Hotel Mumbai and Unplanned: Movies They Don't Want You to See
All pain is equal but some pain is more equal than others.
There are a couple of new movies that the very best people do not want you to see. Superficially these two transgressive films don't have much in common. One is set in Texas, the other in India. One centers on a rather average American woman's private thoughts and feelings; the other treats an international event that made front page headlines around the world. Unplanned and Hotel Mumbai are both films centered on pain about which you are not supposed to care. Unplanned is a biographical portrait of Abby Johnson, a woman who changed her views about abortion. Hotel Mumbai is a docudrama about the November, 2008 Muslim terror attacks on six sites in Mumbai, India. The pain cultural influencers want you to ignore in Unplanned is the pain of aborted fetuses and their mothers' later regret. Hotel Mumbai depicts the pain of Indians, largely Hindu and Sikh but also Muslim, caused by Muslim terrorists. It's funny. The left builds its edifice on pain. We must be shamed for American slavery, though Americans fought and died to end it 154 years ago. And yet the left works as hard to silence some cries as to amplify others, to airbrush some histories while splashing others across billboards.
I'm a diehard movie fan. I assess movies on their ability to transport me, for a brief two hours or so, to another world, to wow me with their aesthetics, to spark my own creative juices, to make me care about flickering images on a screen as if they were real flesh and blood. I can recognize the aesthetic value of movies, from Triumph of the Will to Soy Cuba, whose underlying message I reject. No matter your beliefs, Hotel Mumbai and Unplanned are both good movies, and you should see them both.
Of the two, Unplanned has been the most stridently assaulted. TV networks refused to run ads for the film. Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregate site, bestows a 50% or Certified Rotten score on the film. The L.A. Times reviewer has the decency to acknowledge that "with its solid production values, Unplanned has all the appearances of being a real film." In the end, though, it's "pure propaganda." Jordan Hoffman at The Guardian calls the film "dim-witted" and "a gory mess" that includes "disgusting," "grisly abortion complications" that include "bloody fetal tissue." Evidently Hoffman imagines that abortion is neat and tidy. Hoffman is upset because a "risible" – that means funny – ultrasound shows "A fetus presenting what could be misinterpreted as fear or pain" during an abortion. "We get corny closeups of medical tubes overflowing with what look like raspberry Icees." No, actually, those aren't raspberry drinks; that is human blood. And … "corny"? The destruction of a human life is "corny"? I lack words. The words that Himmler possessed to justify the destruction of human lives. Those are the words I lack.
Samantha Bee, who self-identifies as a comedian, calls the film "Obviously ridiculous. No one should see it. I would not waste time talking about a movie so bad," she said, before talking about it. Many mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, simply refused to run reviews for Unplanned.
I am not a hardcore anti-abortion zealot. Like many Americans, I hold beliefs that offend both pro-choice and pro-life camps. And I loved Unplanned. If this movie were as bad as critics say, my eyes would not have been glued to the screen throughout. I was never bored. I was always engaged. The plot follows the classic trajectory. A main character, Abby Johnson, moves from her personal comfort zone, in this case, a pro-abortion stance, through personal trauma, to a pro-life stance. She is tested, she changes, and she grows. The script is a smooth-running machine. There are no amateur missteps to distract your attention. The script guides you through Abby's journey, and, as you travel with her, you think about what it means to be a woman, to carry a baby, and to terminate a pregnancy. The production values are high, and if they weren't, I would not be writing this review. I don't care how lofty a film's ideals are. If the lighting is off and the sound is tinny, I leave the theater.
Ashley Bratcher's lead performance as the real Abby Johnson is low-key. I think the film wanted to make Bratcher as average and approachable as possible. More memorable is Robin DeMarco, who radiates Earth Mother warmth in her small role as Abby Johnson's pro-life mother. Robia Scott knocks it out of the park as Cheryl, Abby's boss at Planned Parenthood. Cheryl is every bit the Disney villainess – and that's a compliment. She is beautiful, given to showcasing her trim and toned upper arms in sleeveless tops, and ice cold. Before promoting Abby, Cheryl escorts her to the "P.O.C" room. P.O.C. stands for "products of conception" or "pieces of children," depending on who's guiding the tour. Here workers reconstruct fetal cadavers to ensure that no loose arm or skull remains in the mother's womb to cause infections or other complications. That risk alone give the lie to the "what women do with their own bodies" mantra. If someone else's left-behind arm can cause an infection in your body, you're not really talking about your own body. Cheryl praises pre-epiphany Abby for being able, dry-eyed, to wield tweezers to inspect a fetal arm and hand.
