As the last terrorist fought a losing battle with the National Security Guard at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, and the 56-hour ordeal was coming to a close, we met film-maker Zafar Hai at his office in Mittal Towers, Nariman Point. On Wednesday night, the terrorists had also passed this way, firing guns.
Hai’s association with the country’s best-known heritage hotel started as a young guest on a family holiday, continued as a groom on his wedding day in the majestic Crystal Room and cemented when he paid a cinematic tribute to the hotel on its centenary.
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In fact Hai has directed numerous films for the Tatas; his most recent ones are Jewels & Marble Palaces about the Taj group’s palace properties and Keepers of the Flame on the lives of J.N. Tata and J.R.D. Tata.
As National Security Guard commandos inspected the destruction at the hotel just a stone’s throw from Hai’s office, he spoke about the romance, history, nostalgia and the timelessness of the Taj. Edited excerpts:
My film, The Taj of Apollo Bunder, ends with a poem by the English poet Wilfred Russell, who wrote about his impression of the Taj hotel, which even today seems appropriate:
I saw it first from the deck of an Ellerman boat
A faint enamel etching on the dawn:
With a dome—my very first— which seemed to float
On the morning haze of a new life, still unborn.
Set down in the reclaimed land of old Colaba
You have seen an Empire rise and then decay,
As a great new city grew around the harbour
Outside the walls of Portugese Bombay.
Tatas and Wadias, Petits and Khataus,
Memories of America’s civil war;
Mahratta swords and homespun Congress ploughs
Inhabit each long and airy corridor.
The chromium plated Intercontinentals
And towering Hiltons stride on to the scenes
Of Yesterday’s memories
Brave and sentimental
The Taj touches an important nerve in all of us. And for those of us in whose lives it has played an important role, it’s almost like someone close to us. In contrast to other monuments, such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), however significant they may be, it’s not just humanity that runs through the Taj but history. The monument is a symbol of everything significant that has happened in this city since the beginning of the 20th century.
Also Read History in Making (PDF)
My association with the Taj goes back to the 1970s when I made films for the Taj. I made films on the Shamiana when it first opened. I used to share offices with Ismail Merchant then, behind the Taj where Bade Miya is. In those days there used to be no security of any kind at the hotel; the doors were permanently open to anyone and we used to just walk in for a meal or for meetings at Shamiana or Sea Lounge. It was almost a daily visit to the Taj and in 1980, it was a natural choice for me to have my wedding reception at the Crystal Room at the Taj.
I came to Bombay around 1970 and moved to Napean Sea Road. I have always lived in south Bombay and there’s a difference in your association with the Taj if you have lived in this part of the city. It becomes a part of your life. My wife and I have had many Sunday lunches at the Sea Lounge. I love the fish and chips there. My mother used to love the Café Vinnoise, a special ice cream you get only at Taj, and whenever she came to visit us we took her there. My family is from Hyderabad and we used to come here for a holiday. I was a little kid running around the corridors of Taj. I remember they had mosquito nets around the bed.
People sit near the waterfront, against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, after the completion of the operation against terrorists. Gurinder Osan / AP
The spirit of the place has always been special. When you enter the building, there’s something about the atmosphere that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. It’s got a lot to do with what it brings back to you. The nobility in architecture, solidity, elegance and expansiveness of it brings back memories of another time. There’s something grand and magnificent—the staircase and the dome—yet homely there. Something that never fails to move you every time you go there.
When you talk of celebrities, there were all kinds who came to stay at the Taj. Besides writer Somerset Maugham and American actor John Barrymore, who have been guests there, it has seen the key figures in India’s history who either came to stay here or were part of important events that took place here. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s wife had a permanent suite at the Taj. She and Mr Jinnah used to quarrel a lot and she would come and stay at the Taj every time they fought. In fact, in 1929, she fell seriously ill and even passed away at the Taj.
Sarojini Naidu used to hold court there. Everyone used to come to meet her. All the Indian princes used to favour the Taj, which was their watering hole and where they came to let their hair down. In 1917, there was a banquet hosted in the Ballroom at Taj in honour of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, who was to sail to England to participate in the Imperial War Cabinet in London. To celebrate his induction 200 princes were invited for this enormous banquet that we recreated in the film. We had the grandson of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner and his great great granddaughter in the film. That kind of gathering was probably never witnessed again.
The Taj occupies an important physical place overlooking the harbour. Before the days of air travel, all entries and exits from Bombay happened from the Gateway and therefore all the ceremonial entries and exits happened right in front of the Taj. The Prince and Princess of Wales came to India in 1905 and Taj was very much a part of their welcome. When the British left India for the last time, the exit ceremony was near the Taj. There were some great entertainers that came to the Taj between the two wars, in those days of jazz and ballroom dancing. It was a centre for all of that. Zubin Mehta’s father played at the Taj with his trio of musicians every day. Zubin used to attend those concerts and that’s how he started out.
