In the abstract, much of Hotel Mumbai looks like the end of a James Bond picture, when all the bad guys in the lair of the villain are gunned down. But Hotel Mumbai is no fantasy. The movie describes the appalling nightmare visited upon Mumbai in 2008 by a gang of 10 young killers from Pakistan, crazed by twisted Islamic theology, economic resentment and profound ignorance, but armed with up to date weapons and the belief that paradise awaits them if they die killing people, they know nothing about.
These guys are so disconnected from much of the world that they stop in the middle of shooting people in their hotel rooms to gaze in awe at a flush toilet. The first sight of them comes as they approach the city in a small boat at night. By cellphone, they listen to encouraging words from their handler – “There is no fear in your heart,” he tells them. “God is great. I am with you.” Where he is you never know, but it’s somewhere else. He’s not with them. The young men call this disembodied voice “Brother,” and within a minute you hate him, just partly because he’s found gullible young men to do his dirty work. It sounds so easy for him to egg on these naïve young men with promises of honored martyrdom. Later, “Brother” will tell one of his killers to shoot someone because “these animals have no humanity.”
Hotel Mumbai is a movie about killing – and on a scary scale. The killers dispatch themselves around the city – to a train station, a hospital, a Jewish community center, a café, and then they center their attack on the swanky Taj Majal Palace Hotel. They’re methodical, bloodless, and much of the time they look robotic, doing what they’re told over their phones.
Director Anthony Maras highlights several characters – the stereotypically bossy head chef in the hotel kitchen (Rohan Mirchandaney) and a Sikh waiter (Dev Patel), who’s something of a stumblebum. Both – in the movie and in actuality – are heroic. Then there’s a fabulously rich young Indian woman (Nazanin Boniadi), with her American husband, young baby and a stellar nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervy).
Before the killers reach the hotel, their rampage is set against the privilege and self-absorption of the rich hotel patrons. It looks like the movies about the careless rich aboard the Titanic.
But it’s unclear where Hotel Mumbai is going with that contrast. Yes, the wealthy are entitled and dismissive, but the movie does not suggest that they deserve to be gunned down. And in the long scenes of the nanny protecting the baby, you don’t think about social class – you just want them to survive. Some have wondered why the servants on the hotel staff would be so driven to save those they serve, but I don’t find that a mystery. The staff oversee the hotel; and the moment the attacks start, their responsibility is to protect the ones who are most vulnerable, and in their care – whoever they are.
While the ethical and moral standing of the killers and their “brother” on the phone is about as low as it can get among homo sapiens, an overriding ethical question lurks within Hotel Mumbai itself. The movie is intense and moving from start to finish, but still, how much killing can the film show before it turns the deaths of characters who represent actual people into an entertainment. In United 93, Paul Greengrass’s film about the plane hijacked on 9/11, which passengers forced down in Pennsylvania, you know they’re all doomed, but you don’t see the doom. A lot of people are shot down in Hotel Mumbai; for some, the moment of death is off-screen, but many die right on camera. At some point you might ask yourself, what does it take on screen to make an audience understand the ghastly events. I don’t think I can answer that.