Critics have blasted Robia Scott's performance as over-the-top. These critics really need to spend more time watching videos of Dr. Leana Wen, the current Planned Parenthood president. I have listened to complete interviews of Dr. Wen in which she never uses the words "fetus" or "abortion" but only "choice" and "health care," in a tone as devoid of emotion as if she were a verbal praying mantis. She is a cool master of propaganda, and, being a real person, twice as creepy as the cinematic Cheryl.
Samantha Bee and Jordan Hoffman want you to believe that Unplanned is dishonest, woman-hating propaganda. In fact it is they who are spewing dishonest, woman-hating propaganda. I can't remember the last time I saw a Hollywood movie that was as deeply committed to an individual woman and women at large. I have certainly never seen a film that so graphically, fearlessly, and respectfully depicted what it is to inhabit a female body on a gynecological table, in a lover's bed, or crouching in physical agony on a bathroom floor. The blood in this film is women's blood and the blood of the life women's bodies alone can nurture. Those who have a problem with that are cowards and misogynists. Their problem is with life itself, not with Unplanned.
Hotel Mumbai has not been as severely and universally pilloried as Unplanned, but it's still a transgressive film. Barbara VanDenburgh, the Arizona Republic's reviewer, called Hotel Mumbai unethical, "the wrong movie at the wrong time." Vandenburgh is upset that the film blames the terrorist mastermind for the carnage. There's no "nuance" in such an understanding, she insists. One must discuss "context" and "geopolitical and religious tensions." Yeah. NPR's reviewer merely fell back on the old standby. The movie is racist. Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times said that the film made him queasy. The violence of the film – not the violence of the terrorists but of the film itself – was hard to take – especially after the New Zealand mosque attack. The New Zealand mosque attack was an utterly wrong atrocity. Terrorist attacks in the name of Islam have occurred regularly since 9-11 and before. One website counts 34,815 such attacks. I wonder if Kenisberg ever found it difficult to go to a violent movie after any of those attacks. All pain is equal but some pain is more equal than others.
Hotel Mumbai is an action movie. Viewers are barely starting in on their popcorn when cinematic terrorists in inflatable boats approach Mumbai's pollution-befouled shoreline. They are taking direction through earpieces from a distant handler. He is urging them to kill without mercy. He tells them that their victims have hurt Muslims. He tells them that their victims have prospered while Muslims have been poor. I don't know if this is a reference to the post-British-imperial-era partition. In 1947, after the British handed the Indian subcontinent over to self-rule, Muslims demanded, and got, their own, separate, homelands: Pakistan and what would become Bangladesh. In the subsequent years, India has done better than Pakistan on most measures. The film suggests that envy was one motivation for the terrorists.
I was once a world-traveler in India and I could feel myself inside the scene where scruffy, multinational tourists in backpacks settle into a cozy-gritty Indian eatery. As they consider their menus, their waiter is abruptly shot dead. They dive under the table. Terrorists enter this random restaurant and begin to shoot. Violence is graphic but not pornographic. You see what you would see if you were on the scene: an entry wound, a fallen body, a halo of blood surrounding the body. The camera neither lingers nor turns away.
Why these diners? Why this restaurant? Just, the film suggests, because the restaurant was handy, and the diners are kuffar – non-Muslims. Allah demands it. Jannah, the Islamic paradise, is the reward of mujahideen. The film does not shy from the terrorists' ideology. They repeat "Allahu akbar" several times. As Ridvan Aydemir makes clear, "Allahu Akbar" does not mean "God is great." Rather, it implies "Allah, the Islamic god, is greater than other deities." The terrorists' handler speaks to them via their earpieces. He urges them on. Clearly, Islamic jihad is his, and his team's driving force. There will be a later scene where a terrorist uses a hotel phone to contact his family and ask if the handler has yet paid the family a promised sum. So, these terrorists is motivated by greed as well as their idea of a god.
After the terrorist team's initial shootings at a rail station, terrified mobs run toward the huge, impressive Taj hotel. They bang on locked glass doors and beg for entry. Hotel staff allow this chaotic, inexplicable mob to enter the hotel, not realizing that even as tourists enter, so do terrorists. No doubt some will view this scene and think of the current migrant crisis in Europe. It's just about impossible to let in genuine Syrian war refugees without also taking in genuine terrorists and others who would do harm to their hosts.
