Review: Hotel Mumbai

When I went into the screening of Hotel Mumbai on Friday evening, I still hadn’t quite digested the horrific events that had unfolded in Christchurch that same afternoon. I was still in shock and somewhat emotionally numb; overwhelmed by what had just happened. By the time I took my seat in the cinema, the queasy uneasiness I had felt in my stomach ever since I came across the film’s promotional material had developed into an obvious burning question I could no longer run away from – why do we need this film?

As someone who spent his formative years in India before moving to Australia and whose cultural identity is as much Indian as it is Australian, I don’t need to refresh my memory about the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 and the kind of wounds they have left on the psyche of Indians everywhere. The immediate aftermath of such horrible incidents usually follows the arc of trying to provide a sense of closure and forging a path forward that can allow communities to come together, grieve, and possibly heal. What is less obvious, however, is the fact that grieving and healing don’t follow any linear timelines. You don’t stop grieving just because the mandated mourning period has ended, and by this point, you should have found a way to grieve, heal and move on with your life. It just doesn’t work like that. That’s the funny thing about healing. It takes its own time.

Hotel Mumbai opens with scenes that establish the inner workings of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, the staff and the incoming guests oblivious to the grave tragedy that awaits them. Australian director Anthony Maras, helming his first full-length feature after directing a slew of shorts (Azadi [2005], Spike Up [2007], The Palace [2011]), frames these initial scenes straight out of Stephen Frears’ playbook – where the hotel staff are in service of their guests, much like those employed to serve Dame Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria in Stephen Frears’ recent cinematic assault on the senses, Victoria & Abdul (2017). The Victoria & Abdul parallel is also helpful, particularly in the initial sequences, to understand the social dynamics that Maras establishes in this universe. There is an implicit social hierarchy at play here, much like Frears’ film – a largely Indian staff with its own internalised pecking order based on job titles, is subservient to a mostly white or foreign guest clientele staying at the hotel.

Maras is not interested in exploring where the threads of these obvious colonial undertones lead to, because very soon, we are thrust in the midst of the tragedy unfolding. This is a shame, as for the most part here on, the film becomes a conventional ‘disaster’ movie treated like a stylised thriller, where you don’t know if the characters the film has tried so hard for the audience to invest in for its two hours plus runtime, get to survive till the end. As the bodies start to pile up, the film resembles little more than a gross attempt at tragedy porn, using the guise of a real tragedy to manipulate us into thinking that the recreation of these events on screen have any kind of purpose beyond guilting white audiences into paying for their emotional exploitation. It’s about milking trauma for commercial worth.

An example of a film that has smarter things to say about the profitability of trauma is Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (2019) – a film that follows the rise of a pop star after she bears witness to a school shooting. It’s illustrative to draw out this comparison between Vox Lux and Hotel Mumbai – both films begin with horrendous acts of violence. But where Vox Lux uses the initial premise of the cyclical nature of modern violence to ask probing questions around how trauma can be co-opted by celebrity culture and commercialised as a marketable commodity in our consumer-driven world, Hotel Mumbai doesn’t know what it wants to do with its incendiary material. The film thinks recreating an undeniably horrific set of incidents on screen gives the narrative some kind of meaning: as if it’s attempting to search for an ulterior motive and rationalism behind the brainwashed mindlessness of a terrorist attack. But that’s not the case at all. All the film manages to accomplish through this exercise is to unleash gratuitous violence on screen, cobbled together by lazy platitudes such as ‘cultural harmony’, ‘conquering our differences’ and ‘triumph of the human spirit’ in impossible circumstances. This forced feel-good sentiment is only illusory, nothing more than a failed attempt at sugarcoating the terrifying actualities of the real event.

