Released: 14th March
Seen: 26th March
In 2008, between the 26th of November and the 29th of November, 10 armed gunmen took to multiple locations in South Mumbai, including a cinema, a railway station, a cafe and a pair of hotels including the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Over four days these terrorists killed at least 166 people and wounded 300 before police were finally able to take them down, killing nine of them while one was captured and his information led to multiple other arrests before he was also executed by the state. It’s a horrific story that is referred to as 26/11 by many people and, here’s where things get weird, has been made into 5 movies in the years since then. Today we’re going to talk about the latest film about this terrifble event.
Hotel Mumbai spends a large amount of its runtime inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of the many locations that the terrorists hit that night. It’s hard to say that there is really any kind of plot because we pretty much start right up the top by watching the terrorists getting into a trilogy of taxis that will take them to the various locations where they will go on to commit an absolute atrocity. It’s hard to describe the plot beyond that, it’s a recreation of the actual events that happened with a central focus on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. We see a glimpse of some of the other locations, such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Leopold Cafe but for the most part, the focus is on this one location.
The difficulty with a film about a real-world tragedy is that you have to try and tell a story of actual people’s suffering without exploiting it, and this film manages to pull that off. It’s very careful to make sure every major person that we follow on this night of horror is well rounded, it lets us sympathise with all of them. If you were to point to one character who is the focus of the film, that would be Arjun (Dev Patel), a worker at the Hotel who turns up late, doesn’t have shoes, is almost sent home… and then ends up basically becoming a hero by being willing to put himself in harm’s way in order to protect the guests. He is also given possibly the best scene where the film explicitly calls out the people who will look at Muslims and sheiks and people who just happen to look Arabic in some way and call them terrorists. It’s a poignant moment when the film has to take a breath and say “No, the overwhelming majority of us are good, it’s a handful of assholes who are doing this” and I respect the film for taking the moment to call out… well, everyone.
The handling of the terrorists themselves is also interesting. They make it very clear that these guys are evil and there is no denying that in any way, but there are several moments where they also point out that these guys aren’t the leaders. They aren’t even close to the top, they spend a lot of time taking orders over phones from higher-ups who have promised to give money to their families. You never feel sympathy for these guys, but you can at least watch them and go “OK, so now I know specifically why you’re a foul evil asshole” which is honestly better than just making them mindless killers, they actually have ‘reasons’ and ‘motivation’ and seeing them have moments of doubt creates interesting tension… but, again, they’re assholes and it’s so weird having to type “They made the terrorists into actual characters” as a positive, but that’s where we are.
Are there some problems with the film? Sure, it feels like a lot was cut out in order to fit the runtime. Keep in mind, this attack took four days but here it feels like it takes one night. Some scenes feel like they’re shakily written, some dialogue doesn’t work as well as it could and there are moments where it drags… all of which is really weird to say when you’re talking about a film portraying an actual act of terrorism, but I’m trying to judge this film on its own merits here. There’s also just the reality that this is yet another film about Muslim terrorists to throw on the pile, along with “Practically every film that has a terrorism plot”. This is basically a genre of its own at this point and, as we sadly got reminded with the recent Christchurch attacks, not all terrorists are Muslims. Indeed, it’s stunningly few of the big terror attacks that are done by muslims, and when they are done by specific individual muslim extremists, most of their victims are muslims. It’s genuinely just baffling to think we need more of these, especially since we never see one of these films do a story about the white supremacist terrorists that have been popping up like mass-murdering whack-a-mole’s. I’m just saying, having another film to throw on the pile of “Muslim terrorist” films is getting irritating at this point, and it’s probably helped create a culture of islamaphobia that… oh look at that, how did I get up on this box full of soap? Look, my point is that these problems do make this film a little hard to watch at times, but for the most part, it works really well at putting the audience in the hotel while hell itself comes in to change everyone’s lives.
Hotel Mumbai is a tough watch, it’s a visceral and shocking film with some serious tension throughout. It feels like there’s more of the story to be told here and some parts are just not as good as they could be, but for the most part, this film is a reminder of the horror of terrorism, a reminder that we sadly don’t need. It’s well made, well acted and will certainly get your attention… I question how long it will linger in people’s memory, but it’s certainly a good film worthy of a few hours of your time.