The main action focuses on the hotel. Armie Hammer is David, a ridiculously handsome and wealthy tourist, traveling with Zahra, (Nazanin Boniadi), his equally gorgeous wife, and their infant son and his nanny. Arjun (Dev Patel) is an impoverished waiter with a pregnant wife and child at home in their hovel. While she washes their child in an aluminum pan on the ground, Arjun informs diners of the arcane features of an expensive wine. Jason Isaacs is Vasili, a man with a thick Russian accent who has come to the hotel for an intimate orgy with pretty call girls. As a handful of terrorists strut about the massive structure, shooting anyone they come across, starting fires and tossing grenades, hotel guests and staff struggle to avoid death, and, in some cases, to perform acts of heroism. Scenes are suspenseful, heartbreaking, and inspirational. Given the setting, the film never stops being visually arresting. You are in one of the most exotic and luxurious hotels in the world, where people literally bath in rose-petal-scented baths, watching the scum of the earth slaughter innocents.
Hotel Mumbai is a hagiography for hotel staff, lead by Bollywood star Anupam Kher as chef Hemant Oberoi, a real person. (Other characters are composites.) In 2011, NPR reported, "None of the Taj employees had fled the scene to protect themselves during the attack: They all stayed at the hotel to help the guests … There was the story of the kitchen employees who formed a human shield to assist guests who were evacuating, and lost their lives as a result. Of the telephone operators who, after being evacuated, chose to return to the hotel so they could call guests and tell them what to do. Of Karambir Singh Kang, the general manager of the Taj, who worked to save people even after his wife and two sons, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, died in the fire set by the terrorists … dozens of workers — waiters and busboys, and room cleaners who knew back exits and paths through the hotel — chose to stay in a building under siege until their customers were safe."
Why did they do it? The staff in the film repeat their motto. "The guest is God." This phrase goes back at least as far as the 2,600 year old Taittiriya Upanishad. We say this in Polish, as well, "Gosc w dom, bog w dom." On one side, a cannibal god orders death and destruction. On the other side, God counsels life, love, and personal sacrifice for the welfare of others. Local police also come off quite well. Special forces teams were in Delhi, and did not reach Mumbai till a couple of days after the attacks began. Uniformed police officers, apparently without bulletproof vests or helmets, holding nothing but handguns, entered the hotel and tried to help.
In a movie like this, it's inevitable that the viewer will wonder which characters will survive, and which won't. If you don't want to know the answer to that, please stop reading now. I'll reveal the fate of a couple of the characters, but not all.
David and Zahra are clearly a mixed couple, but while David is apparently American, Zahra could be from anywhere between Madrid and Darjeeling. Once the terrorists enter the hotel, while she and Vasili are hiding under restaurant tables, he throws a cloth at her. "Put this on your head so that they will know that you are one of them."
Zahra rejects the cloth disdainfully. "I'm not one of them!" she insists. At this point, the viewer does not know if Zahra is not a Muslim, or if she is announcing that she is not a Muslim terrorist. Later, Zahra takes a cell phone call from her mother. Her mother orders her to pray. "What good have our prayers done?" She asks, rhetorically.
Eventually Zahra, David, and Vasili are taken prisoner by the terrorists. They are lined up, face down, hands tied behind their backs, on a hotel room floor. A terrorist shoots David. He dies slowly. Zahra witnesses her husband's final moments. The terrorist turns to Zahra. She looks the terrorist in the eyes and says the beginning of the shahada. "There is no god but Allah," she recites, in Arabic. The terrorist hesitates. He orders her to shut up. She simply repeats the same words over and over. The terrorist phones his handler. The handler orders her death. The terrorist cannot bring himself to kill a fellow Muslim.
How is one to interpret this scene? One possible interpretation: the filmmaker is saying that "not all Muslims are terrorists." But there is a less flattering interpretation. Zahra has made clear that she isn't a devout Muslim. Perhaps she recited the shahada as an expedient to save her own life.
Vasili's demise can also be interpreted in many different ways. A terrorist rips open Vasili's shirt, revealing tattoos and a scar. The terrorists discover that Vasili had taken part in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A terrorist fingers the cross Vasili is wearing around his neck. That Vasili has been revealed to be an orgiast and whoremonger is not very Christianity-friendly. I wondered if the film were trying to root terrorism in Western military incursions or Christian theology. Vasili spits on the terrorist. The terrorist beats Vasili mercilessly, mashing his face and breaking his ribs. Even though Vasili is injured and bound, he rolls on his side and bites the terrorist menacing Zahra. Noble at last.
It's not easy watching a film so violent as this, but I'm glad I saw it. I didn’t expect to feel this, but I did – watching this film helped me to honor the millions of victims of jihad who live far from New York's Ground Zero. Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, and indeed Muslims themselves die regularly so that some mujaheed can take his chance at the Janna roulette wheel. Hotel Mumbai offers us a chance to mourn these victims, and celebrate these heroes.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars