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Dramatising Tragedies in Hotel Mumbai

Written by on 24th February 2019

Ema Sabljak

In 2008, tragedy struck Mumbai as a terrorist organisation carried out twelve coordinated attacks, placing the city in a state of fear for four days. 

It is this very tragedy that is told by Hotel Mumbai, shown as its UK Premier at the Glasgow Film Festival, focusing on the attacks on the opulent Taj Palace Hotel.

The film builds its narrative upon switching between scenes of mayhem and fear to those of serenity as it switches to other parts of Mumbai that still have not been exposed to knowledge or the terror of the attacks. 

The fact that it is based on a real event that killed over a hundred people and left even more wounded is a thought that will not leave you during the film, nor should it. 

But it does raise a question of the ethics of documentary-dramas portraying terrorist attacks and other high casualty tragedies. Should tragedies of this kind be dramatised? It is not the first film to do so, in fact, it is an increasing trend as true rime grows bigger each day. Yet it still leaves an unpalatable feeling that we are turning a tragedy into something that can entertain us for two hours. 

Hotel Mumbai is not dismissive of the event and could not be called an easy watch. It is a gruelling two hours of sitting in fear for the characters on screen and wincing at the deafening bullet shots. But is that actual sympathy for the real-life tragedy or is it just the suspense of watching a thriller?

It is clear drama will always abuse history, even if it doesn’t set out to deceive its audience. It is possible that the level of desensitization we experience to tragic news stories nowadays, due to the sheer quantity of information we are surrounded with, makes dramatisation a necessity to ensure rightful attention is paid to an event such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks. 

In that case, it becomes about what the film is actually trying to achieve. The film does not take on the responsibility of providing us with answers such as why the events occurred.  Its motivation is also not in simply telling us the tragedy happened, but perhaps in telling us how it occurred – how the people caught in a devastating tragedy persevered and continued to show acts of humanity and even heroism. 

It is the portrayal of people coming together in spite of their fear and cultural differences that gives the film its sense of heart. It demonstrates the true heroism of the staff at the Taj hotel as many stayed in an attempt to help the guests staying there, and reaffirming that idea is the repetition of the phrase “guest is god”. 

While the performance of lead actors, Dev Patel and Nazanin Boniadi, was absolutely captivating, for a film like Hotel Mumbai, it is essential to take a step back and appreciate that the event affected real people and their lives. Otherwise, we are allowing real lives to simply become a story.

Tickets provided by Glasgow Film Festival.

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