Bollywood Mirage: The rise and fall of Vijay Taneja
The night his movie opened, Vijay Taneja arrived at the small Falls Church theater in his gleaming Mercedes-Benz GL450, greeting well-wishers gathered for what was surely a first -- a local premiere of a major Bollywood film.
Nearly everyone in Northern Virginia's tightknit community of Indian immigrants knew Taneja, who had come to Arlington from New Delhi as a youth and founded a successful mortgage firm in Annandale. He'd helped many of those in attendance buy their first homes, and he'd built himself a palatial white mansion fit for a raj in a modest Fairfax subdivision. He'd also started his own local entertainment production company that brought Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai to tour the United States.
With seemingly deep pockets fueled by the Northern Virginia real estate boom, Taneja, now 49, had realized a longtime aspiration. He'd produced a Bollywood film, bankrolling "Aap Kaa Surroor: The Moviee -- The Real Luv Story," about a rock star framed for murder.
Taneja was a rotund man who mumbled when he talked and had no stage charisma. But friends and family were accustomed to him grabbing the spotlight, and this summer night in 2007 would be no exception. He beamed with pride as the movie played. There was no glimpse of the steep downward spiral his fortunes would take in just a few months, with lives left in ruins, the Indian community betrayed, Taneja in federal prison, and a $150 million bankruptcy case that is far from resolved.
When the film was over, guests milled around the tiny lobby nibbling on samosas. They politely congratulated the host, but everyone could see the movie -- with a wooden young star and a meandering plot -- was hardly hit material.
"It was heavy on everybody's mind: 'Hey, this is not a great movie. What is he going to do? He is going to lose his shirt,'" recalled one guest, who has a prominent job in the Indian community and did not want to be identified. "It was surprising, because we had heard so much about it. It was a letdown."
Taneja had spent at least $10 million. At the time, it seemed like a lot of money.
The palace rose on Summit Drive in a quiet Fairfax County subdivision near Centreville. First trucks arrived, clogging the narrow streets to deliver loads of concrete blocks and marble, disgorging the contents upon what would become a sweeping circular driveway.
It was 2005, and the local real estate market was in a frenzy. Property values were rising by double digits each year, and homes were snapped up after hours on the market. Teardowns were common. Even so, the sheer scope of this project -- a 21,000-square-foot house with a swimming pool, tennis court and sweeping arches evoking temple architecture -- was jaw-dropping.
"We called it the Taj Mahal," said a bemused neighbor. The community buzzed: Who was this guy?
Taneja, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is the son of an Indian diplomat and immigrated to the United States with his family while he was still a teen, according to court documents and interviews with family members. He started working in the banking industry while still in college and ultimately founded a mortgage company, Financial Mortgage, in 1990.