The movie should come with a warning to all the Dev and Armie fans of the world: Hotel Mumbai is be a deeply unsettling ride. The movie depicts, in graphic detail, one of the most devastating events in India's recent history.
Hotel Mumbai is a play-by-play reenactment of the 2008 siege of the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel by a group of terrorists, one of 12 separate terror incidents that occurred in Mumbai over the course of three days in Late November.
On November 26, 2008, a group of ten Pakistani gunmen associated with the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group also linked to the 2001 attacks on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi) stormed various locations in Mumbai. Gunmen carried out their first attack at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station. From there, further shooting and bombing attacks were carried out at a hospital, a cafe, a Jewish community center, and two five-star hotels. In total, 166 people were killed (including nine of the attackers), and 200 were wounded.
Hotel Mumbai specifically focuses on the attack at the century-old Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and the incredible efforts that hotel staff took to protect residents and each other. For two nights and three days, the hotel was occupied by gunmen who killed people, took hostages, and set parts of the hotel on fire. At the time, the hotel had 1,000 guests and about 500 employees. Tragically, 31 people lost their lives, including beloved food writer and journalist Sabina Sehgal Saikia.
However, the events of those three days are also a testament to extreme bravery on the part of ordinary folks. In an extraordinary turn, none of the Taj's employees chose to escape when they had opportunity. Instead, they took measures to protect people, sometimes laying down their lives to do so — 15 employees died. The Taj Hotels set up a trust to provide relief to the families of the victims.
Actual stories from within the Taj demonstrate near unbelievable feats of bravery. When staff at the Taj's Japanese restaurant, located on an upper floor, heard about the incoming attack, they formed a human cordon around the guests. The effort was led by head waiter Varghese Thomas, the last person to escape down a spiral staircase — he did not survive.
At the time of the attacks, Karambir Singh Kang, the hotel's general manager, was attending a conference. He immediately returned to the hotel and coordinated escape efforts. Then, a fire broke out in the sixth floor, killing Kang's wife and two sons. According to Vanity Fair, Kang called his mother, who lived in Bahrain, to tell her what happened. "You must go in and save others,” she said. He did.
What explains these displays of valor? Publications like the Harvard Business Review and NPR sought to answer that very question. Perhaps the employees' behavior points to the work culture fostered at the Taj (and the entire hotel group) over the years. The Taj recruits from rural locations and looks for young people with certain characteristics: Respect, cheerfulness, and need. At work, employees are told to place the customer's interests first, even before the interest of the hotel chain.
26/11, as the terrorist attacks are called colloquially, saw other acts of bravery. The BBC reports that Bob Nicholls, a South African security consultant, and his team were eating at the Taj during the attacks. Getting into security guard mode, they armed themselves with the kitchen's meat cleavers and helped 120 people escape.
Hotel Mumbai pays homage to people's valor in moments of fear, but it's also visceral, brutal depiction of living through a terror attack — of the hours that stretch knowing when, and if, relief will ever come.
In 2010, two years after the attacks, the Taj Mahal Hotel reopened. "This flagship property, this venerable Old Lady, is going to reopen in the same glory, the same splendor of more than 100 years," Ratan Tata, chairman of the hotel group that owns the Taj hotel, said during the opening ceremony. The renovation and repairs cost 1.8 billion rupees which is equivalent to about $26 million dollars. The 240-foot-high pink dome, an essential marker of the Mumbai Harbor, was reconstructed to its past glory, a testament to the city's survival after these harrowing attacks.