Friday, December 11, 2015

Taj Mahal (2015)

Nicolas Saada's debut feature-length film Taj Mahal is a work of art, framed by aesthetic sensibilities of leaving much unsaid; it is a pity that the film has been viewed by many critics uniquely through the lens of Mumbai terror attacks or dated postcolonialism. The film is in fact not about Mumbai terror attacks: the attacks are only a catalyst. The film is about a timid, unsure, not very courageous, slightly repressed girl Louise: it is her character's development, which will not climax to any satisfactory level with the film's end, that concerns us. On the face of it, the film appears to many as just another of those films of someone trapped in some dangerous situation, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in mass numbers. But the film goes much beyond that, in terms of both actual plot and what is implied. The film does not end at the girl's release from the tragedy: it goes on, to provide us vital clues to Louise' character. It is not a Hollywood hug-and-cheer ending. It ends indeterminately: Louise is still young, and she is still to discover herself, but the incident and the India trip have given her impetus and maybe a newfound courage. She can now ignore her slightly cold, domineering mother, she can now try to reach out to people whom her parents don't ask her to talk to, she can now say "I don't know" with surety, in a world where "I don't know" is not accepted as answer, where pretensions of knowledge are what you stake your reputation on.

As I said, a lot is unsaid in the film. The embrace of Louise and the Italian woman is tight and warm, both enjoying human warmth after being trapped in an inferno. Giovanna is a woman which Louise's mother is not: it is telling that Louise prefers always to talk to her father when distressed, contrary to usual expectations. Giovanna has brought her intimacy, love and promise in one embrace, which Louise had been searching for all her life, which makes her so diffident. Giovanna is someone whom Louise could have loved passionately, if not torn apart without any addresses to exchange. But she finds only the cold, unembracing world like Pierre or her mother; the people who cared for her, the man who offered her the footwear, the room service guy, Giovanna, all are lost in time and in India. The world of India is the world where Louise steps into youth, struggles into it: she finds Paris meaningless, colourless, she finds her life sucked, tucked into a microcosm: that incident, that trip. It is not painful or an adventure for her: that world is a cocoon in which she was tightly wrapped, a sequence of life events that have changed her, that have suddenly given her something new, made her a bit more known to herself.

And how does Saada manage to achieve it? First, by selecting a fine cast, especially Stacy Martin's not very expressive face, which works wonders for the film. Then, by getting great cinematography and lovely use of tones: Paris is bleaker and colder, toned down, and Mumbai is brightened. The sound recording itself is a treat: in both Mumbai and Paris, outdoors' noises are heightened, the world of exterior collides with Louise's inward personality, ready to go into her shell. The interior world, whether it be Louise in the cafe in Paris or in the plush hotel Taj, is depressingly quiet, a troubled peace, like still water beneath which much lurks. One could accuse Saada of some things: that he didn't put a bereaving or distressed Indian family beside the French family when Louise was trapped in the hotel; that Giovanna is another European instead of an Indian. But would it not have violated the aesthetic purity and the integrity of the film? For me, it would have. Louise's world is small: it is she who sees, it is she who is feeling this world. Will she see the Indian family? Will she not find a lot of affinity with Giovanna? In this world of political correctness, we have forgotten people themselves. Thankfully, Saada sticks to his vision, not of those for whom everything is a ledger.

And to those critics who dismiss the movie as a story of some rich white girl, ignoring many others, I don't know what to say: are rich white girls not human beings? Should stories revolving around them be not made just because they are a minority in a particular milieu? Do not be deterred by critics: go and explore the several deep layers of an apparently simple film.

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