent by professional reviewers, 83 percent by the general public) on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes. But Maras has come in for criticism by some film critics for the manner in which he depicts the murders. They feel he went overboard, that the depictions of the killings are gratuitous.
I disagree. We learn a lot from his handling of the event; even if his handling is at times horrifying, it seems to ring true in terms of how the attack unfolded. And even more to the point, the heroism and nuance of the film outweigh the horror.
Which brings me to the pity of Hotel Mumbai – or really, the many kinds of pitiful realities surrounding this powerful project. First and foremost, the film conveys the harsh reality that India faces in dealing with a neighbouring nation that harbours and even sometimes supports monsters like those who perpetrated the Mumbai massacres.
India needs no reminder of this. But the rest of the world, including my own country, does.
We’ve obviously borne the burden of terrorism in America, which has its 9/11 just as India has 26/11. But thankfully, our neighbouring nations have had nothing to do with it. We’re blessed by their being Canada and Mexico, allies with whom our worst tensions are over trade or (largely Trumped-up) immigration issues. In contrast, the hateful, manipulative voice of their leader in the attackers’ ears is a reminder that India is uniquely unlucky, that a threat lurks right next door.
A more mundane pity about the film is that not nearly enough people will see it. Its widespread release in Australia only occurred several weeks ago, followed in the United States on March 29th, so it will certainly accrue a larger audience in months to come. But the worldwide box office proceeds to date total only about U.S. $6 million, hardly the makings of a hit. (In contrast, the mediocre fantasy film Dumbo’s take in its first week tops $46 million.)
That’s a shame for the United States in particular. Americans tend to see all issues, not least terrorism, through the lens of their own experience and concerns. The Mumbai attacks did attract large-scale attention here when they took place, partly due to the tragically telegenic scenes of the Taj in flames. But many Americans could use this powerful reminder that this threat affects India and other nations as much or more than it does our own.
The final pity about the film is that it is not yet widely available (if it is available at all) in India and elsewhere in Asia, due to a contractual dispute between Netflix and the Indian distributor Plus Holdings. One would hope that this situation is resolved. Even if viewing it rekindles for Indian audiences some of the trauma of those deadly November 2008 days, Hotel Mumbai is also a reminder of the humanity and heroism amidst the horror.
This is not to suggest that this movie is by any means an uplifting endeavour; after all, much of the action features the worst things people can do to each other. It left me shaken, even as it provided much food for thought. But in affirming humanity and heroism, Hotel Mumbai depicts a kind of triumph over terrorism. And in illuminating the best in us, it provides hope for overcoming the worst.
(The author is an international development scholar and consultant. Views are personal)
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