Complicated representations in “Hotel Mumbai”

During a tense scene in the newly released “Hotel Mumbai,” a pair of gunmen enter a hotel-room toilet in search of a victim. The tension of the moment is briefly compromised when one of the pair marvels at the indoor plumbing and the toilet’s capacity for flushing. Even going to the bathroom is fun for these people, he observes. And although some of the audience members around me laughed at the moment, the moment presents a critical part of how “Hotel Mumbai” is working, ceaselessly if not always seamlessly, to bring nuance to a very complicated scenario.

On November 26, 2008, ten members of the terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba began a series of 12 coordinated attacks around Mumbai. The film covers the broad strokes of the attacks, with focus on the standoff at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where 31 persons died and more than 200 were rescued. In the decade since the attack, the geopolitical situation regarding Islamic extremists and the related persecution of non-extremist Muslims in the form of a rampant Islamaphobia in western media makes the release of a film like “Hotel Mumbai” a tetchy endeavour in a consistently fragile political climate. Like any number of films that seek to represent historical incidents with political weight, “Hotel Mumbai” feels particularly fragile for the way it must toe the line of both ethical art and entertaining art. For what even could be entertaining about a two-hour onslaught of domestic terrorism represented on screen?

“Hotel Mumbai” chooses to lean into those complicated feelings. Director Anthony Maras (in his feature-film debut) fashions the film as a thriller. The film’s ultimate goal is representational more than analytical as it seems intent on placing us within the complexities of the terror attack, itself. There is no handholding, oftentimes little context, and even the occasional attempts at levity all are working towards the onslaught of violence that will come, and it comes soon after the film begins. The film opens with a shot of marginal serenity. A group of young men are on a boat arriving on the shores of Mumbai. They are listening to Muslim prayers. We realise, very soon, these are our assailants and as the film introduces important players – the fussy head-waiter at the Taj, a personable Sikh waiter, an American-Indian couple and their baby – it is providing us with the scantest of context as everyone prepares for a day that will change their lives.

What exactly does one gain from a film like “Hotel Mumbai” that could not similarly gained from news-clippings? The film isn’t intended as a biopic, many of the characters are fictionalised and the film never focuses on one to create the effect of being a bio-drama of a particular individual. Maras’ filmmaking seems interested in evoking the helplessness in the midst of the event so that the film seems once, or twice, removed from the complicated catharsis of a horror film. Except: the catharsis that comes never feels like a purifying purge but something muddier and more ambivalent. What “Hotel Mumbai” achieves best is the chaotic unpredictability of living through, or dying in, an event like this. The film’s script (co-written by Maras with John Collee) insists on subversion. The perceived Hollywood-ising of the events we might expect never comes, with the film leaning into the casual racism of the Caucasian hotel guests and emphasising the banality of life for the locals, for whom serving feels like a way of live. Dev Patel, as a waiter turned hero, is excellent at turning the broad strokes heroism of his good-guy character into something that’s more layered than we might expect. “Hotel Mumbai” is thoughtful enough to present its characters with idiosyncrasies that make them feel lived-in even when they might seem peripheral. It is, as if, the ultimate refrain is – these are all just people. And that’s a complicated idea for a film like this. A complication that reaches its apex late in the film.

Late in the film, a group of local police try to initiate a rescue attempt while waiting for Special Forces to arrive from New Delhi. When they see the perpetrators at the hotel one of them is stunned to realise that they are boys. Just boys. There’s a reason that we never see the disembodied voice instructing these young men on what to do. The voice urges them to take back what is theirs, and to punish those who have disenfranchised them. But what we see are these boys, schooled to show no emotion, acting out a repulsive assault on people. And this factor is important for all the potentially uncomfortable and necessary carnage on screen the film reaches something close to introspection in the most unlikely moment when one of the gunmen, disillusioned by the violence he has wrought, calls his family who are unaware of where he is. We never see the family but only hear the excited shouts as they urge him to continue his religious training wherever he is. The man can only listen, afraid to speak and disconnects the call as he convulses on the bed beside the phone. It’s a strange mix of revulsion and sympathy that’s evoked here as the film suggests the complication for these terrorists-by-hire who are ultimately mere pawns in something beyond them. Watching the moment exacerbates the helplessness we feel as it emphasises the ambiguity of the carnage.

The historical adversarial relationship between Muslims and Hindus in India is given no context. And the title-cards at the end emphasising the heroism of the hotel’s staff who risked their life for their guests feels twee in a way the film itself never is. The complicated questions of the film’s ethics are unavoidable. “Hotel Mumbai” urges you to bring your own context, and one can imagine how its deliberate ambiguity opens itself up to multiple – conflicting – interpretations. Perhaps another film may have benefited from a singular, more easily extracted moral. But there’s a benefit to the messy ambivalence here. These things are complicated.

“Hotel Mumbai” is currently playing at all local theatres.

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