Hotel Mumbai is the harrowing story of a four-day terrorist onslaught. Through its fictional representation of the 2008 Mumbai massacre, the film provides a vivid depiction of the experience of living through an active terrorist attack. If nothing else, it shows with devastating clarity just how much bloodshed a few men with automatic assault weapons can inflict.
The attacks, which took place at various locations—a railway station, a popular restaurant, a hospital, a Jewish center, and two hotels—ended with at least 170 people murdered and 304 wounded. Directed by Anthony Maras, the film opens with two dinghies heading across the Arabian Sea. Ten young terrorists listen on the phone to Brother Bull, their handler and diabolical guide, as they make their way toward the coastal city. He orders them to call him during the assault; he wants to record the sounds of the slaughter. The world, he says, must hear the screams of the men, women, and children they are about to murder. (This kind of psychopathic planning evokes the more recent episode in which New Zealand’s Christchurch shooter live-streamed his brutality).
The Mumbai terrorist attacks were the handiwork of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist terrorist organization based in Pakistan. In the film, all Hindus, Americans, Englishmen, and Russians are called “infidels” by the youthful team of terrorists, much in the same way immigrants are called “invaders” by white supremacists at home and abroad. While they begin their incursion at a number of different places, they culminate their attack at the Hotel Mumbai, a fictional composite of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Oberoi Trident.
At the hotel, there are elaborate amenities available to the guests. One patron is a Russian-oligarch type played by Jason Isaac, who, while on the phone, boorishly looks over photos of Indian lovelies as he sips his libations. Hotel Mumbai is where we are introduced to the characters around whom the story centers: a newly married British-Iranian woman and a white-American man (Nazanin Boniadi and Armie Hammer, respectively), who enjoy some quality time together as their friend and nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) looks after their newborn son at the hotel. Crucially, Dev Patel plays Arjun, a Sikh waiter and struggling father who desperately needs to keep his job, and Anupam Kher plays Oberoi, the head chef. He takes pride in his work and staff. When the hotel is overtaken by the terrorists, he’s the one who remains cool and level-headed.
What makes this film so hard to watch is obvious: it depicts the mass murder of utterly defenseless people. In Maras’s telling, the victims were unassisted by the Mumbai police officers. An Indian police commander orders them to wait for a better-armed anti-terrorist unit to arrive from New Delhi. Yes, Mumbai is India’s financial center and wealthiest city. But, it turns out, it had no elite intelligence and security service protecting some of the country’s most privileged citizens.
While Hotel Mumbai is driven by its ensemble cast, Arjun and Oberoi are clearly its heroes. (Without any spoiler alerts, let me just say: there are no white saviors in this one.) At one point, a predatory cat-and-mouse game ensues between the terrorists and the hotel hostages. One of the terrorists deploys a most wicked tactic. He has hotel staff call the guests’s rooms and tell them to open the door for the police. Immediately upon their following those instructions, they are shot dead.
Hotel Mumbai is part of a sub-genre of terrorist disaster films, such as United 93, 22 July, and Hotel Rwanda. Unfortunately, they are becoming ever more relevant. The shootings in Pittsburgh, Parkland, Charleston, New Zealand, and elsewhere show that terrorism has become a worldwide feature of modern life. (Even at my church, we discuss preparing for a possible attack during one of our services.) Hotel Mumbai argues that the purpose of terrorism is clear: to cow and confuse by violent surprise, ultimately disrupting society’s normal way of life. This film is a painful and necessary reminder of a problem that isn’t going away.