Hotel Mumbai Creates Emotional Resonance while Bordering on Exploitation

“We all are [scared]. But to get through this we must stick together. “

– Arjun

Finding the right words to describe Hotel Mumbai is a tough task. It was not enjoyable to watch a chilling reenactment of such a massive and horrific terror attack. As the survivors escaped, there were not feelings of happiness or catharsis but relief and exhaustion instead, for the characters and the audience alike. The tremendous acting performances and attention to detail created what felt like an accurate and reverent portrayal to the men and women who lost their lives or just barely survived that day. From a purely analytical perspective, Hotel Mumbai is an overall terrific achievement.

The team behind Hotel Mumbai deserves credit for daring to create a film that walked a difficult line. They managed to humanize the terrorists instead of making them boring caricatures, and created relatable protagonists who had weaknesses that often equaled their strengths, and whose decisions had real consequences. The actors play their characters with the seriousness required to make such a film work. Anupam Kher, who is always great, particularly stands out. Sometimes, however, the entertainment aspect did disservice to the film’s reverential tone. Specifically, there were some attempts at comic relief that fell completely flat.

Hotel Mumbai’s creators made it clear it was intended to feel as realistic as possible while still maintaining some dramatic elements. Writers John Collee and Anthony Maras spend months studying the attacks’ victims and survivors, patching stories they heard into one or two characters. The film gave a tone of reverence towards the Indian staff members who risked their lives to save their guests. Everyone’s decisions felt logical, if not rational, considering the trauma they were experiencing. They also made the right choice of keeping alive the people who were closest to real-life victims/survivors, including the head chef who ultimately passed during the real assault.

Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews created intense contrasts through color pallets. Outside of the hotel, every shot was filled with brown hues during the daytime and the squalor which many residents lived amongst was given the focus. In contrast, the Taj Hotel’s interior shots were brighter, seemingly of a higher resolution to enhance the luxury. But as the attacks progressed, the screen was increasingly distorted by smoke and dust. The confusion and fear were palpable as the guests made their final attempt to escape with the security team coming in.  

The movie mostly stays true to the film in some important ways: at the real Taj Hotel, the staff all stayed to defend the hotel and, more important to them, their guests. Maras’ homage to them was the most emotionally satisfying part of the film. They did not turn into John McClane-style heroes (although Patel’s character comes closest with a footwear conundrum reminiscent of Die Hard). You could feel that the terrorists had the upper hand. Instead of superhuman strength or a powerful fight back, the Taj staff used what they had, which was usually just knowledge and compassion, and saved dozens of lives.

Giving my positive opinion on Hotel Mumbai without any other context is easy enough. But there are plenty of questions surrounding the film that have weighed on me since I first saw the synopsis and only became stronger while watching. I almost felt like I shouldn’t be watching it at times, as though it was leaked clips of the actual tragedy itself. Does this make the film deserving of adulation for its attempted accuracy, or derided?

The creators of the film can emphasize how much care and respect they gave to the real events and people as much as they want, but the film was made to make money. To profit off of this story that is, yes, an incredible example of humanity, but equally so an unimaginable tragedy that tore apart families, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It was especially difficult during the scenes where people were gunned down on camera and when they interspersed newsreels of the real attack and real bloodied victims. The film began with the terrorists approaching the shores of Mumbai, and they got plenty of screen time, filled with praise towards Allah and a terrifying glimpse into young men who were tragically brainwashed and convinced to commit such despicable acts.

To the filmmakers’ credit, Zahra (portrayed by Nazanin Boniadi) is shown to be a Muslim on the good side and the terrorists have very human emotions, so I wouldn’t accuse it as being anti-Islam. However, it also does not do enough to avoid enabling those with Islamaphobic bias to continue generalizing, heavy-handed addition of the prejudiced grandmother character notwithstanding. Not that it is any one film’s job to do this, especially one about such a terrible topic.

All of this begs the question: are there certain topics or events that the entertainment industry simply should not touch? I think that would be an obvious yes. But finding the perfect line is, as always, a much more daunting task. I would be disgusted by a film regarding school shooting or recreating the events of 9/11 from within the towers. Is this terror attack, or any other real-life one, any different? Hotel Mumbai was a complicated film to sit through and will almost certainly remain with me for awhile longer. It had an overall positive message and executed the intended goals to powerful effect. It is absolutely worth seeing based on its merits as a film. As to whether or not one wants to support such an endeavor, on the other hand, is up to you.

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