The challenge in depicting a heinous real-life carnage in a film is the possibility of an exploitative narrative, which could retraumatise survivors, instead of contributing to their healing. Indian viewers have already suffered that when Ram Gopal Varma made a film titled The Attacks of 26/11, which was released in 2013. To much relief, Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai treads a fine line, walking on delicate eggshells that erupt with serious cracks but never quite break. Starring Dev Patel and Anupam Kher the film is a compelling drama that singularly focuses on the 26/11 carnage at the Taj Hotel when several parts of Mumbai were under siege after 10 Pakistani terrorists infiltrated the city.
Through his tense, numbingly disturbing narrative, Maras honours the bravery of the employees of the Tata-run luxury hotel, particularly the kitchen staff that was working under the leadership of head chef Hemant Oberoi. However, by training its lens solely on the wealthy victims of the opulent hotel, the film fails to capture the true scale of the 26/11 catastrophe, propelling a troubling idea that some lives matter more than others.
What makes matters even worse is that the characters the makers choose to drive the narrative are mostly white for whose safety the Indian server must even go through a loyalty test. In a scene, Dev Patel shows pictures of his wife and kid, in order to dispel the fear of a white woman who looks at his turban suspiciously even as armed gunmen are threatening to rip open the secret chamber they’re huddled in. Under the hands of a more competent director, the scene would be handled with more sensitivity, inverting the burden of guilt on the aggressor and not the victim.
In its quest to drive home the point of Taj’s philosophy of equating the guest with god - which it keeps overemphasizing - Hotel Mumbai, at times, feels like a dark advertorial. It works only because it makes you confront the uncomfortable: what’d you have done if you were caught in such a dreadful situation? The answers are difficult to accept. And hence, that bravery, of the kitchen staff choosing to stay when the exit route was always open, is worth applauding.
Another aspect that quietly unfurls through Hotel Mumbai is how it depicts intelligence and security failure: the prime reason for the attacks to have taken place. An NYT-ProPublica-PBS investigation found that the US, British and Indian intelligence had credible intel on a potential attack - specifically the Taj Hotel - but didn’t act in time to analyse and avert the calamity.
Now, Hotel Mumbai doesn’t explicitly point fingers at the security miscarriage of Indian agencies, but by constantly foregrounding the shameful delay of the National Security Guard’s arrival in Mumbai (at that point, the city didn’t even have an NSG presence), the film makes its point. “Nobody is coming for us” a character says as night turns into day with Pak terrorists still on their merciless rampage.
When the cops finally arrive, it’s entirely due to their own moral courage and not because they’ve been equipped with mental and physical infrastructure to tackle a calamity of this scale. Their unpreparedness and eventual murder is an indictment of institutional failure and Hotel Mumbai ensures that it allows you to linger onto that thought.
In one scene, a woman, who the terrorists presume to be American/European, stars chanting the Salah - a Muslim prayer - but the terrorist is ordered, by his handler on phone, to murder her. “So what if she’s Muslim.” It’s a powerful and an important scene that exposes the ideological and religious bankruptcy of the perpetrators, essentially arguing that Islam is only a mask they exploit to veil their mindless project.
The performances in the film are reliably strong, with Patel capturing the helplessness and determination of a young man going above and beyond the call of duty with convincing urgency. Kher is restrained as Oberoi, and his acting prowess ensures that he infuses humanity in his character. The terrorists are shown going through a spectrum of emotions, from senseless rage to mental breakdowns, and the actors capture that complexity with enough believability.
Even technically, the film is taut. The interiors of Taj have been replicated faithfully while the film’s cinematography (Nick Remy Matthews) is immersive, offering an inward gaze. Without actual character-building, the stakes are already skyhigh as with every murder as the viewer is compelled to feel that each body count surely has a real-life correspondence that actually witnessed this horror.
If looked in isolation, Hotel Mumbai immersively captures the horrors the patrons and staff of Taj endured during 26/11 but by eliminating other specifics (or reducing them to news tickers) and channeling sympathy to a specific faction ((the gruesome murders at CST station aren’t even shown as if sound effects are enough to convey the trauma of train-boarding civilians) it does a disservice to the tragedy that ruptured and brutally violated not only the city’s coastal elites, but the city itself.