It’s a sad, sad thing that Hotel Mumbai reflects our time so well. The film, which received its wide release last week, is based on the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, focusing on the massacre and the hours-long hostage situation that took place in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Hotel Mumbai is masterfully done, and if another movie has been as successful at placing the viewer in the middle of a mass shooting or, indeed, even attempted to do so, it doesn’t immediately come to mind. Director Anthony Maras has created an atmosphere of almost nonstop panic and intense dread that would give any horror movie a run for its money; it’s a terrifying film that is all the more frightening because you know that the story you’re watching unfold is an account of real events. And Hotel Mumbai hits all the closer to home in the wake of the events in Christchurch just last month. The film is unique and also timely in its message about “thoughts and prayers.”
It’s common for the religious among us to pray for victims after a mass shooting occurs. And it is just as common for such prayers to be mocked and derided. Some critics fear that thoughts and prayers replace legislative action, but many seem to disapprove of the act of prayer itself, casting it as a useless act. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez provided a tone-deaf example of this following the Christchurch shooting, as she tweeted out: “What good are your thoughts & prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?” Neil deGrasse Tyson offered a similar message after the Parkland shooting last year, tweeting, “Evidence collected over many years, obtained from many locations, indicates that the power of Prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing school children.” Such condescending remarks display a profound ignorance of the role of prayer in the life of religious practitioners, and they are strongly, and unexpectedly, rebuked in Hotel Mumbai.
One of the main characters in the film is a lapsed Muslim named Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), who is married to an American architect David (Armie Hammer), with whom she has just had her first child. During the attack on the hotel, Zahra calls her mother to provide an update on their safety. Her mother, a practicing Muslim, offers up prayers for the family, to which Zahra replies, “What good have prayer ever done?” Her sentiment is echoed a bit more succinctly later on by a Russian character Vasili (Jason Isaacs), who, after being told by a hotel staffer that he’ll pray for him, says, “F*** your prayers.”
But by the film’s end, Zahra has had a volte-face on the matter of prayer. She and David are ultimately captured and lined up to be killed. One by one, the hostages are shot execution-style, and at last the gun is turned to Zahra. And she begins to pray. She prays, but not because she believes it will save her — she has a gun pointed at her head, and her husband was murdered just seconds before. She does not pray for intervention. But with what she believes will be her dying breathe, Zahra reaffirms her belief in her deity. Words she undoubtedly has not said in quite some time spill out with ease, in a prodigal’s attempt to be close to God, all while her executioner screams at her to stop.
It’s a powerful scene. As a Christian, I did not recognize the words of Zahra’s prayer or the theology expressed, but I recognized the motivation behind them. It is the same taught by all Christian denominations and summed up by the Catholic Catechism as such: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” The prayers that Ocasio-Cortez criticized after the Christchurch shooting, the prayers that deGrasse Tyson mocked after the Parkland massacre, the prayers following any tragedy, and, indeed, any prayers at all are an act of spiritual communion through humbling oneself before God. And prayers for those who are suffering or in danger are requests for that same spiritual communion to be extended to others, to grant divine peace to those who need it most. To pray for another is the highest form of love a believer can give, and to criticize such prayers is to mock the spirit of charity that prompts them.
Christianity barely makes an appearance in Hotel Mumbai, and Judaism doesn’t make one at all — it is set in Mumbai, where both are miniscule minorities, after all — but such a positive portrayal of prayer should give both the anti-prayer crowd and the faithful of all religions something to appreciate in the film — and, one would hope, some new insights for the areligious.