Hotel Mumbai wades through murky waters

Anthony Maras’ film about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai is a cracking thriller – but to what end?

Dev Patel in Hotel Mumbai

Chances are that between the time I type these words and the time that you read them, there will have been some kind of mass shooting somewhere in the world. It will have been discussed at length, the perpetrator’s allegiances will have been argued about, everyone on FOX News will yell and we’ll more or less forget about it until another one happens. I’d almost completely forgotten about the coordinated terror attacks that struck Mumbai in 2008; I barely remember whether it pinged on my radar at all at the time, so widespread and sadly inevitable these have become.

The general popular stance on mass shootings and terror attacks (which, in most of these cases, are one and the same) is that the media should not release the perpetrator or perpetrators’ names — they should not run their pictures or discuss their motivations lest other people be inspired by them. It’s a noble stance that is almost never respected by the media and, while I’d like to tell you that I take the moral high ground on this, I’m as guilty as anyone of surrendering to morbid curiosity when something like this happens. So, really, while I can get behind the theoretical moral uproar behind making a film — a piece of ostensible entertainment that people ostensibly pay to go see — about a massacre, I also have to admit that I am in no way surprised that it happens and I can’t really muster up the outrage to condemn it, either.

But the broader question is not “why make this movie?” but rather “what are you saying by making this movie?” That’s a more difficult question to answer, or at the very least to brush off. Anthony Maras’s Hotel Mumbai is a cracking edge-of-your-seat thriller, one of the best-realized ones in recent years, but it’s also one that utilizes a fairly recent tragedy in which actual people died and reshapes it into a variation on the disaster movie genre. Hotel Mumbai doesn’t skirt the fact that there are complicated religious, social and economic forces at play here beyond the simple “some bad dudes are doing bad things” set-up, but it’s also a movie that shoehorns in stock supporting characters that the viewer is supposed to question the intentions of and throws in a baby in peril for good measure.

I don’t know what the preferable approach is; if there are going to continually be mass shootings and terrorist attacks in our world, then we can’t assume that there won’t also be films about it. Would making up a terrorist attack really be preferable? Wouldn’t that seem like a slap in the face of all the victims? Certainly, Hotel Mumbai takes a less fact-based approach than similar real-life tragedy films like Patriots’ Day. None of the actors are playing recognizably real characters save for Anupam Kher, who plays the hotel restaurant’s chef. Hotel Mumbai is not designed as a ripped-from-the-headlines depiction of a real-life tragedy; it does not end with footage of actual victims superimposed over footage. But is that more moral and more responsible? It’s certainly less tacky and corny, but perhaps those are necessary byproducts of somewhat responsible filmmaking in the based-on-a-true-story vein.

Armie Hammer, Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Nazanin Boniadi in Hotel Mumbai

In any case, it goes like this: waiter Arjun (Dev Patel) shows up for his shift at the Taj Hotel’s prestigious restaurant having forgotten his shoes. This prompts his boss (Kher) to refuse that he serve a private party thrown by a lecherous Russian businessman (Jason Isaacs). Meanwhile, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American husband David (Armie Hammer) arrive in town with their newborn baby and au-pair (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) in tow; a couple of Australian backpackers (Natasha Liu Bordizzo and Angus Maclean) have decided to treat themselves to a night at the Taj after weeks of roughing it. What these people (and hundreds of other guests and employees of the Taj) don’t know is that, at the very same time, half-a-dozen young Muslim men are riding a boat into Mumbai with a very specific goal in mind. Attacks start happening around town, but the Taj is the last and most prestigious of their targets. They begin by indiscriminately gunning down guests, but as their siege continues (the Mumbai police being ill-equipped to handle such a crisis on a massive scale, they have to wait for back-up from Delhi), they start to isolate American or rich-looking hostages in order to execute them for the news cameras.

Maras does a pretty good job of hiding the very schematic, very traditional siege movie that lives at the centre of Hotel Mumbai. It’s an unbelievably tense and brutal movie that shows a rather sharp understanding of physical space and thriller mechanics. You could argue that it’s a westernized version of a truly Indian tragedy, but despite the presence of a couple of American stars, a large portion of the film is actually not in English. There’s quite a few things that Hotel Mumbai does surprisingly right, but it also operates in the most old-school disaster-movie way possible, complete with setting up a character (Isaacs’ greasy Russian douche) as a possible threat and secondary antagonist, like the guy who won’t shut the fuck up in a zombie movie.

Suffice to say that I think it’s questionable that a movie about a real-life tragedy should have this much in common with Dawn of the Dead. The film at least attempts to grapple with the terrorists’ motivations — they’re essentially poor, uneducated and easily brainwashed, most of them having been promised that while the attacks will leave them dead, the profit they make from them will be sent to their families. But it also gives them dopey comedic banter to trade between horrific murders.

This kind of siege thriller is, full disclosure, probably my favourite subgenre. When done right, the tension it creates can excuse a lot of things. The problem is not that Hotel Mumbai is badly made — in fact, it may be the opposite. Thirty-one people actually died in the assault of the Taj Hotel; at least three times that number of people die on-screen in Hotel Mumbai. It’s extremely hard to figure out where its allegiances lie and, to further cloud the waters, the film’s coda (you know, the inevitable part in a based-on-a-true-story where they show you a bunch of footage of the real world) is mostly dedicated to the fact that the hotel was back in business and restored to its former state after a few months. This is followed by footage of a party thrown for the reopening of the hotel, attended by what are ostensibly survivors. There’s something deeply fucked up about a movie brandishing the lives and deaths of people in front of us, then finally telling us that it was the hotel we were meant to root for all along. ■

Hotel Mumbai opens in theatres on Friday, March 29. Watch the trailer here: