It’s easy for me to tell you that Hotel Mumbai is an impressive piece of technical filmmaking. Its sense of realism, the way it evokes pants-shitting terror for two hours straight, and even the characterizations and narrative arcs, its ability to inject honest levity into such a white-knuckle thriller, are a hell of a portfolio builder for director Anthony Maras. The much-harder-to-answer question is, should you go see it? Will you get something out of the experience of being terrified half to death?
People might ask the same thing about horror movies, but that’s a different kind of terror. Horror movies offer a cathartic kind of fear, the built-in resolution of knowing deep down that the gypsy curse or the killer doll isn’t real. The difference between a horror movie and Hotel Mumbai is like the difference between riding a roller coaster and surviving a car crash.
Can the latter be… “fun?” When the scare in a scary movie is a mass shooter, and you watch it the same week of the Christchurch mosque shooting (the film was pulled from theaters in New Zealand in the aftermath), do you get any catharsis?
At least 174 people died in a coordinated series of attacks in Mumbai in 2008, sometimes referred to as India’s 9/11 or 26/11. Hotel Mumbai focuses mainly on the action in the lavish Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where the staff will prepare a bath before you arrive, kept at a precise temperature with flowers floating in it, and the restaurant’s head chef, Hemant Oberoi (played by the delightful Anupam Kher) makes his staff repeat the mantra “the guest is God.”
Armie Hammer plays David, I guess because financiers needed at least one white American to put on the poster, the husband of some kind of rich Muslim-Westerner VIP, played by Nazanin Boniadi. They leave their Australian nanny upstairs with the baby while they go down to Oberoi’s restaurant to get dinner. Joining them there are Vasili, a Russian oligarch type played by Jason Isaacs, who casually orders prostitutes to his room over dinner, and Arjun, a Sikh waiter played by Dev Patel, who has just left his young wife and extremely fat baby at home.
You get the feeling that we’re supposed to think that these guests are obnoxious rich types (casting Armie Hammer is a tell) and, at least at first, the film seems fairly straightforward about the tackiness of a hotel so preposterously opulent in the middle of so much poverty, and the kind of natural resentment that might create. It doesn’t mean we cheer for the people to die or glamorize the attackers, but we get a strong sense of every character’s motives even if we don’t agree with their actions — which is what good storytelling does.
The portrayal of the attackers is interesting. At one point, two of them, both clean-shaven young men in their 20s, are stalking through the hotel halls looking for guests to murder when they pause in front of a room service rack of pastries. One takes a bite, the other tells him it’s pork, and he spits it out. The other laughs, “It’s not pork, you idiot!” and takes a bite himself. It’s not the only moment of levity between the attackers, and it works. I never entirely trust a movie that has no moments of humor, no matter how good it is otherwise, and Hotel Mumbai deftly weaves these moments throughout in a way that feels natural.
At another point, one of the attackers doesn’t want to reach into a woman’s bra to retrieve her passport. Surely the point was to paint them as shy, sheltered boys, but it seems somehow both unbelievable (was ISIS ever this respectful to non-Muslims?) and vaguely Islamophobic. Lol, imagine an ideology that says it’s more respectful to murder a woman than touch her boob! But of course, these guys specifically are bloodthirsty murderers, so any negative depiction is easily explained. “Honest, I wasn’t demonizing Muslims, I was demonizing terrorists.” That’s a fair take on the face of it, but it’s not always genuine.
The portrayal of the hotel staff is even stranger. Having established that the hotel is slightly obnoxious and the people who stay there are varying shades of asshole, that leaves the plucky, hardworking staff to become the heroes. The film seems taken with the idea that the Taj’s service staff stayed in service even during a terrorist attack. There’s a post-film title sequence describing staff who “died protecting their guests.” It makes you wonder: did they? Or did they just die on the job, only to have their bosses use their deaths to promote the business?
When one of the restaurant’s waiters parrots “the guest is God!” to Oberoi as he runs off to do something heroic, the look on Oberoi’s face is up for interpretation. You kind of wish he’d grab the guy by the shoulders and say, “no, you idiot, the guest is not literally God, that’s just a thing we say so you don’t fuck up the creme brulee!” It’s a difficult dance to lionize the service staff’s heroism without lionizing service itself. Which is to say, Hotel Mumbai‘s biggest flaw is that there are times when it feels like the old trope where the “good” slave dies protecting his master.
At its best, Hotel Mumbai conveys the helplessness of being in a mass killing. It feels like a response to Mark Wahlberg’s infamous take on 9/11 — “If I’d a been on that plane, it wouldn’t have gone like that.” It’s human nature to victim blame, to try to find another explanation for why others are dead and you’re still alive besides the terrifying capriciousness of the universe. So when a character in Hotel Mumbai runs down the hall to find their baby instead of hunkering down in a utility closet, we think “You idiot, don’t do that!”
The entire movie is an exercise in disarming Wahlbergian self-justification. “Why, if I would’ve been there, I would’ve done _____,” you think, and two minutes later a Hotel Mumbai character does exactly that and gets murdered. Over and over. There’s value in that.
Does it outweigh the enervating hopelessness? Or the weird feeling you get watching a movie about evil Muslim terrorists so soon after someone murdered a bunch of people based on the assumption that all Muslims are terrorists? I know, I know, I shouldn’t get so political in a review of a movie about terrorism, but it’s hard not to think of current events when a movie character lives because she can say “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet” in Arabic and it works like a witch’s incantation.
Hotel Mumbai seems like a great version of whatever movie it’s supposed to be, but I don’t entirely understand the gesture of making a movie like this. So I spent a significant chunk of it questioning its motives. It made me yearn for escapism.