NEW YORK — As a chef, Vikas Khanna has always taken colors for granted. He knows how a pinch of turmeric or a dab of red chili powder can transform, not just the taste, but the appearance as well as the temperature of a dish. So in 2011 when he experienced firsthand how widows in Varanasi were devoid of any color, even during the festival of Holi, he was quite taken back.
Khanna first swapped his chef’s apron with the pen – and “The Last Color,” was born. Little did Khanna know that the book would be a beginning of a new journey. Set in Varanasi, “The Last Color,” explores an unconventional friendship between a young flower seller and a tightrope walker Chhoti (Aqsa Siddiqui) and an old widow Noor (Neena Gupta) who has been living in abstinence of worldly pleasures for a long time. The film is scheduled to have its world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Jan. 3.
Although Khanna is no stranger to writing – he’s written 30 cookbooks before, “The Last Color” was his first foray into fiction. And a few months later, it also took him behind the camera, marking his directorial debut. The seeds for the book were sown in 2011 when he first went to Varanasi to research for his cookbook “Utsav: A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals.”
“There were so many times that I actually abandoned the film,” Khanna told India Abroad. At a viewing of the final cut of the film he hosted at the apartment in Manhattan last week, a very excited and animated Khanna talked about the genesis of the book and his experiences as a first time filmmaker. “Making a film was a whole different animal,” he said.. But the subject and the people associated with the film meant so much to Khanna, that he “joined the dots and started making the film.” The film was shot in 2016 in three schedules. “Handling the logistics,” was the most difficult part he said. “I had conceived the story in my mind without any technicality to it.” And with a tight budget, the film was all shot on the ghats in Varanasi, he said.
Recalling his experiences in Varanasi in 2011, Khanna said: “I was just crossing by a small by lane, where I saw hundreds of widows on the side of the lane standing on the balcony, who were absolutely white.” The streets, the walls and the people were drenched in colors while these women, who were considered to be inauspicious, were in white. That day, Khanna caught a glimpse of an old widow with a peaceful expression, whose image stayed with him when he went back to New York. Those images kept haunting him, he said. The chef in him was perplexed and curious. “The moment you wear white, you are going to be in some kind of isolation,” he said. “The white color had a very dark side to it.”
That was when the book started taking shape. The first catalyst was the Supreme Court’s 2012 observation on the plight of widows in Vrindavan. India’s highest court ordered that a special committee be constituted to identify the widows in Vrindavan — “those having shelter and those wandering in the streets without shelter,” the Hindu reported. The same day [as the Supreme Court judgement], Khanna took a flight to Delhi and then went to Vrindavan to speak to the widows in the ashrams. He found the hunch-backed lady and spoke to her. She talked to him about how she used to play with color and recalled how her grandfather used to call her Radha as she used to dance, he said. That’s when Gupta’s character Noor was born.
Now was the time to portray the protagonist, Choti. He based that character on a tightrope walker he met in Varanasi in 2015. Khanna had just lost his father and as he sat in a corner on the Manikarnirka Ghat, he remembered being approached by a tightrope walker who was working to earn money to put herself through school. The conversation, although brief, was moving, he said.
The next task was finding Choti. Khanna said he auditioned over 1,800 girls for the role and zeroed in on Siddiqui, a school girl from Delhi.
Besides the fondness for Gupta’s character, it is the role of a trans woman Anarkalii, played by trans woman-activist Rudrani Chhetri, that is close to Khanna’s heart. Like every character in the film, Anarkali is also a dramatized representation of Khanna’s real encounter with a transgender Munna who used to protect street girls by giving shelter to them in the night. “When I heard the story, I was so moved and saw power of a different level. I told him that you are not a Munna, you have the power of Shiva, and the heart of Lakshmi,” Khanna said.
Along with raw, emotional performances, the stellar vignettes of the ghat-laden landscapes of Varanasi, the dramatic sequences and the vivid symbolism of colors in the film, is what makes “The Last Color” standout. Along with highlighting the plight of the widows, Khanna said the importance of education, especially of women, is a constant thread in the film. The film conveys social messages, without being too in your face, he said.
According to Khanna, the conception of the book, his getting behind the camera, the casting and the shooting were all organic. Initially Khanna said he had even shortlisted someone to direct the film. But during narration, an emotional Khanna was upset to see no reaction from him.
That’s when he decided to change tracks and get behind the camera. “I couldn’t be dishonest with my thought process,” he said. “It was hard for me to give my baby to someone else. I don’t care how wrong the movie is in the technical department, I just wanted to maintain the honesty and emotions.”
But Khanna quickly learnt about the similarities in cooking and filmmaking – both art forms. “Like cooking, filmmaking is also about observation,” he said. “Running a kitchen is all about bringing all your ingredients together after hours and hours of preparation,” he noted.. “You allow them to marinate and everything happens with coordination before the test of fire. Filmmaking too is all about coordination and months of preparation.”
Throughout the process though, Khanna said there was only one thing he was sure of: that the film won’t be emotionally hollow.
Something that Gupta will vouch for. She told India Abroad that Khanna had contacted her while she was shooting for “Badhai Ho.” Khanna told Gupta that he came to her after seeing the film “Threshold” and had her in his mind. Later that evening, he went to her house for a narration and Guptra said she was blown over.
Even though he had no prior experience with direction, Gupta said she never doubted anyone’s capabilities.
“Vikas is an excellent chef and a good director as well,” she said. And within no time Gupta realized that Khanna was more than a director.
“He was the art director, writer, director everything rolled in one.” And each day, on the sets, she saw a new, creative side of Khanna, she said. “He used the best available natural backgrounds as props and added lots of color and beauty to every scene.”