Maras’ film claims to be a ‘fictional’ reimagination of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, but that’s no more than an excuse to play fast-and-loose with the authenticity of the events depicted. Therefore, Leopold Café, one of the places targeted on that fateful day in Mumbai (you can still see the bullet hole marks on the walls of café if you visit it today) becomes ‘Lilipal Café’ in the film; but the Taj Mahal Hotel Palace remains as is. Further adding to the unreliability and inconsistency of this reconstruction, is the film’s use of archival footage of the coverage of the attacks as it unfolded on the day – cutting back-and-forth between fictionalised storylines of the survivors and real archival footage. It’s an odd treatment choice to have this continuous sense of ‘fictional realism’, where you want to believe things unfolding on screen because they feel authentic at times, only for your suspension of disbelief to be completely shattered by farfetched, fictional occurrences. Imagine my surprise when I saw one of the terrorists who was responsible for subduing the hostages break into a song. (Yes… that happened. I wish I was making some of this up, but believe me, I’m not.)

Hotel Mumbai follows the arcs of a select few guests and hotel staff as they attempt to survive this real-life tragedy. But these character arcs are written simply to function as plot devices. These set of characters could have been replaced by another set of cardboard cutouts and it would have made absolutely no difference to how you experience the film. From the hotel staff, we have the Taj Hotel’s head chef Hemant Oberoi – played by Indian actor Anupam Kher – a character based on the real-life counterpart of the same name who was the actual head chef at the hotel back then (can you see how frustrating it is to separate fact from fiction in this film?). As part of Kher’s staff, there is Arjun (Dev Patel), a junior employee who essays an instrumental role in helping rescue people. From the foreign guests, we have an inter-cultural couple played by Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi trapped downstairs while their child is upstairs with their nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Rounding off the foreign guests is an incredibly on-the-nose and terribly-accented Russian played by Jason Isaacs. (Not that this film is interested in any kind of nuance, mind you.) Still, Isaacs’ character was a winner in ticking the box for a Russian stereotype in a film that is practically filled to the brim with clichés.

Such simplistic characterisation might as well come as a surprise given Maras and his co-writer, John Collee (who was also the screenwriter for the trainwreck of a film that was The Water Diviner [2014]), made the effort to check themselves into the Taj Hotel for more than a month, and interview staff and people there as part of the writing process. Alas, it doesn’t seem to have helped much, if at all, because the script is weakest link of this film:  calling it shoddy would be an understatement. It relies on gross oversimplifications and conversations that have no cultural understanding of the world in which they operate. Take, for example, the scene in which one of the captured terrorists, Ajmal Kasab (Kapil Kumar Netra), is questioned about his motives for carrying out the attack. It builds to be one of the few instances where the audience receives some psychological insight behind the minds of these terrorists, and by extension, a possibility that the film might make a  broader statement about the nature of evil, rather than being content in insensitively recreating carnage on screen. The golden nugget we are given here is just two words: “Do jihad”. That’s it. It’s a spectacular facepalm moment in a film that’s hellbent on scoring own goals. The film namechecks the reference to jihad as if it’s ticking things off a list about ‘How To Make A Film About Terrorism For White People’.

Let me put this another way: what annoys me most about this film as a South Asian viewer is that it’s more than happy to use cultural artefacts from the subcontinent – whether it is language, religious symbolism, even cultural differences – but isn’t prepared to do the work to contextualise these artefacts for its mostly white target audience. In that way, the film comes across as awfully lazy [and culpable in its white lens]. Let’s go back to the jihad scene: by name-dropping the word ‘jihad’ without doing the requisite work around setting the context behind its usage – what the word means in the Islamic tradition and how it has been misused, maligned and misappropriated by Muslim terror outfits – the scene adds to existing hysteria and negativity around representation of Muslims and understanding of Islam more widely among Western audiences.

This kind of indolence shows up again and again. It’s not just the terrorists who are painted with extremely broad strokes. Most of the characters are just one-note cardboard cutouts. In a scene that aims to conquer our fears of cultural difference, Patel’s character, who is a Sikh in the film, tries to pacify the fears of a white elderly guest who is afraid of him because he wears a turban. The already heavy, on-the-nose insensitivity of this sequence is heightened when Patel’s character goes on to explain away the cultural and religious significance of wearing the turban through mere platitudes: that it’s a symbol of “honour, pride and dignity”.

