‘I’ ON CULTURE
With terror attacks of one sort or another becoming almost commonplace, many of us have forgotten the terrorism in Mumbai back in 2008. Even more horrific to many of us was the knowledge that the city is home to many people of the least violent religions. The attack on the city that led to more than 500 people trapped inside the top-rated Taj Hotel resulted in the murder of more than 170 people. Anthony Maras has created a pseudo-documentary called Hotel Mumbai dramatizing the terrible events of the time, and it is both tough and brilliant.
The attack, set up by Muslim extremists working out of Pakistan, began with a coordinated strike from the sea by a group of young men all hoping for martyrdom. They attack several places: a train station, a restaurant. Tourists, terrified, hid at the Taj, assuming that will be a haven. Soon afterward, gunmen arrive and open fire. There is no sense that anyone is doing anything to stop the killers.
Unlike typical us vs. them films, there is no sense that there are heroes who will take down the bad guys so everyone can survive. Women will die as readily as men. Anyone can die. There is almost a Game of Thrones feel to it; even sympathetic characters, people who seem to be central to the story, can quickly die. Normally, we know who the heroes are (generally the stars of the film), and we can follow them. In this film, the narrative changes. The person you think might be a key person in ending the terror, or simply an interesting, sympathetic character, can suddenly die.
There are some central characters, but we quickly realize that they might not make it through. The movie notes that the police seem powerless. There are no special weapons or tactical units in the city. Help would have to come from New Delhi, and it might take days to arrive. Mumbai is a city of peace, and no one is equipped to really fight back. The movie is not a comfortable nod to Indian government leadership.
As a result, the staff of the hotel winds up being asked to serve. The hotel’s chef, Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) asks his staff to stay on, although most know ways they could slip away from the hotel. Most agree, knowing that their special knowledge of the hotel might be vital to the survival of their guests. A key volunteer, Arjun (Dev Patel), is one of the few truly fictionalized characters, a composite of several staff members. He is a Sikh, a proud man from a warrior tradition, but also a father who worries about his children should he die.
This does not mean that things are simple. The terrorists are convinced they are right, that they are killing in order to get a perfect world. They plan to be martyrs to jihad, a holy cause. Maras shows us that the villains are real people, too. He does not try to turn them into good guys, but it removes the one-sidedness that often comes up in these films.
The staff does not want to die; they do stay to help, but we see them doing what they can to survive. At times, we seem to be moving toward a Hollywood ending. Police officers try to get into the building. A guest named David (Armie Hammer) tries to survive, saving his wife and infant son. Eventually, a lot of people are killed. The leader of the attack, who gave orders through electronics, has never been captured. The Indian government presumes he is in Pakistan, another irritant in their relationship with that country. Scarily, both countries have nuclear weapons.
This is, as I wrote above, a pseudo-documentary. Maras spent years interviewing survivors, even living at the hotel. It feels incredibly real and reminds us, once again, that jihad is not a peaceful pursuit. Watching it was almost like a kick to the stomach. We like to think we’re different here. Unfortunately, following social media and watching many news shows, it often seems like we’re on the edge of getting violent.
Perhaps watching a film like this might remind some people of why so many outside this country want to get in.