When humanity died in a hotel

Updated: 27 November, 2019 07:53 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

When is a good time to relive wounds? With something as festering as the 26/11 terror attacks, it is hard to say

A still from the 2018 film, Hotel Mumbai. Pic/IMDB
A still from the 2018 film, Hotel Mumbai. Pic/IMDB

Mayank ShekharLike it is with earth-changing moments in history (as with 9/11 for America), there is a question that absolutely everyone has an answer for: Exactly where were you that night of November 26, 2008, when you heard the news?

I was holed up at a friend's apartment (like many others in Mumbai), feeling relieved at the fact that my parents, dining at the Oberoi that fateful evening had narrowly escaped from the back exit of the hotel, soon as they'd heard gunshots of the terrorists, charging into the main lobby.

Rest of India remained glued to their TV sets, gawking with disbelief for three days straight thereafter, observing from a distance the sight of two hotel structures — Oberoi-Trident, and the Taj — with hundreds of guests held hostage, and being killed off one by one.

How do you adequately re-imagine for that audience exactly what was happening inside? You can't. Anthony Maras's film Mumbai Hotel (that releases in Indian theatres this weekend) aims to do precisely that.

It is set in Colaba's Taj Mahal Hotel, navigating its corridors, rooms, aisles, through the spiralling staircase, and service routes, into the club lounge, restaurants, and bars, as men, women, even children, find themselves in the range of bullets being indiscriminately sprayed from three Kalashnikovs.

Frankly, it feels more like a zombie attack. And would've appeared just as distant, if it wasn't for the fact that this is 26/11 terror attacks we're talking about, and it's hard for anyone in urban India, let alone Mumbai, to feel dispassionate about it.

Empathy emanates from back-stories, usually. There is an effort made towards it, with the movie-going a little deeper into the lives of a couple of victims and their families, or creating a character to represent a server (Dev Patel), or zooming in on the hotel's chief chef Hemant Oberoi, who kept calm throughout the attack, saving lives. But this ain't no Hotel Rwanda (2004).

This sort of humanising a tragedy is likely to be perfunctory. Because the story isn't told from a single lens. Where do you place a film like Mumbai Hotel then? Alongside Paul Greengrass's United 93 (2006) — where the camera is a fly on the wall, capturing moments as they reveal themselves inside a hijacked plane packed with passengers, supposedly on its way to crash into Capitol Hill.

The other perspective to take would be that of the killers. Three deranged young men, martyrs for their sponsors, wreaking havoc inside a hotel, all by themselves, over 60 hours, while the city's massive police force is so terribly unprepared — it can't do anything but wait; and like us, watch.

The retards with guns will begin to look like heroes then. And they probably were for a few, who planned for this to happen. And they succeeded. In fact more than 26/11, which was shocking enough, it was its aftermath that changed the course of Indian history.

I'd visited a couple of colleges to host discussions with the young, and the one thing that became very clear was their determination to inflict upon themselves a dictatorship, if need be, to sort out this inept system. The name of Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister then, came up quite often in these candid conversations.

And how much could you even blame these kids for thinking this way, if you had a central government at the time, with a home minister so obsessed with his sartorial choices to look like he even cared. The state CM had walked into the Taj to survey the aftermath, along with filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, to help him research for his film. Varma did eventually make a 26/11 movie, The Attacks Of 26/11 (2013), hailing police officer Rakesh Maria (Nana Patekar) as a hero of sorts.

How long must one wait for wounds to dry, before you can relive it as a feature film? Hard to say. The Hindi film industry first responded to the tragedy of 1947 Partition as late as 1973 (MS Sathyu's Garm Hava). Oliver Stone shot the first 9/11 movie, World Trade Centre, in 2006; yes, but it essentially had two people stuck under debris — not a single shot of the attack itself.

Which is not to say Mumbai Hotel is exploitative in any way. It is, in parts, a fairly accomplished work, despite all the reservations one may have. Could the central tragedy itself have been a climax of another story, like with the sinking of Titanic in James Cameron's 1994 masterpiece? Or Naseeruddin Shah's directorial debut Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota (2006), pertaining to 9/11? Don't know.

26/11 still very much belongs to journalism. Hard to find a more gripping recount than Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy's book The Siege. But then nobody reads books. And history repeats itself among amnesiacs. Mumbai Hotel is a great way to ensure memories haunt us forever. Should be watched for that reason alone. That said, I went and got myself a meal at the restaurant Hemant Oberoi this week. Just doing our bit.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 27 November, 2019 07:40 IST

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