More of these cultural and religious signifiers arrive in glib terms. Maras also wants to uncover an answer as to why so many of the hotel staff decided to stay back and protect the guests rather than just try to save their own lives. The answer he comes to is yet another platitude: that the ‘Guest is God’. It’s a crude English translation of the Sanskrit phrase atithi devo bhava, which forms part of Hindu culture in establishing the expected code of conduct between the host-guest relationship. But Maras is not interested in exploring the origins of phrase or its philosophical underpinnings – he is just happy that the staff keep repeating the phrase at every given opportunity, like they are part of an Incredible India tourism ad campaign.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few bright spots – Dev Patel, for all his accented Hindi, does deliver a wonderfully restrained performance where everything and everyone else is turned up to 11. On principle, I’m still unconvinced why this part – of an Indian born kitchen staff in an Indian hotel – had to go to Patel, who was born and raised in the UK. But I also understand post-Slumdog Millionaire that white audiences have come to associate Patel as the token amiable, Indian-looking face on screen (see: The Best Marigold Hotel [2011], Lion [2016]). That is marketable asset. But an Indian-born actor playing a co-lead in a mainstream film helmed by and targeted to white people is still rare, even if the stories are set in India and involve Indian characters.

Despite my reservations about Maras’ abilities as a screenwriter, he shows ample promise as a director (in his debut feature) when the film leans into the conventional thriller-cum-survivor style story. He uses silence to great effect, creating tense moments that make the jump scares all the more horrifying. Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews frames the sequences inside the hotel such that they add to the quiet buildup of suspense before all hell breaks loose. In one of the more interesting scenes, one of the terrorists uses the hotel telephone to call home, through which the film also tries to make a larger point about how the terrorists were just pawns in a much larger network that remains elusive. Matthews’ camerawork astutely cuts back-and-forth between close-up shots of the face of the terrorist – as he realises that it’s someone else calling the shots on his destiny – and the faces of the hostages he is meant to be guarding, who realise in that moment that this terrorist is as scared as anyone. It’s this subtle, yet powerful shift in the power dynamic between captor and those captured that works because of how Matthews lets the camera linger on the faces of the subjects. Sadly, these threads that hint at prodding more thoughtfully into the grey areas of the easy-to-digest good versus evil dynamic remain unexplored. Such moments of nuance show that in more capable hands, this film could’ve ended up as watchable fare.

It is perhaps a blessing in disguise that Netflix’s plan to screen the film in India and other parts of South Asia have been shelved due to an ongoing legal battle over screening rights. The film has also been pulled from New Zealand cinemas in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks last week. It’s all well and good for white filmmakers to tell stories about other cultures and lived experiences and repackage them in a more attractive manner for white audiences. But such efforts don’t absolve them of the need to do the hard work around understanding the cultural artefacts they are engaging with and the social fabric within which they operate. When you throw a hypersensitive subject like terrorism in the mix, this kind of laziness is only magnified, leaving an extremely sour aftertaste.

Hotel Mumbai is now playing in Australia cinemas.

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Virat Nehru is a Sydney-based writer and film critic who writes about Indian cinema and culture. He is a co-host of a weekly, panel-based radio show on 2SER 107.3 FM called Film Fight Club. He also runs a regular podcast discussing Hindustani music and lyrics called Likhtey Raho. You can find him on Twitter @6thrat.

Virat Nehru

Virat Nehru is a Sydney-based writer and film critic who writes about Indian cinema and culture. He is a co-host of a weekly, panel-based radio show on 2SER 107.3 FM called 'Film Fight Club'. He also runs a regular podcast discussing Hindustani music and lyrics called 'Likhtey Raho'. You can find him on Twitter @6thrat

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