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Movie Review

Bullets scream through the Indian air—hitting walls, hitting windows, hitting bodies with a spray of blood.

It’s Nov. 26, 2009, and terrorists stalk the streets of Mumbai like wolves on the hunt. They rip through a subway station, killing 58. They tear apart a café, killing another 10. Taxis blow up. Tourists are gunned down. The attacks are coordinated, swift, obviously lethal.

Before the attacks, Mumbai had become a symbol of the resurgent, rapidly developing country of India—its power and progress and newfound wealth. That made it a natural target for the disenfranchised. As we watch the terrorists prowl through Mumbai’s avenues and allies, a cleric—speaking to his lackeys through earpieces—reminds them of just how disenfranchised they are.

“Look at all they’ve stolen,” the unseen imam tells them. “From your fathers. From your grandfathers. … Remember, the whole world will be watching.”

The Taj has seen such things before.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel sits by the Gateway of India like a jewel, just as it has since 1903. It was the only hotel in India with electricity when it was built. And for more than a century it’s where Maharajas and Mountbattens alike met and ate and stayed. The place has lost none of its luster by 2009: The flowers in the lobby are perfectly cut, the floors perfectly polished, the bottles of chardonnay perfectly chilled. In Mumbai’s frenetic heart, the Taj has always been a cool center of moneyed civility—an oasis amid the city’s chaos.

“Here at the Taj, guest is god,” head chef Hemant Oberoi intones to his staff. They solemnly nod their heads in agreement.

Even on a day like today, when Mumbai’s streets run with fresh blood, the Taj stands unflappable.

Until the first terrorists enter the lobby.

Guests are gods?

Now, the staff must try to ensure that the guests aren’t dead.

Positive Elements

The worst of tragedies can inspire the best in its victims. And the terrorist attacks on the Taj boldly illustrate that dynamic. It’s especially true of the Taj’s staff, led by chef Hemant Oberoi. Even though the staff can escape through some back-channel stairways, Hemant reminds his staff, “Our guests can’t. Not all of them.” And while he says employees are free to go if they wish—especially if they have spouses and children and other family who depend on them—most of them stay.

“I’ve been here 35 years,” says a Taj butler. “This is my home.”

“Guest is god, sir,” another echoes. Many risk their lives to protect those guests, with some even sacrificing themselves in the process.

Perhaps no character is so explicit a hero as Arjun, a waiter for one of the Taj’s posh restaurants. He shepherds dozens to safety at great risk to himself, and he proves to be an instrumental player in the police response to the terror attack.

But some guests, too, show moments of heroism. The story focuses especially on a young, well-heeled family: Zahra; her American husband, David; and their infant son, who’s watched over by a nanny named Sally. David and Zahra are eating at a restaurant when the terrorists attack, and they go to dangerous lengths to reunite with their baby. Sally risks her life to protect the child as well.

We also meet a mysterious and deeply unlikeable Russian named Vasili who, when the chips are down, makes some smart decisions (and commits a risky act of bravery) to save people.

Spiritual Content

Religion is everywhere here—not just in passing, but as a critical motivator both for heroes and villains alike. Let’s begin with the latter.

The real-life terrorist attacks on the Taj were perpetrated by an Islamic extremist organization called Lashkar-e-Taiba. While the group isn’t called out by name in the film, its religious affiliation is never in doubt: The first words we hear in the movie come from that always-unseen cleric: “I am with you,” he says. “God is with you. Paradise awaits you. God is great.” Throughout the film, the cleric’s voice exhorts his terrorist agents to commit heinous acts of violence against innocent people, all in the name of Allah. He calls it a holy jihad, saying “None of them deserve Allah’s mercy.”

The terrorists are deeply, violently pious: They all know they’ll be dying at the conclusion of this reign of terror, but they’re committed to seeing the thing through to the end. (One man calls his parents and asks if they’ve gotten the money the organization promised to pay them—presumably for his impending martyrdom. When the father answers no, the son says, “Make sure you do. They swore it on the holy Quran.”)

We see other evidence of their faith, too. When one terrorist gobbles up a stray bit of food, for instance, his associate tells him to spit it out quickly, since it’s made of pork. And when he’s ordered to kill a hostage who unexpectedly begins praying an Islamic prayer, he’s horrifically conflicted—despite the fact that the cleric (located in Pakistan) insists that he pull the trigger.

Zahra’s also at least nominally Muslim—or, at least, her parents are. She calls them to assure them that she’s all right. But when her mother implores her to pray, Zahra resists: “Prayers? What good have prayers ever done for us, mother?” But Zahra’s mother says that she’ll pray for her, anyway.

Arjun is a Sikh, and he bows briefly before an incense-laden image as if in brief prayer. When an elderly guest (who’s terrified of the Muslim attackers in the hotel) expresses concern over Arjun’s beard and traditional turban (which she erroneously associates with Islam), Arjun walks over to her and explains the sacred nature of his head garb¬. He tells her it’s a symbol of “honor and courage,” and that he’s never gone outside without it since he was a little boy.

“If it would make you feel comfortable, I will take it off,” he adds, a selfless confession on his part. “Would you like that?”

“No,” the woman finally says. “I’m just scared.”

Later, though, Arjun does unwind the turban—using it as a bandage to stem the flow of blood from an injured woman’s wound.

A terrorist rips a chain with a Christian cross attached to it from someone’s neck—triggering a violent reaction from the man to whom the cross belongs to. We repeatedly hear several people say, “Thank God!”

Guests at the hotel receive the Hindu bindi on their foreheads upon arrival and hear the traditional Hindu greeting of “Namaste.” We see a Christian church near the Taj. David makes the mistake of trying to order a hamburger—typically made, obviously, from an animal sacred in India.

Sexual Content

Vasili looks through a stack of pictures of high-class prostitutes for a “party’ in his room. He calls their “manager” and asks about two and the size of their nipples before asking the man to “send them both.” The hotel is well aware of this “party,” and plans to send a staff member up to serve there. Hemant says he won’t allow a woman staffer to work the party, though: “We can’t have a repeat of last time,” he says. (The man who does get the job seems excited for the opportunity, in small part because of the women who will be there.)

A woman takes a shower: she strips down to her bra and underwear and, later, we see her in the shower from the shoulders up. A man makes angry references to having sex with someone’s mother and sister.

We learn that Zahra and husband David are married, but weren’t when their baby was born. (Staff members are ordered to not mention the wedding.) Later, we see the couple's naked baby.

A woman dies in a hotel hallway. A terrorist is told by the unseen cleric to reach into her bra in search for identification. “She’s an infidel,” the cleric insists. “It’s not a sin.”

Violent Content

More than 170 people died in the real-life terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and sometimes it feels like we see all of them here. The camera rarely looks away from a bloody act of violence.

We see dozens of people gunned down by mostly expressionless terrorists. Sometimes the gunmen pour bullets behind counters or under tables, making sure their victims are truly dead. When people try to make a run for safety, the terrorists are often on the spot, pouring bullets into their bodies. We see an elderly maid—who’s already shot in the gut—try to find safety in a guest room bathroom. The terrorists find her, though, and kill her with nary a thought. Assailants, pursued by a police vehicle filled with law-enforcement officials, get out of their own car and pump the police car with lead, obviously killing everyone inside.

The terrorists then commandeer the vehicle and pull out a dead body or two, setting off to create more bloody havoc. Several people are executed, with gunmen pointing and firing at their heads from point-blank range. (We see the bloody aftermath.)

We quickly learn the idea is to kill as many people as possible, with an emphasis on executing well-heeled foreign tourists (especially Americans). The unseen cleric insists that he wants the terrorists’ microphones to be left open at all times. “I want to hear their cries with my own ears,” he says.

Terrorists throw grenades into the Taj lobby, killing or injuring several people. A tourist finds her way to the Taj, suffering from a bad, bloody wound. A doctor tells onlookers that she needs to get to a hospital, but she’s killed before she can make it there.

Someone jumps from a window. We don’t see him land, but we hear a sickening crack. As the man’s being drug away, we can see that his leg is bent unnaturally. Another man is beaten almost to death: His face is covered with bloody wounds, and he spits out blood when he spits out insults to his captors.

Cars burn. Bombs go off. Terrorists pour gasoline all around the inside of the Taj, and we see the place (both inside in the movie and outside during real news footage) on fire.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 20 f-words and three s-words. We also hear uses of “a--,” “b--ch,” “b--tard” and “h---.” God’s name is misused about five times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

While locked away in a posh lounge, Vasili takes advantage of the liquor there. (He remarks on a 20-year-old single-malt Scotch.) Arjun makes some wine recommendations to guests during dinner, and he clearly knows something about a particularly rare (and hard-to-pronounce) variety of cognac. Someone finds and opens a bottle of champagne in a guest room. Someone else smokes.

Other Negative Elements

It’s bad enough to kill people. Somehow, it seems even worse to lie in order to kill still more. Terrorists knock on doors, pretending to be rescue personnel, then shoot whoever comes to answer. They force hotel staff to call other guests, promising them that everything will be all right. Then, if and when the staff refuses, they execute them on the spot. One snags the ID from a real, dead policeman in the hope of gaining entry to a secure location.

Some guests can be pretty nasty, too. One of them puts other guests in danger when he calls the press, letting them know of the group’s plans. (The terrorists are watching the news, in part, to monitor what’s going on inside and outside the hotel.) We see a squat toilet inside a public restroom. Someone may try to vomit up some food.

Conclusion

Religion poisons everything. So the late Christopher Hitchens told us in his book God Is Not Great.

An avid Hitchens reader might point to Hotel Mumbai and declare it Exhibit A in his anti-faith argument. After all, the attackers were deeply religious¬—inspired by their faith (which has been twisted by that unseen cleric) to commit outrageous acts of butchery.

And certain moments could reinforce that interpretation. A sympathetic victim initially rejects prayer. The story’s hero, Arjun, metaphorically sheds the symbol of his own faith—his turban—to help someone else. And when Hemant tells a guest, “I’ll be praying for you,” the guest responds angrily. “F--- your prayers,” he says. “That’s what started this s---.”

But if we take one more step into the movie’s religious waters, we see that it’s really about (among many other things) how religion influences everything. And when we find ourselves pressed beyond endurance, most of us turn¬—or return—to God.

One character who initially eschews prayer eventually returns to it. A Christian man—who, for most of the movie, acts anything but Christian—finds that the cross around his neck is wildly important to him when he’s close to death.

In the typical world of the Taj, filled as it is with conveniences and luxuries and obscene wealth, “guest is god.” It’s easy in such circumstances to forget about the real one. But when all of our material gifts are stripped away, when our lives become less about how we’re going to spend the evening and more about living through it, we turn our eyes heavenward.

This is not to excuse the movie of its excesses, of which there are many. Based on the real 2009 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and especially on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Hotel Mumbai feels urgent and real, and the copious levels of blood we see impact us deeper than they would in, say, a slasher flick. The language can be harsh, too, and of course, we see lots of religions on display.

Hotel Mumbai shows us the terror we find in terrorism. And while it offers elements of hope and courage and sacrifice, too, it’s not enough to wash the blood off the Taj’s once-gleaming floors.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Dev Patel as Arjun; Armie Hammer as David; Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra; Anupam Kher as chef Hemant Oberoi; Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Sally; Jason Isaacs as Vasili; Alex Pinder as butler Jim; Amandeep Singh as Imran; Suhail Nayyar as Abdullah; Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Bree

Director

Anthony Maras ( )

Distributor

Bleecker Street

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

March 22, 2019

On Video

June 18, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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