Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna unveiled the first look of his directorial debut, The Last Color, to awe and shock one and all at the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival. Presented by the House of Omkar, it is adapted from his 31st book by the same name that was also released on occasion.
A simple thought
The film starring veteran actor Neena Gupta is a simple story capturing the richness of India in colours. “It is about the simple thought of being denied the right to touch colour. It is a story of dreams, talks of the girl child, girl education, girl empowerment and simple friendships and promises,” says Khanna.
The plot is set in Varanasi along the banks of the mighty Ganges and revolves around the lives of a widow Noor played by Gupta and her special friendship with Chhoti whose role has been essayed by Aqsa Siddiqui, with transgender actor Rudrani Chhetri playing a pivotal role in the story. Khanna says, “The current of the river was electrifying enough to give me the courage to dream big and give shape to this ambitious project. The river is a full-fledged character in my movie.”
Casting was important
But a lot of thought went into casting. If it was one tweet from Gupta where she had mentioned how she was looking for work got Khanna thinking, and landing in Mumbai to offer her Noor’s part, Chhoti was selected after a series of auditions across various cities, and the effervescent Chettri was custom made to play Anarkali. “Neenaji is a talented, and methodical actor. She’s taken the role to another level. It was my privilege to have her on-board. I went to meet her with a lot of prep hoping to talk about the story, screenplay, songs, etc but she never went into the details, and just accepted it without asking any question. She only asked me when and where does she have to come for the shoot,” he reminisces on finding her Noor. He recalls how once when they went to an Ashram while researching for the role, and Gupta had blended with other widows so well that the man at the Ashram almost pitied her, asking Khanna if he had come to drop her. “The preparation to be one like the character has taken her performance many notches above,” he says fondly.
Beaming with pride over the child actor, he says, “I had auditioned many children at Delhi and Varanasi for Chhoti’s role, but my search ended on a beautiful note after meeting Aqsa at Zeenat Mahal School in the Capital. She surprised me with her effortless transformation into the character while auditioning for the role.” The film also has many real-life street children, who attended workshops for months to do justice to their part, especially Shiv Tandav. The movie has been shot extensively across Varanasi, along the lanes and bylanes, along the Ghats, on the riverfront, and all over because he wanted to show the beauty of the city in all its hues as much as he had explored through his umpteen visits in all these years.
The first inspiration was a colourful photograph of widows playing Holi in Vrindavan by photojournalist and documentary photographer Susannah Ireland that captivated his imagination and inspired him to traverse this arduous journey of filmmaking. The picture has been recreated in a scene in the movie where Gupta, completely drenched in the pink colour is seen lying on the floor, as if in a trance much like the widow in Ireland’s photograph that she had shot for the news feature.
Having been the uncrowned king of the culinary world for 28 years, he sums up his movie-making experience as challenging. “It was the most challenging project for me so far. It is not easy to make a movie, and next time on, I will happily go and watch a movie instead,” he says with a chuckle, adding that more than talent, it is dedication of all the wonderful people associated with the project who made it an affair to remember.
The film will do rounds of the festival circuit before its theatrical release, and the biggest reward will be at the hands of his mother. “I am yet to show it to her. I hope she likes it,” he quips.
It was Khanna’s fourth consecutive appearance at the French Riviera. It was the release of Utsav — A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals’ in 2015, the premiere of his documentary Kitchens of Gratitude in 2016, and the trailer of a documentary on his life, Buried Seeds in 2017, and like always, he rocked the show with aplomb.