Based on true events, Hotel Mumbai tells the story of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Sent by someone calling himself “Brother Bull,” a group of Muslim men with machine guns and other assorted weaponry seize Mumbai and senselessly kill an inordinate amount of people. The film, directed by Anthony Maras and co-written by Maras and John Collee, centers the acclaimed Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which largely caters to the rich and often public figures from around the world. When the gunmen make their way to the hotel and begin their brutal killing spree, the hotel staff–Arjun (Dev Patel), Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and others–vow to protect the guests of the hotel, which include newly married couple Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and David (Armie Hammer), along with their infant son, and Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs), with the goal being to survive the night.
Hotel Mumbai is deeply unsettling in a way that’s distinctly hard to stomach. It’s a terrifying reenactment of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, but the real question is why was it made? As a film, it doesn’t seek to add anything to the conversation. We get it, there are Muslim extremists out there in the world who have done terrible, unspeakable things in the name of religion. However, it’s also worth noting that it’s very, very rare that Muslims are treated as anything but terrorists in Hollywood films that portray fictional events and this film further lends itself to the idea that that’s all Muslims are. (Yes, I know it’s based on true events, but the criticism still stands since Hollywood tends to play into stereotypes without providing any .)
Though Hotel Mumbai is based on real events, what, exactly, was the purpose of bringing these events to the big screen? What justifies the film, which tries to recreate the horror and fear from that terrifying night? Even more frustrating is a scene that has a white woman questioning and openly showcasing fear of both Zahra and Arjun, hidden behind the excuse of wanting to be safe when it’s clearly a matter of her own racism and xenophobia coming to light.
It’s especially glaring given that she is a tourist in India but is the one who is owed an explanation and needs to be placated. Arjun even goes out of his way to calm her down and show her pictures of his family to prove he is a non-threat. It just goes to show the dehumanization of brown people despite Arjun and Zahra being in the exact same situation. I wonder if this film would have been made if director Anthony Maras found there had been no white people in Mumbai that night. Would it have mattered?
The inclusion of Armie Hammer’s character is an example of Maras’ need to prioritize whiteness in the film. Hammer’s character, David, is the classic white savior. He gets to be the protector, the man who seemingly jumps into action in order to protect his child. It makes him look like he’s willing to do what it takes while Dev Patel and Anupam Keir are given less to do and made to look less than for not being as traditionally heroic (though they are the only ones with clear heads in the midst of chaos). Hammer is also given more to do than Boniadi’s Zahra, whose story is very limited in comparison, especially considering she’s the more interesting character.
Beyond the simple questions for why this movie was even made, there’s a sense of detachment. The film is all about the terrorists and showcasing their naiveté while neglecting the other characters. It often feels cold and clinical, hellbent on rehashing the actual shootings rather than focusing on anything else. If Maras intended on spotlighting the characters, their stories, and their trauma, it falls short because the primary focus is on the brutality of the killings.
This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t harbor some suspense. It’s a thriller, after all. There are plenty of good edge-of-your-seat moments and high-stakes drama. However, as the film goes on and the killings become increasingly more violent, Hotel Mumbai loses itself and doesn’t engage in anything beyond what it gives us at face value, which is essentially a Wikipedia rehash of the attacks. Considering the film is based on true events, seemingly fictionalized to exploit trauma, Hotel Mumbai doesn’t offer much of anything besides violence.