If the opening sequence of Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai left you in any doubt about the film’s gaze, it becomes amply clear once the Taj hotel comes under siege in the film. The gaze, and the backstories, remain mostly with the white people. Apart from the terrorists, the only brown person who gets decent screen time, is Slumdog Millionaire actor Dev Patel, an Executive Producer on the film.
Based on the events of November 26, 2008, Hotel Mumbai begins with the arrival of the 10 men who held a city, nay a country, hostage, unleashing a meticulously planned terror attack that left Mumbai reeling. As they make their way to various points in the city, Arjun (Dev), a Sikh man who lives in Mumbai’s slums with his pregnant wife and young child, as well as UK-born Muslim heiress Zahra (Nazanin Bonaidi), her husband David (Arnie Hammer) and their newborn baby’s nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), are introduced. One heads to work in the kitchens (Arjun), while the others are welcomed by the courteous staff of the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The terrorists, the kitchens, the foreigners — the film divides its time largely between the three.
We’re walked through Zahra and David’s decision to have dinner just by themselves on the fateful day, and given a glimpse of the nanny’s mild crush on the husband. We are then made witness to their dinner date solely so we can be introduced to Vasili (Jason Isaacs, who played Lucius Malfoy in the Potter films). None of these people however — Vasili, Zahra, David, Sally — play characters drawn from real events around the Mumbai attacks, and yet, we see their trauma in great detail.
Anupam Kher, who plays the role of head chef, Hemant Oberoi, is the only ‘real-life’ hero to make it to the film. While Dev’s character, Arjun, is meant to be an amalgamation of the heroics displayed by different hotel staff without whom the death toll would have been significantly higher.
But this isn’t the biggest problem with the film. That would be the feverish tailing of the terrorists as they go on a barbaric killing spree in different parts of the city. The director gives us scene after scene after scene of gunmen just shooting people down, as if he’s unconvinced of the viewer’s ability to understand the brutality of a terror attack, unless they are made to sit through a merciless loop of blood and gore.
If Maras had chopped some of the knock- door-shoot- guest scenes, perhaps the stories of Mallika Jagad or Karambir Singh Kang would have made the cut. Jagad, a young manager whose presence of mind saved over 60 people at a conference, or Kang, the general manager of the hotel who organised rescue missions of the guests, even as a fire broke out on the floor his family was on. He lost his wife and kids that night, but never abandoned his duty.
There is no doubt that the terrorists attacked the financial capital of India, and its most prominent hotels, to target the wealthy, influential guests it receives — many of whom are foreign nationals. But the story of 26/11 isn’t just that. It’s a story of extraordinary bravery of the cops and the hotel staff, of delayed action from the powers that be, of TV channels’ irresponsible coverage. Above all else, it is the story of a city which stood right back up mere days after being hit mercilessly.
26/11, and the spirit of Mumbai, deserves a better film than this hidden camera-like voyeurism.