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Terror as entertainment?

Hotel Mumbai
Regissør: Anthony Maras
(Australia, USA, India)

TERROR ON MOVIE / The film about the terrorist attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai highlights the challenges of making feature films about these types of events.


Fiction films based on terrorist attacks and other brutal reality events are nothing new. Last year, however, this was actualized in a very unpleasant context here in Norway, when the first two feature films about 22. July was released. One of these was directed by British Paul Greengrass, who in addition to being distinguished as Jason Bourne director has almost created a school for this type of portrayal with films that Bloody Sunday og United 93.

Greengrass has probably been a source of inspiration for Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras' feature film debut Hotel Mumbai, which depicts the terrorist attacks in Mumbai 26. November 2008. A group of armed terrorists from the militant Islamist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba arrived via inflatables and attacked various targets in the city, including the Central Station and the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The attack lasted four days. At least 174 people were killed – including 9 by the terrorists – and hundreds more were injured.

Wide character gallery

The film is mainly about the events in and around the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where 31 people were killed. The closest it comes to a main character is the toddler father Arjun (Dev Patel), who badly needs the salary he gets for his shift. He works under Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), who manages the hotel kitchen with a generous hand under the motto "the guest is god". Where most of the movie's character gallery is up-or-down for the sake of the real people, Oberoi is based on the hotel's actual chef.

Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi play a wealthy couple who check in to enjoy the hotel's luxury with infants and nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), while Jason Isaacs has the role of a Russian who has planned to enjoy exclusive beverages with hired girls on his suite. Other characters in the film are an Australian backpacker couple, a couple of police officers who eventually enter the beleaguered hotel – as well as some of the young Pakistani men who carry out the terrorist campaign.

It may be unfair to hold on to a feature film that it uses the means at its disposal.

The film shows them killing without mercy, but also that they joke with each other and call home crying to the family when they realize it is coming to an end. Here the film tries to say something about their backgrounds and motives and shows them at the same time people – without apologizing or justifying in any way the heinous acts.

"Hollywoodsk." The script is written by John Collee and director Maras, inspired by the documentary Surviving Mumbai from 2009. In the research work, they should have had access to evidence from the trial, and interviewed 40 survivors from the attack. Nevertheless, the film has a more "Hollywood" and less documentary approach than you associate with Greengrass' feature films – despite the fact that the camera movement is also hand-held here, as well as the film cutting actual news footage from the events.

The massive live coverage of the attack in Indian media was heavily criticized for, among other things, sharing information the terrorists could benefit from, which the film also touches on.

Problematic filmizations

With its conventional approach makes visible Hotel Mumbai some of the challenges of making feature films of this type of events. Often, such film projects arouse the fear of making entertainment films, and this film does not shed the thriller genre's typical elements either. It feels undeniably a bit musical when some of the scenes of people running from bullets and flames in the hotel corridors make associations with disaster films that The Towering Inferno. I also get an unpleasant taste of holding my breath for the characters the movie chooses to follow – while the others who fall dead are almost indispensable extras, as is often the case in action movies.

Along the way, some of the characters will undergo some form of character development, where the most prejudiced characters will eventually stand up for people of a different nationality and religion. Here, the film moves dangerously close to the easy-going, but heart-warming twists you find The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Hotel Mumbai
Director Anthony Maras

Terror as entertainment? But now I am in excess of strict. The film's intention is really good enough: It tries to give the widest possible perspective on the events by portraying them through a variety of characters. And it is brave to let this include the attackers. In addition, the film is increasingly emphasizing how far more of the staff went to protect and rescue the hotel guests, which is also a sympathetic message.

Not least is it impressive that the many plot lines in a major production are toured so well by a long-film debuting director. And perhaps it is unfair to hold on to a feature film that it uses the narrative tools available in the feature film medium.

However, there are many ways to film real-life events, from Erik Skjoldbjærg's sober reconstruction of the Nokas robbery incident to Erik Poppe's rocky portrayal of the terror on Utøya through a fictional main character – to cite two domestic examples that each attempt to avoid the genre film tropes.

This is not least a point considering that terrorism has become a favorite theme in pure fiction stories, from James Bond via Homeland to Office. Some of these are relatively close to reality, but there is a substantial difference between such entertainment productions and dramatizations of actual terrorist attacks. At the same time, it is difficult to say anything dogmatic about which narrative approaches the latter should employ, beyond the obvious: to show respect and caution.

Anthony Maras has probably tried that, too. His ambition is hardly to entertain the audience Hotel Mumbai, which is not a direct speculative film. But it is nevertheless problematic that the instruments used are so well known from films that actually want to entertain.

Hotel Mumbai has Norwegian
cinema premiere June 14.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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