Hotel Mumbai Director Responds To Criticism That The Film's Realism Is Insensitive

Photo: Courtesy of Bleecker Street.
Warning: Some spoilers and descriptions of violence are ahead.
On the surface, Hotel Mumbai is an extremely visceral action thriller about a terrorist attack and the people attempting to survive it. But the knowledge that the film is actually based on the real 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which 10 members of a Pakistani terrorist organization carried out 12 coordinated and brutal attacks throughout Mumbai, and the fact that the film incorporates the stories of actual survivors and victims, might make the experience of watching the events unfold on the big screen even more jarring.
The film shows the perspectives of both the terrorists themselves (and the moments in which they inflicted merciless violence on victims) and those who were killed, saved, and worked to save others. The violence is extreme, almost intimate, and the camera doesn’t shy away from any moment, no matter how uncomfortable it makes audiences feel. It can be a difficult film to watch from start to finish, greatly because of its realism in showing details of the attacks. Naturally, some critics have reacted negatively to a hyper-realistic movie about the minute-by-minute violence. Some have gone as far as saying the film shouldn’t exist and have lashed out against the film for “exploiting the tragedy of the situation for spectacle’s sake,” like Variety film critic Peter Debruge. And as The Hollywood Reporter critic Jordan Minzter writes, “As you watch people getting shot left and right while the principals remain alive, at least for the time being, you start to wonder at one point: Why am I sitting through this?” But Hotel Mumbai director Anthony Maras doesn’t agree with those criticisms at all.
“Well everyone's obviously entitled to their own opinion, but we just tried to make a film that does justice to the stories of these survivors and this is what they went through,” Maras tells Refinery29. “There's plenty of art and literature and films about war and many difficult situations. If we're to self-censor and not explore these topics, then so be it. But I am of the opinion that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that we should, as people, face these issues head on because they're not going away.”
Maras knows that many people believe Hotel Mumbai wrongly attempts to humanize the young men who carried out the real-life Mumbai attacks. “I think the conversations about what drives young men to radicalization is a good one, because we have had some criticisms about, 'Are you trying to humanize the terrorists?'” Maras says. “Well, what is the definition of humanizing? If humanizing means are we justifying their actions? Then no, we're not humanizing. But if humanizing means we're trying to understand what drives them towards it, then yeah, that's the attempt.”
It’s interesting to hear Maras look back on the journey of bringing Hotel Mumbai to life, because to hear him tell it, he actually “had no interest in making a film really about a terror attack at all.”
“More than anything, it was after having seen this documentary, Surviving Mumbai, [that inspired me to make a movie about it],” Maras adds. “Prior to seeing the documentary, I only knew of the Mumbai terror attacks as much as other people did, as a series of distraught faces running from burning buildings. And it was only until I saw the documentary that I saw an entirely new and what was, in some ways, a very horrific attack but, in other ways, a very inspiring story of people from all different walks of life coming together and sharing in a common humanity to get past the really horrific ordeal.”
While Maras was impressed with the actions of everyone in Mumbai during the days-long attacks, it was the guests and staff at the Taj hotel that fascinated him the most, leading him to make a film about that attack site specifically.
“The staff in the Taj itself, their actions at first perplexed me then intrigued me and I couldn't get what they had done out of my head,” Maras says. “And that's because these staff members had lives of their own, they had husbands and wives and children outside of the Taj hotel and yet when these attacks occurred, these very brave men and women decided en masse and without any prior organization to remain in the hotel to protect one another and also to protect the guests. In some cases, you had staff members who successfully evacuated people from the hotel only to turn back and go back inside to be there for their fellow workers and their guests.”
It was those stories of real-life bravery that hooked Maras. “I was at a loss to psychologically come to terms with how it was that this was possible,” he says. “So after watching the documentary, I dove deeply into the unedited video interviews with the different survivors and the more I looked into it the more I saw a common theme which was very ordinary people rising up and becoming true heroes in really abject circumstances. And these aren't Die Hard action figures, these aren't Hollywood tropes; these are people who are heroes despite never having fired a shot of a gun, despite never throwing a punch, whose heroism came in being able to keep calm, being kind to one another being able to in many cases put others needs before their own so that collectively they could get through this really horrific ordeal together.”
And because the police weren’t able to immediately come in and save the day, it was learning about how “common people” rose up to help each other that convinced Maras that Hotel Mumbai needed to be made. “I found their example hugely inspiring,” he says. “That's why I wanted to make the film.”
Maras also made sure the film had the stamp of approval from some of the Mumbai attack survivors; he says those who watched were moved by the film and its realism.

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