Dutch director Carina Molier’s Back To The Taj Mahal Hotel revisits the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai through the accounts of five survivors who were all guests at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was the epicentre of the killing. A total of 164 people died and hundreds more were injured in the attacks at several locations across the city, taking place over three days.
Molier’s documentary is not a reconstruction, however, but rather an exploration of fear and how people react to fear through the example of people caught up in the Taj Mahal Hotel attack.
It was an idea that grew out of childhood memories that resurfaced as Molier watched TV news reports on the attacks back in the Netherlands. The filmmaker had lived briefly as a child in the hotel, when her father had been posted to India as an expat worker in the petrochemical industry.
“As I watched on the news, I could see all the places where I had once lived and played,” she recalls.
Beyond spotting her old haunts, Molier also started recalling how her mother had always been fearful while they were living there.
“This idea of fear has been in my life since an early age and I’ve always been interested in how fear drives people,” Molier says. “I started to read philosophers on the topic. I thought it would be interesting to make a film reflecting on what fear means and how it is affecting our world.”
The interviewees include a German woman whose partner died from his injuries when he tried to escape through an upper floor window; a British copywriter; a journalist, who had been attending a wedding party; a security advisor; and an Australian cameraman.
Each talks about how they dealt with their fear that night. The German survivor recalls how she kept falling asleep while her partner got increasingly agitated; the UK producer describes how he and his girlfriend hatched a plan to disarm a gunman if he entered the room, while the Australian photographer describes the excruciating wait for something to happen as shooting advanced up the hall outside.
“I think people agreed to participate because they understood I wanted to make more than a journalistic item about the attack,” says Molier. “The idea was always to make a film with extra layers, reflective layers.”
She combines the interviews with images of the restored hotel today, as well as terrifying footage of the gunmen marauding through the hotel’s corridors.
“I didn’t want to make people more fearful by watching the film,” she explains. “I want them to get into a meditative mood, to think about fear. I think when viewers see how the people develop in the film, they’ll get a sense that, while their experiences that night didn’t exactly free them, they transformed and liberated their thinking.”