The timing of the Hotel Mumbai release couldn’t be worse.
A two-hour movie that depicts, in harrowing detail, a terror attack that left dead 31 people, is hard-watching the weekend after 49 people were killed in Christchurch.
Many audiences won’t want the visceral experience of watching four heavily armed men storm a hotel and blithely massacre innocent people going about their business.
It raises the question of what is the value of movies like Hotel Mumbai, especially when it recreates these attacks against soft targets in such haunting detail.
Is it exploitative to make movies about the worst acts in human history, especially ones in such recent living memory?
But, done sensitively, there is something redemptive in these films that help us make sense of something senseless, and to remind us that when you observe these real-life, atrocious attacks from afar and feel helpless, a little empathy can go a long way in the world.
Directed by Australian Anthony Maras and filmed primarily in Adelaide, Hotel Mumbai tells the story of the 2008 co-ordinated attack in Mumbai, during which a terrorist cell hit the populous city across several locations. More than 160 people died from the violence.
One of the targets was the Taj Mahal Palace, a luxury hotel filled with foreigners and locals.
The main characters in the film — most of them composite characters based on several people rather than directly correlative — are split between the staff and the guests.
Dev Patel plays a waiter, father and Sikh named Arjun. He’s tending to the guests in the hotel’s restaurant when the attack begins.
Also in the dining room is biracial couple, Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American husband David (Armie Hammer), and a Russian oligarch named Vasili (Jason Isaacs).
Upstairs in a fancy suite is Zahra and David’s baby and the nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), who has to keep a newborn quiet while hiding.
One of the few characters based on a real-life person is Oberoi (Anupam Kher), the hotel’s respected head chef. He, Arjun and many of the hotel’s staff stay behind, eschewing the opportunity to escape through a back entrance, to help their guests survive.
Over a thousand people are trapped when the siege starts.
Scrambling and trying desperately to stay alive as the gunshots keep ringing, Maras puts his characters and the audience through a nerve-racking experience.
While it’s an unrelenting and anxious ordeal, Hotel Mumbai isn’t here to titillate you and it’s not here to make your pulse race for the sake of cheap thrills. It’s not Die Hard.
With a documentary background, Maras and his co-writer John Collee combed through transcripts, witness testimonies and recordings of what went on behind the Taj’s doors, crafting a story that pays tribute to the human spirit, to small acts of bravery, to working together, and to survival.
It’s also important that the film is populated with characters from different backgrounds and religions.
By telling the story through a dramatic film rather than a documentary, it hopes to give the audience not just insight into those horrendous events, but to give them a better emotional understanding of the real-life horrors that exist.
So maybe the timing for Hotel Mumbai’s release is terrible, but if you can stomach it, there is something of value here — a reminder that even amid the darkest times, humanity will prevail.