By Andrea Thompson
A lot of films come out about real-life disasters, most of which carry uplifting messages of hope amidst death and destruction. So why does the movie “Hotel Mumbai,” which tells the story of many of the people caught in the midst of the 2008 terror attacks at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, feel different?
Maybe it’s because a decent amount of time has passed so the scars won’t feel quite so fresh to audiences as they did the day so many watched death unfold live. But the real reason “Hotel Mumbai” feels different is that unlike other films where the horror takes place in foreign countries, such as “No Escape” or “The Impossible,” “Hotel Mumbai” puts more effort into the people who actually reside in the country where the bloodshed takes place than both those films combined.
Not only that, they emerge as actual people rather than just supporting roles who exist solely to move along the stories of the white characters. And not all of them work at the hotel which is the main setting. Hell, even the terrorists come off as recognizably human, cracking jokes and longing for their families while they’re in pain. While the movie makes no excuses or even gives real reasons for their actions, they have no cartoonish marks of villainy. They are young men who decided to make horrific choices, guided by manipulators who roam free today. Those manipulators are in constant touch with them via headphones, directing their actions, and most crucially, assuring them that their victims have no humanity, thus freeing them to kill sans guilt. Perhaps the movie doesn’t want to employ the same dehumanization tactics, even if their actions would make it easy to do.
Another telling choice is that rather than its gorgeous front, “Hotel Mumbai” shows us its grittier backstage first, where the staff are told how to cater to the needs of their privileged guests. When the carnage does hit, many of those same employees choose to stay and attempt to save those guests rather than flee, even if the class divide between them remains firmly intact. Among the most compelling characters are Dev Patel as Arjun, a composite of many of the hotel’s real-life waiters, head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher), sleazy Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs) who actually reveals a heroic streak, the all-American David (Armie Hammer) and his wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), who go to great lengths to protect their infant son. Luckily, their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) soon proves to be a worthy protector. One can only hope she gets a raise.
Big heroics are also not on the agenda of “Hotel Mumbai.” The staff prove very capable of protecting their guests, but there is no superhuman hero who emerges to save the day. If anyone is a likely candidate, it would be Hammer, but his survival depends on luck and his ability to hide rather than heroics. “Hotel Mumbai” also isn’t interested in assigning blame or showing the social conditions that likely played a part in the attacks, even as it shows a shocking lack of the infrastructure we take for granted, such as a Special Forces team capable of taking down fully armed terrorists. The police do their best, but they are simply outgunned and incapable of stopping the bloodshed.
While some liberties are taken, such as composite characters and a more condensed timeline, the real question is the level of exploitation, which remains low. Characters don’t miraculously get up after being shot, and the violence is portrayed in a non-glorified, realistic fashion, even if some are far too patient with the racism they encounter. Main and side characters alike perish after they decide to take action against well-armed, well-trained, fanatics who are willing and expect to become martyrs for their cause, especially in the film’s shocking, climactic bloodbath. If there is any uplifting message, it is from the actions of those who nevertheless did manage to keep their humanity in the most inhumane circumstances.