Starting on November 26, 2008, ten men entered south Mumbai and began to lay siege to the city in a coordinated and highly deadly manner. The men attacked major attractions in the city, setting off bombs, and firing automatic weapons. All in all, the battle raged for three days, left 164 people dead, and many hundreds more injured. While many of those killed were foreigners, an entire city was caught in the grip of terror, and the victims encompassed a wide swath of backgrounds. Unfortunately, this broader scope is missing from Nicolas Saada’s new drama, “Taj Mahal.”
In Saada’s film, westerner Louise (Stacy Martin) is trapped alone in her hotel room as her parents, who traveled with her to the country, fight to make it back to her. Of course, this is a valid, and surely life-altering tragedy, one that will haunt the family for years to come. But to exploit the highly political and cultural feuds between two nations to tell the story of a rich western family is a thoughtless and deliberate ignorance – one that only compounds the sometimes intentional first world mindset of, “we don’t care if you kill yourselves, we only care when one of us gets caught in the crossfire.”
Nonetheless, we have “Taj Mahal.” The film opens with said parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) moving with their youngest daughter, Louise, from Paris to Mumbai in late 2008. The trio set up camp at the exquisite TaJ Mahal Palace while they await the preparation of their rental house. Cue the family wandering blissfully through the blistering and bustling Indian city, smiling and being generally happy with each other. Like so many films in the thriller genre, the first third of the film asks us to fall in love with these characters in the hopes that when the shooting starts — and we know it will — we actually care if these folks live or die. Sadly, we are given little in the form of character, save for their happiness and beauty. They bicker playfully, tease one another, joke and laugh, and look out longingly from the literal tower of the hotel.
Despite the fact that we are given little in the way of characterization (we learn Louise is interested in photography and enjoys “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), Saada handles these scenes and montages with a light fluidity and some gorgeous camera work, all buried in a thick, heavy score (music that will later attempt to stand in for emotion), which gives “Taj Mahal” a leg up on these otherwise substanceless scenes, imbuing them with more grace than its genre counterparts.
Where “Taj Mahal” does succeed is in its second act, once the first shots have hauntingly thundered from the depths of the massive hotel. Louise has chosen to stay home while her parents are out for dinner, trapping her alone in their penthouse suite, shuddering with the terror she can hear beyond her door. Which is where the violence stays, and “Taj Mahal” thus becomes a film of insinuation, subtlety, and sound. For much of the remaining picture, Louise stays put and Saada manipulates the confined space into a sort of prison, as death comes closer and recedes time and again.
Just when this hope arises for Saada’s film, it crumbles under the weight of its authenticity and premise. “Taj Mahal,” the opening credits claim, is based on a true story, and there is a sense that the film attempts to stick to the facts of Louise, which once the stakes have risen to a fever pitch, begins hemorrhaging tension. Once the violence abruptly ends for our principals, they are afforded space to cope — unlike so many of the citizens of Mumbai.
Saada’s saving grace may be his earnestness, which helps to deflate some of the sour taste of what might be perceived as cultural ignorance. His heart seems to be in the right place, and he is eager to explore the struggles of post traumatic stress and the immense love of a family. But it begs the question, why not tell the story on a broader scale? Or why not create a fictional incident free of such baggage? This tragedy belongs to Louise and her family, and it’s a personal, private horror that they will carry for the rest of their lives. But at the same time, it is not solely theirs, and quite frankly, we have enough films about westerners caught in all the dirty violence of “other people’s problems.” [C-]