Then you had the famous cabarets of the Taj. Madame Pompadour, a British fashion designer who also had a dancing team, did the cabaret over there and later started an eponymous fashion boutique, which was at the Taj till about 15 years ago.
There is a story of a Russian aristocrat, Boris Lissanevitch, who had escaped the Russian revolution to Paris and joined the ballet there. He came with his wife to Bombay in the 1930s and they used to do cabaret dances. His wife was a very beautiful woman and one of the managers at the Taj fell in love with her. His unrequited love for the wife of the Russian aristocrat led him to jump from the 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.”
Taj had a cosmopolitan feel, a sense of spice and of life. There’s a story of another sultry lady, almost Mata Hari-like, called Amy Tenton, who used to be a crooner at the Harbour Bar. There was always a whiff of scandal about her. Her boyfriend was arrested on suspicion of being a German spy and rumour had it that she too was one. Even the Mountbattens had history there. Lady Mountbatten, who had run away to Bombay penniless in pursuit of Lord Mountbatten before they were married, got off the boat and went to the Taj and they helped her get in touch with Lord Mountbatten in Delhi. Their romance then culminated in marriage. Much later, two days after independence, they came to Bombay and rode in an open carriage from the government house to the Taj, where he gave his farewell speech.
Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, along with a host of personalities, visited the Taj. In the later years, there was Jackie Kennedy.
There was a famous Goan chef in the era between the world wars called Masci. There was a gourmet club at the Taj and all the famous names of the city were part of this club. Once a week they would collect there and this chef would make gourmet dishes for them. He has become a legend and is still talked about in the kitchens of the Taj.
His muse: Hai shot The Taj of Apollo Bunder while part of the hotel was under renovation. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
The Taj has an archive with all the pictures and information. Those who take jobs at the hotel are made conscious that they have to carry forward that tradition. And the most stirring example of that is this crisis, how everyone who has come out of it has been praising the courage, composure and hospitality of the Taj staff. Hospitality can be mechanical, but at the Taj it’s from the heart. The staff has been working here for years and they remember the people who have been visiting them over the years.
The architecture is a story in itself. There’s a story about Taj that it was built the wrong way and when the English architect who designed it saw that the Indian contractors had built the wrong way, he committed suicide. This is not true. It was actually built by an Indian architect who used to work under the legendary Frederick Stevens, the architect who built the Victoria Terminus (later renamed CST). The architect, Rao Saheb Khanderao Vaidya, made all the sketches. It’s built in a U shape, like VT. He died before the Taj was completed, in 1900, and another English architect, WA Chambers, then completed it. It’s not made like any other hotel in India—with the wooden banisters and wooden beams and wells from where you can look all the way down, which made people say the architecture resembled a prison. If you walk in those corridors, there’s something very unique and you know you’re not in a typical hotel corridor.
Jamsetji Tata bought the best in the world for this hotel. He went to the Paris exhibition in the 1890s, got the latest stuff such as the spun steel pillars that have been installed in the ballroom. In those days, it was considered one among the few great hotels of the world, along with Shepherd’s in Cairo, Oriental in Bangkok, The Peninsula in Hong Kong, Raffles in Singapore. No other hotel in India has that cache.
Taj was aspirational and was the ultimate in things to do. You wanted to stay there, to have your wedding there, even though there were other international hotels. My association with the Tatas started with the Taj many years ago and it has been exceptional. I have done films for them on many of their properties. This film came about as their centenary film, shot in 2003. We decided to tell the story in terms of what the walls of the Taj would have to say, by personalizing the story and making the Taj into a character that was played by Roshan Seth. The Tata group is unique in context of our country, for what they stand for—you can achieve success in this very competitive world without losing your value system. This value system has remained intact for all these years and this impression of the Tatas is inherited by the Taj too.
I first saw the crisis unfold on the news and was awake all night watching it. It was heartrending to see the Taj going up in flames. It made my heart bleed and I was almost in tears. You feel almost culturally raped and I just hope there’s no permanent harm. But the foundation of the Taj is very strong, and with its thick walls, permanent damage would most likely be impossible. Even though it’ll be rebuilt, it’ll still be a replica. We’re really going to miss Taj till it is back.
Jamsetji Tata built it at the time of the great plague that had hit Bombay and devastated the city. He built it partly in defiance to this, so this city in shambles would have something to help resurrect it, a magnet that would attract people from around the world. It was built as a symbol of defiance against British prejudice as well as to reconstruct a devastated city. It was built in that spirit, and today when our city is devastated once again, it’ll be rebuilt in the same spirit.