Filmmakers Foiled in Making Terrorists’ Grievances Seem Reasonable

Some of the best films about the evils of Islamic terrorism attempt to attribute reasonable motivations to terrorists but fail because their depiction of terrorism is so powerful and even devastating.

Hotel Mumbai is a taut, suspenseful reenactment of a terrorist attack on India’s commercial hub, which became centered mainly in Mumbai’s most elegant, historic hotel. The film is unsparing in its depiction of the terrorists’ not-so-random violent game plan -- namely, to shoot everyone in sight at as close range as possible.

 As for motivation, there are suggestions that economic disparities are provocations. The cell’s chief operative, “Bull,” whose voice is constantly on mobile phone speakers, refers to his men as “soldiers” and exhorts them to observe the prosperity of the city (at least in the tourist areas): “Look all around you. See what they stole from your fathers and grandfathers.”

 And yes, one young terrorist -- actually, they are all young and impressionable -- can’t believe that the hotel has a machine that flushes down human waste (a toilet), but this comes across as disingenuous because he knows how to use sophisticated cell phones.

Indeed, the young terrorists are not as unsophisticated and incredulous as Bull (and, at times, the filmmakers?) may regard them. An injured terrorist, Imram (Amandeep Singh, in a memorable performance), inquires: “Do you believe that Bull will give money to our families?” It would seem that his concern derives not so much from a desire to ameliorate poverty, but is a simple matter of trust. Injured, he feels his mortality and wants to leave behind something for his parents.  He wants to know that he has been treated honestly, but suspects that he hasn’t.

Imram exercises some religious and moral autonomy. He does not follow Bull’s order to kill young mother with obvious Muslim background. Also, he is reluctant to follow Bull’s instruction to search the body of a woman, even though she is an “infidel,” as Bull calls her. 

Though involved in heinous terrorist acts, this young man shows basic human decency and associates decency with religion, or at least wants to do so. He is aware that Bull violates those basic instincts, even as Bull prates: “The infidel left you in poverty.” Indeed, Imram becomes angry at his friend for pretending that a vegetable dish which they tried in the hotel elevator was pork. The point is made that he wanted to do the “halal” thing, both morally and ritually, but succumbed to the wrong kind of guidance. 

That aforementioned young mother chants Koranic formula of faith. Imram feels obligated to spare her even though Bull orders him to kill Muslims, too. Is the suggestion made that modernist Muslims must be regarded as survivors of terrorists?

Despite some of the proclamations in this movie, the issue does not seem to be economic disparity. We know that most of the 9-11 perpetrators and many other terrorists came from affluent backgrounds. The issue raised in this film is manipulation of youth by elders who may or may not be affluent, who may not even be much older, but who wield power through a kind of gang mentality.

The power of this film rests in its depiction of the heroism of the hotel staff and guests. The head chef, played by the marvelous Anupam Kher (of New Amsterdam TV fame) proclaims his credo that the “guest is God.” Accordingly, he is rigid in protocols and in his treatment of the staff. But as the horrors unfold, he and the staff, many of them Hindus, rise to grueling challenges and navigate absurd twists of fate.  Great heroism and grace under literal fire are demonstrated by a Sikh man, Arjun (beautifully played by Dev Patel), who had come to work that day hoping simply to earn extra money for his family.

The staff members demonstrate that work done with selfless devotion is sacred and noble. Indeed, there is sacrificial devotion demonstrated here. Some workers take a bullet rather than give away the location of an innocent. This film leaves a powerful impression of the sacredness of work and of the honor of doing one’s work with dedication.

But it also leaves the impression of not being satisfied with the suggestions that the terrorists were created by economic inequalities. For an instant, almost subliminally, a news report is heard that a “Jewish rabbi” was killed, a reference to the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were murdered even as a Hindu woman who worked at the Jewish Center rescued their child. Clearly, anti-Semitism is an issue of hatred other than economic resentment. It points to hatreds that motivate terrorist cells beyond any reason and even beyond reason itself.


Terrorists’ hatred of Americans and of journalists is well-portrayed in the film, Viper Club, featuring Susan Sarandon as Helen, a hard-working emergency room nurse whose son, Andy (Julian Morris), a war correspondent/videographer, is kidnapped by a terrorist cell demanding ransom. Neither the FBI nor the NSA can help her, and she is understandably frustrated and angered by their inability to help, which she regards as stonewalling. 

In her frustration, Helen tells government officials that her son had as much right to be in the Middle East as American troops. But they remind her that the military can at times be saved through prisoner exchanges and other means uniquely for service people, when possible. Individual activists have no such safety nets. The point is made that Andy has been an activist and a pacifist since high school days and had set his own agenda for visiting Syria.

While at first determined to work with the government, Helen yields in her despair to the offers of a rogue organization, called the “Viper Club,” which was created to bargain with terrorists even in ways condemned by the U.S. government. Such an organization is at best hit-or-miss, and Helen knows it. Much of the suspense and pathos of this film occurs within the vortex of such uneasy knowledge.

But does Viper Club, the earlier of the two films, attempt to explain such hostage-taking as a result of American foreign policy, especially when the United States Government avoided involvement in the Syrian civil war at the juncture of history depicted here? If so, it gives the lie to such an approach with the sheer callousness and untrustworthiness of the hostage-takers, which besmirches the would-be independent negotiators, no matter how well-meaning.

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