What is a worthy sacrifice to make for one’s gods? Does that sound like a basis for a action thriller? It turns out to be a very important part of Hotel Mumbai, the feature debut of director Anthony Maras. Based on the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai that created three days of chaos in that city, the film focuses on the assault on the famed Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was one of a dozen targets of the attack.
The Taj is a very upscale hotel, where guests are pampered, especially the VIP guests. That could entail drawing a bath to precisely 47° C, or making sure that a guest’s call girls for the evening are waiting in his room by the time he finishes dinner. As Chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) reminds his kitchen and wait staff at the start of their shift, “The guest is god.”
The story revolves around groups within the hotel: the staff, including Oberoi and a young Sikh waiter, Arjun (Dev Patel); the hotel guests, including David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) who are there with their infant child and its nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), and Vasili, a Russian millionaire (Jason Isaacs); and the Pakistani gunmen (Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, and Manoj Mehra). When the attack begins in a train station, the chaos of the city seems far removed from the peacefulness within the Taj. Indeed, many people run to the Taj to seek safety. But soon gunmen are inside the hotel, randomly killing whoever they come across, and eventually going room to room hunting more victims. As the battle engulfs the hotel, David and Zahra are frantic to know Sally and the baby are safe, but how can they go to get them?
The hotel staff do all they can to provide safety to the guests, eventually taking them a back way to a private club, the most secure place in the hotel. Although some of the staff have escaped to return to their own families, many remain because of the mantra “the guest is god.” The killing continues, the staff keeps acting nobly, the parents and Sally do all they can to try to protect and save the child. The tension is well developed as the story progresses.
But we also get time to know these gunmen who are terrorizing the hotel. They are more than one-dimensional monsters that we might expect. They have been radicalized and trained for this mission, but the more we get to know them, the more human they become. They are following the orders of their leader over the phone, but in time, they begin to question the brutality of what they are doing.
We also learn that a key part of their motivation is that their families are to get money. Just as the waiter Arjun is from a poor family and is trying to provide for his wife and children, these gunmen are doing what they feel they must to provide for their families. That similarity grows through the film.
The other important comparison between the staff and the terrorists is that they see what they are doing as acting on behalf of their gods. “The guest is god” takes on a deeper meaning when we see that the staff is willing to sacrifice themselves in order to protect the guests. For Arjun, it becomes very personal when one of the guests is afraid of him because he wears a turban (a part of the Sikh religious practice), he calmly explains its deep importance it holds, but offers to remove it because she is his guest. While the staff is serving their guests/gods, the terrorists are being told over and over by their leader (who is in constant contact by phone) of the reward their God has waiting for them.
But if both the hotel staff and the gunmen are acting out of their commitment to their gods—even to the point of giving their lives, does that make them equivalent? Certainly not. But we are called on to understand how they differ and which group is offering up a sacrifice that is worthy of their devotion.
People of faith often speak of the ways we serve our gods. How do we judge that service? Is it how intense we are in our actions? Or is it seen not in ourselves but the way our service brings our gods’ love and compassion to the world we have been sent to serve? It is in this way that we can see the value of those in the film who are serving their gods in different ways.
Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street