In the wake of a mass shooting, which is almost all the time these days, there always seems to be somebody on TV or social media claiming that the victims should have “fought back.”
“If they had only rushed the gunman.” “If there had only been a good guy with a gun.” “I wouldn’t have just laid there.”
From the safety of our living room couches or our Twitter feeds, some can get very confident imagining what they would do if put in such an unimaginable situation.
If nothing else, “Hotel Mumbai” demolishes that false bravado. A chillingly realistic drama about 2008 terrorist attacks in India, “Hotel Mumbai” depicts a series of coordinated shootings and bombings by the Lashkar-e-Taiba group.
First-time director Anthony Maras makes the audience feel as trapped and under siege as its characters. There’s no fighting back, no triumphant action sequences. There’s just sticking together and trying to survive. It’s hard to watch, yet I could not look away.
The film focuses primarily on a protracted siege at the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, in which several gunmen slipped inside the front doors of the hotel armed with automatic weapons and grenades and began killing indiscriminately. Guests, staff, white, Indian, Muslim — nobody is safe from the terrorists, who themselves are just teenage boys, being directed remotely by phone from the attacks’ engineer in Pakistan.
“Hotel Mumbai” sets viewers up to believe that the more recognizable white stars in the film will end up as heroes, including Armie Hammer as a wealthy guest vacationing with his wife and infant son, and Jason Isaacs as a debauched Russian businessman. That’s how these movies usually work. Then it defies those expectations in surprising ways, showing them to be just as vulnerable, just as scared, as everyone else.
The real heroes end up being the hotel staff, including Dev Patel as a Sikh waiter and Anupam Kher as the head chef, who stay behind in the hotel as others flee and protect the guests as best they can. They’re the people that the hotel’s VIPs might not have noticed in ordinary circumstances, and the bond that develops between them under fire is genuine and moving.
The screenplay by Maras and John Collee is based on first-person accounts by the survivors, and “Hotel Mumbai” plays at times like a documentary. The violence in the film is graphic and sudden. As the siege goes on for hours and hours, Maras cuts back and forth between several characters’ perspectives, including the victims, the terrorists, and a pair of local cops who sneak into the hotel when they learn Special Forces troops won’t be there for hours.
Maras does include some sequences in the film that feel like traditional movie suspense. In one scene, Hammer’s character hides behind a food cart as two gunmen stand on the other side, munching on fancy entrees.
Those moments threaten to undercut the authenticity of “Hotel Mumbai” but never quite do, thanks to the intensity of the performances and the commitment to verisimilitude, no matter how grisly. When the siege is finally over and survivors come blinking into the sunlight, we share their relief.
I understand if this isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time at the movies. “Hotel Mumbai” is raw and wrenching, and refuses to let the audience off easy. But I’m glad I saw it. The refusal to dilute the horrors of that night honors the people who banded together to survive it.