Reliving the Taj
Zafar Hai's delightful film on the Taj group's flagship hotel is a triumph because it dares to think beyond public relations, says MUKUND PADMANABHAN.
CORPORATE films, that is films commissioned by corporate houses about themselves, invariably suffer from predictable faults. They are much too earnest, self-congratulatory, propagandistic attributes that finally add up to Tiresome and Boring. When the invitation to view the screening of "The Taj of Apollo Bunder" was delivered, this reviewer may be forgiven for having presumed that this would be another unimaginative exercise in corporate communications.
Heritage and hospitality... the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel received its first 17 guests in December 16, 1903.
Far from it. What distinguishes Zafar Hai's delightful take on the Taj group's flagship hotel is that it ventures well beyond public relations. This is not a dry catalogue of facts, a laundry list of achievements by successive corporate honchos or a linear record of the changes in or the restoration of this heritage hotel property. Even Jamshetji Tata, the hotel's founder who dreamt of having a "Pearl of the Orient" in Mumbai and who personally selected the pillars for the ballroom during a visit to Paris, receives only a brief mention.
This is not about who built the walls so much as what the walls saw. And in Hai's film, the narrator Roshan Seth who is dressed in coattails and who affects a suitably dandyish and a faintly mocking and self-deprecatory air becomes a representation of the hotel as he walks you through the property. Seth's manner is suffused with a genteel humour and irony that helps to prevent Hai's documentary from what such a film can easily slip into becoming a coarse and reflexively unthinking celebration of ostentation.
Dances held in the ballroom were the highlights of Bombay's social scene.
Not surprisingly, it is the hotel's early years that receive the most attention. And in the hands of Zai and Seth, the Taj Mumbai becomes a microcosm of the Raj or at least of a certain spirit and lifestyle during the first half of the last century. Sybaritic maharajas, stiff-lipped colonials, fortune hunters, social climbers, pleasure seekers, Slavic beauties, European trollops a cornucopia of characters that make up the social fabric around which the story is woven.
The hotel, which predates the Gateway of India by two decades, takes itself lightly as the story is told through a series of anecdotes. There is one about a director of the hotel whose unrequited passion for the wife of a Russian aristocrat led him to jump from the bathroom window of the fifth floor. The story goes that as a guest saw him hurtling down, he called the reception to say: "Excuse me. Somebody has just passed my window."
The entrance and garden of the Taj... built where the poolside is.
One of the many face-lifts led the original front of the building to be shifted to the rear. "My rear became my front!" exclaims Seth with an appearance of contrived embarrassment. Adding: "To add insult to injury they excavated my rear, filled it with water. And then they added chlorine and called it a swimming pool."
We learn the black jazz musician Leon Abbey came to the Taj from The Ambassador in Paris and that he spent his Saturday afternoons driving down Marine Drive in his silver Issota Fraschini. There is a joke about a wealthy American who throws up his hands in disgust after being invited to tea at the Taj: "Oh Man! Is nothing sacred around here. They've now converted the Taj into a hotel." There is a reference to someone else comparing the hotel to a prison, a building with an appearance of "a vast and dreary country jail". Sarojini Naidu, Fred Astaire, the beautiful Ruttie Jinnah, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, John Lennon each one is the subject of a little story. John and Yoko never emerged from their suite for five whole days, Seth reveals in his clever script. Suggesting cheekily that they could have been in some sort of "macrobiotic trance", he adds that "not even the cleaners were allowed in."
Roshan Seth in "The Taj of Apollo Bunder".
Perhaps, the only flaw in the film is the somewhat overwritten and maudlin beginning as the camera pans from the Arabian Sea towards the hotel. The cliched and idiomatic introduction that refers to silver moons, riots of stars, gentle breezes and the hotel lit like a diadem is deceptive though. Thankfully, it is soon forgotten as Seth appears on camera with his wry and almost teasing manner.
"We wanted it to be an enjoyable tribute to the hotel," says Ravi Dubey, the Taj's Senior Vice-President for Corporate Affairs, who commissioned the film. It is a credit to him and the group that a documentary that could have easily been hijacked by the dreary compulsions of a public relations exercise has been raised to the level of good cinema.
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