Hotel Mumbai review: Avoids white saviour territory but falls prey to too many damaging narratives

Anthony Maras’s film on the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai doesn’t come off as exploitation, but neither is it entirely free from the limits of its creators’ perspective

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 26 September 2019 12:52
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Hotel Mumbai - Trailer

Dir: Anthony Maras. Starring: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and Jason Isaacs. 15 cert, 123 mins

It’s difficult to talk about Hotel Mumbai without asking the thorniest of questions: whose stories do we have a right to tell? The directorial debut of Australia’s Anthony Maras, the film revisits the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which killed 166 people and lasted four days. It doesn’t come off as exploitation, but neither is it entirely free from the limits of its creators’ perspective, his distance from the narrative running the risk of warping its reality.

Hotel Mumbai is thoughtful and considered in its approach – more so, at least, than we usually expect from glossy adaptations of international tragedy. Maras and John Collee’s screenplay is careful not to wade into white saviour territory; it’s the courageous efforts of Dev Patel’s Arjun that are consistently placed front and centre. He’s a fictional amalgamation (as are the majority of the characters) of the countless staff members of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel who risked – and, in many cases, sacrificed – their lives in order to protect guests, after the building became one of the 12 locations targeted by the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. A lesser film would have pitched Armie Hammer’s David, a wealthy architect, as its all-American hero, but his primary function here is as the loyal husband to to Nazanin Boniadi’s Zahra, the one Muslim character depicted among the victims.

The film layers real news footage on top of unflinching depictions of bloodshed and chaos. You can feel the walls closing in on the survivors as they realise their paths of escape are being cut off, one by one, with each passing moment. It’s the kind of film you experience in the pit of your stomach. Maras studied hours of interview footage captured for the 2009 documentary Surviving Mumbai, never wanting to lose sight of the real experiences his film draws from. He also avoids reductive representations of Islamic terrorism as a blankly evil threat. The perpetrators are shown for who they were: angry, impoverished young men who allowed themselves to be corrupted and moulded into weapons of war.

But despite all his efforts, he’s still someone on the outside looking in, weaving together strands of truth to create something appealing and absorbing to western audiences. Scenes of intimate, unguarded humanity are punctured by moments that have the mood and pacing of an action thriller. An attempt to breach the topic of racism in western reactions to terrorism comes off as patronising. There’s even a relatively awkward attempt at humour, as we watch the terrorists joke around or Jason Isaacs’ shady Russian go into full tough-guy mode.

More subtly, the film ends up falling prey to the damaging narrative that Islamic terrorism is primarily an attack on the west, despite the fact the majority of its victims are Muslim – it’s the rich, white patrons who are presented as the ultimate targets, anyone else is collateral. As noble as Hotel Mumbai’s intentions may be, perhaps there were simply too many pitfalls here. It’s inevitable that it would fall short.

Hotel Mumbai is released in UK cinemas and on Sky Cinema on 27 September

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