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Vikas Khanna's 'The Last Color' making ripples at festival screenings

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Press Trust of India Houston
After indulging people with his delectable recipes and unique cookbooks for decades, Michelin-star chef Vikas Khanna is out making ripples with his directorial debut, "The Last Color".
The film that was earlier screened at the 13th Annual Dallas International Film Festival, after its teaser was showcased at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and at the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, kicked off at Austin-based South Asian film festival Indie Meme Film Festival April 26.
With a bold treatment of a simple story, focusing on a nine-year-old girl and a 70-year-old widow on the fringes of society, the film navigates India's oppressive patriarchal culture in which widows then, weren't allowed to participate in the Hindu festival of Holi.
"The Last Color", starring veteran actor Neena Gupta in the lead, not only struck a chord with the cinema lovers, but also raised pertinent societal issues around women empowerment, girl child education and their right to live with dignity.
Excited about the impact of the movie at festivals, Khanna told PTI, "Austin was divine and Dallas was magical. As a surprise, Neena ji did a video call and I got so emotional".
"Through this movie I wanted to convey a message that art has to be without borders and with imagination and soul. It has to reflect the urge and courage to tell the story, however small it might be," he added.
He drew inspiration for the movie based on real-life experiences and current events.
First, Khanna, said, he recalled seeing Hindu widows in the holy city of Vrindavan not being allowed to engage in the colourful festival of Holi because they were treated as "untouchables".
Later, he saw photos of widows finally participating in Holi with the support of an NGO. Then there was his encounter with a nine-year-old child who performed on a tightrope in India. He first combined these stories into a novel, which he adapted into a screenplay for the film.
"Color is everything," explained Khanna.
"The ripeness, cooking stages, spices, herbs, how things get spoiled and the radiance of produce, it's all about colour."

This film was his way of bringing colour to those who weren't allowed to participate in the society because of old traditions.
"The Last Color" focuses on the friendship of Noor and Chhoti. First is the widow Noor (Gupta) banished to the ashram and forced to wear a white sari as a badge of humiliation for her low position in society.
She is not allowed to travel far from the ashram or converse with the locals. She is forbidden to display any colour other than white. Noor keeps to herself as all widows at that time would.
Then there is a small girl named Chhoti (Aqsa Siddiqui), an orphan who lives on the streets of Varanasi with her friend Chintu (Rajeshwar Khanna). Chhoti and Chintu earn money each day performing a tightrope act in the town square. The two are always in trouble with the local police chief Raja (Aslam Sheikh) as begging on the street is illegal.
Khanna originally set "The Last Color" in Vrindavan, but found more personal resonance in Varanasi, which he visited after his father died.
"I needed some time to reflect on a few issues in my life," Khanna said, but he soon became enraged by the suffering of others written off as untouchables.
He saw a young girl in the street, trying to buy some tea from a street vendor. The man harangued her, and Khanna intervened.
"I got into a verbal argument with the teaseller," he said, but he quickly realised that this was about more than one innocent and one bully.
"A truck driver spat chewed betel leaves on a street child and she did not even react. When I asked her, she said they do it all the time. I couldn't stop my tears," Khanna said.
The power of the true stories behind his film demanded authenticity from the performers, and Khanna found two actors in particular that brought their own weight and experience to the story.
He auditioned 29 transgender actors for the part of Anarkali, the homeless woman who befriends Chhoti, but finally chose Rudrani Chettri, a political activist and founder of India's first transgender modelling agency.
When Chettri came to the audition, she was wearing makeup and jewellery, but Khanna encouraged her to strip off those trappings.
He recalled telling her, "I think your eyes are so powerful without all the ornaments and your soul shines through them. We will have you in the movie without any makeup."

As Noor, Gupta, lived this role so well, as in a key scene in which Chhoti asks to call her mother.
"Neena ji was practising the scene with me and she said, 'Let me just turn back and not answer. No dialogue.' When we did the first take and the room was in full silence as she turned back to Chhoti, we all had moist eyes. She later told me that silence is a very powerful tool. Her strength is her silence and staying strong," Khanna said.
While promoting this film at various festivals, Khanna said he is opening a new Indian restaurant in Dubai.
Kinara by Vikas Khanna will be found at the JA Resorts starting in early September. He's also working on his third PhD on spices and global warming, which will lead to a new cookbook, "Blossoms".
And then there's also another book, "Sacred Foods of India," which will cover foods served at holy places in the country. Finally, Khanna has his next documentary in the works, "Valley of Fireflies".

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First Published: Apr 28 2019 | 11:40 AM IST

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