I don’t want to write too much about Hotel Mumbai because I got my fill of it in the theatre and thinking about it after the fact is like a PTSD trigger. On one hand, one can commend Anthony Maras for trying to render the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks as authentically as he could, doing extensive research into the tragedy in order to recreate the sheer terror experienced by the guests trapped inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As witnesses to these re-enactments of panic and bloodshed, we are made acutely aware of our powerlessness. We’re forced to watch men and women being gunned down in cold blood—and very graphically, too. We’re forced to watch the central characters hide wherever they can, make stupid decisions, and suffer mental breakdowns in real time, and it comes to feel absurd that we sit in reclining seats, some of us with popcorn in our hands, watching this unfold so… customarily. The tension between our privileged positions in the theatre and the horror on the screen is, I think, alluded to in the film’s opening. Life at the Taj goes on unperturbed even after the first attacks occur, and there’s a sense that Maras is implicitly critiquing how oblivious we can be—and how oblivious the developed world in general can be—to atrocities that are not within earshot, or ones that occur on the other side of the world. Only when it’s too late and the terrorists casually stroll into the hotel does reality set in.
The film does not, however, sufficiently resolve this tension, which is a problem for me. From where I stand, a film needs to offer me more than simply unfettered mimetic representation. I don’t watch cinema to have horrible events re-enacted before me without some kind of meaningful exchange, be it cathartic, discursive, theoretical—whatever. I like ending a film with the knowledge that a mutually beneficial interaction has taken place: my time, energy and patience for the filmmaker’s artistic expression, intellect, creativity, and so forth. I’m enlightened because of what I’ve seen and not in spite of it. This is where Hotel Mumbai loses me, because it fails to justify its purpose of putting the viewer through what amounts to two hours of grueling and explicit suffering. Yes, it’s incredibly tense. Yes, Maras films the story with unrelenting urgency. It’s well-crafted and guaranteed to keep the adrenaline moving through your system. But what else is there? If it is to inform me about the attacks in greater detail, I would’ve been happier reading a book or the Wikipedia entry, because that’s where most of the truth lies anyway. If it is show me how a terrorist attack unfolds from a civilian’s perspective, that’s great, but it’s not something I can use as a practical takeaway. I count myself lucky that I’ve never faced this level of fear and anxiety, and I don’t take it for granted. But what good will this do me in the long term? If I were faced with such a situation tomorrow, it would still traumatize me to my core, and watching Hotel Mumbai will not have helped either way.
The film could, at the very least, make a gesture of empathy towards people of all faiths and backgrounds, so we can remain believers in the inherent goodness of our fellow man. It tries to do that in its way, focusing extensively on the heroism of the hotel staff as they tried to protect their guests from the gunmen. And yet, it also shoots itself in the foot in other ways. There’s a very clumsy (though blessedly minor) subplot involving an old racist guest that exists only to reinforce the film’s chosen dichotomy of “Indians good/Muslims bad,” ending in a cringey semi-confrontation to make the racist woman see the error of her ways. Yet the aforementioned dichotomy is never dispelled. The jihadists are presented solely as heartless monsters, and the film’s futile attempts to humanize them (they’re just boys! they’re being systematically brainwashed!) are half-hearted and don’t seem to come from an authentic place. Even having one of the hostages turn out to be an Iranian Muslim makes little difference, coming across as little more than a convenient plot device. In short: whenever the film tries to mitigate the dichotomy’s totalizing force, it does not have a substantive way of doing it. The film’s ultimate depiction of Islam is unquestionably negative and ends up reinforcing all the xenophobic stereotypes that has made the current political climate so heated. The fact that Maras refuses to contextualize the jihadists’ origins (they were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and based in Pakistan) could also be perceived as reckless, because the lack of contextualization makes it that much easier to generalize, and thus double-down on racist thinking. Not what responsible art should be doing in any shape or form!
Look, I said I didn’t want to write too much about this, and the only reason I did is because it needs to be approached in a more critical way. We can’t in all good conscience treat cinematic representations of historical traumas as mere generic exercises in form. The Mumbai attacks and others like it should not be memorialized as popcorn cinema. The reassessment should come in a form that is both respectful to the victims and insightful about the broader implications of the event historically, socially, culturally, and so forth. You also need temporal distance and concrete spaces for grief to set in, as well as a mindfulness that the grief will never fade. Hotel Mumbai’s strict fidelity to the emotional volatility of the experience is missing those touches of insight—insight that would’ve allowed the viewer to process the film beyond its affective registers. It would have gone beyond the imitative and instead offered a rich point of view to supplement one’s own cursory understanding of the facts. Film is such a malleable art form that this can be achieved without too much difficulty—it just rests on the filmmaker to bring it out. Perhaps Maras is lacking in this respect. After watching this, the argument is certainly valid.