Hotel Mumbai Review: A Hollow Recreation of the 26/11 Terror Attacks Limited By its White Gaze

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Hotel Mumbai Review: A Hollow Recreation of the 26/11 Terror Attacks Limited By its White Gaze

Illustration: Arati Gujar

It’s almost naive to expect a film, compressed within a runtime of two hours, to encapsulate the entirety of the 12 separate terror attacks carried out by the Lashkar-E-Taiba across Mumbai back in 2008. At best, it can offer a snapshot: either by playing out like a rushed overview of the harrowing events of 26/11, or by zooming in on one solitary location. In Hotel Mumbai, debutant filmmaker Anthony Maras adopts the latter approach and contains the bulk of his film inside the Taj Mahal Hotel, focusing exclusively on the trapped guests and hotel staff. Even though Hotel Mumbai opens with Maras briefly tracking the terrorists as they start firing at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and bombing Café Leopold, these disjointed sequences act more as a launchpad for the real horrors of the night that unfold at the five-star hotel.There are two ways to look at Maras’ and co-writer John Collee’s decision to use the 116-year-old Taj Mahal Hotel as the backdrop for Hotel Mumbai. On one hand, it makes perfect narrative sense: The legend of how the Taj staff risked their own lives to ensure that the guests stuck inside were rescued to safety would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. Even more so, the hotel’s resurrection — by the end of the attack, the walls of the Taj were bullet-riddled and its domes were on fire — a month after the tragic incident perfectly embodies the indomitable spirit of Mumbai. There’s certainly a story in here, rife with cinematic potential. Capturing the mayhem of 26/11 through the carnage at The Taj is as much a testament to the unpreparedness of the city as it is to its resilience. For much of its runtime, Hotel Mumbai wants to be the movie that recognises this particular heroism that weathered the brunt of terrorism. 

Yet, on the other hand, the film’s fascination with confining its narrative to the Taj resembles the same reasons that might have prompted the terrorists to target the hotel in the first place. The hotel offers an indoor setting, that would comparatively be easier to control for the killers as well as the filmmakers. It’s also a symbol of opulence, that signifies one end of the city’s extremes. This made it the preferred spot for the elite, which invariably included expats and foreigners — important people whose suffering would be more valuable as both hostages and as protagonists. Hotel Mumbai reinforces that thought by placing wealthy foreigners at the centre of its story, effectively taking a myopic view of the tragedy. The trouble isn’t that Hotel Mumbai serves very little purpose other than being a compelling recreation, or that it recreates only one side of the picture. It’s that Maras’ gaze, which flits between being questionable and ignorant, stubbornly dresses it up as the entire picture.

Hotel Mumbai deals in black and white when it comes to its protagonists; the lines are clearly demarcated between victims and saviours. The victims are, for the most part, white: There’s the rakish Russian (John Isaacs), the frightened British-Muslim heiress (Nazanin Boniadi), her loving American husband who also doubles up as the daring dad (a wasted Armie Hammer), rounded off by the loyal nanny (Tilda-Cobham Hervey) armed with a baby. There’s even an old white woman, who exists to remind audiences that racism exists (a classic case of noble intentions gone tacky). 

Hotel mumbai

Even the religion chosen for Patel’s character feels like a cliche: Sikhs are after all, considered the model of magnanimity across the world and instances of their kind-heartedness have by now become a headline staple.

Thunder Road Pictures

On the other side are the saviours: the nameless bunch of hotel employees who make up the first batch of victims when the terrorists start firing indiscriminately; Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), the calm head-chef who holds fort at the hotel’s Chambers Lounge and leads the operation to rescue over 100 guests; the underdog Sikh waiter (a sincere Dev Patel) who becomes his second-in-command; and the two inspectors who venture inside the hotel out of moral compulsion despite knowing that they’d be outnumbered. Each of them resemble one-dimensional character attributes necessary in a terse suspense thriller instead of being regular humans whose impulses get the better of their rational sides under such circumstances. It’s perhaps why the film feels so passive: There’s very little for a viewer to do other than wait for the body-count to escalate.

The unfamiliarity of the makers with the cultural reverberations of the 26/11 terror attacks remain a glaring flaw throughout Hotel Mumbai’s runtime. At best, Maras films an action thriller that could have easily unfolded inside the confines of any five-star hotel — India, as a setting, is almost incidental to the plot, and worse, the tragedy. Take for instance the fact that Hotel Mumbai is unable to grasp the complexities of the circumstances at hand. The dichotomy of the 26/11 attacks reducing Indians as both victims and heroes eludes Maras. Most of the characters in the film are essentially composites save for Kher’s Oberoi, who is based on a real person, and yet the film underserves his motivations. It concludes that Oberoi was pushed to stay back during the attacks when he had the choice to leave solely because of the Taj adage, “Guests are God,” which in itself is a simplistic reading that reduces the distinctive psyche of the hotel staff to a collective instead of investigating them as individuals.

Hotel Mumbai is not only reluctant to hold anyone accountable but it is also devoid of any depth.

On more than one occasion, Hotel Mumbai suffers from the classic outsider-making-a-movie-about-India syndrome. For one, it eschews articulating any larger commentary, which is self-defeating given that the 26/11 terror attacks are entertwined with its social reverberations. The casting of Dev Patel, a British-American, as a Sikh waiter is also a dead giveaway. After Slumdog Millionaire and Lion, Patel has become synonymous with this prototype of the kind of films that exoticises Indians. Even the religion chosen for Patel’s character feels like a cliche: Sikhs are after all, considered the model of magnanimity across the world and instances of their kind-heartedness have by now become a headline staple. Writing a saviour who is recognisable by his religion is an odd move, given that the biggest takeaway from the ingenious rescue operation led by the Taj employees was that it blurred the lines between class and religion. This is perhaps, the most glaring flaw of Hotel Mumbai: Its existence doesn’t serve the people whom the attacks affected the most. Worse, its existence refuses to even understand them. This can be traced to the fact that Maras isn’t from India, which acts like a double-edged sword: The director’s distance from the tragedy guarantees that there is no overt whitewashing of the lapses of the city’s security forces in preventing such a tragedy (The assault was in part, prolonged by the delay of the arrival of National Security Guard forces from Delhi). But on the other hand, it’s this distance that is behind the film’s superficial gaze. Hotel Mumbai is not only reluctant to hold anyone accountable but it is also devoid of any depth. It’s visible even in how the film frames the terrorists: Maras is sympathetic to them, implying that these were young Muslim men brainwashed into being ruthless killers but it remains unclear how much blame he believes they should be burdened with. 

That’s not to say that Hotel Mumbai isn’t technically compelling or moving — Maras displays a judicious use of space that enhances the claustrophobia of being trapped without an exit in sight. The taut editing and the kinetic cinematography which is intercut with real-life footage guarantee that the film replicates the tensions of the attacks. But without any singular direction, it articulates nothing more. Even when the assault is over, there is no telling of the gravity of its aftermath. Even considering the restrictions of the medium, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a movie that mines a terrorist attack, which left 174 people dead and wounded 300, for entertainment, to at least have something to say.