Alongside predictable fare such as butter chicken and dal makhani, the menu for the Taj Mahal Dhaba has a few peculiar entries: English, Hindi and Math. The fictional restaurant is the star of Kireet Khurana’s upcoming film T for Taj Mahal, about a roadside vendor near the famed Agra monument who asks tourists to educate the children from his village in exchange for food.
The trailer for the film, which stars Subrat Dutta, Bidita Bag, Manoj Pahwa and Raveena Tandon, was unveiled at the India Pavilion, organised by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. National Film Award winning titles Village Rockstars, Bhayanakam, Nagarkirtan and Sinjar will be screened at the festival under this category.
“T for Taj Mahal is about a man who wants to bring literacy into his village and he does it through his unique social enterprise,” Khurana told Scroll.in. “The protagonist starts a wayside dhaba in his village where there are no schools. He asks the customers in the Dhaba to teach the children of the village instead of paying for the food. It is a kind of a social entrepreneurship premise. At this point I do not think I can reveal too much, but that is basically the crux of the film.”
It was businessman and film producer Abis Rizvi who gave Khurana the idea for the film. Rizvi died in a mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub on December 31, 2017.
“Abis was truly an educationist and philanthropist by heart,” Khurana said. “He had identified the basic subject and asked me if I would like to direct it and of course I jumped at it because it was a great opportunity to make a difference. But it is unfortunate that Abis died in the terror attack. We had a bit of a hard time completing the film, but Sony came to our rescue.”
Khurana believes that the idea proposed in the film could become a viable business model to improve literacy levels in India. He is propagating that with the hashtag #EatAndTeach, which accompanies the film’s promotional posts. “T For Taj Mahal falls in the category of what you call an impact film,” Khurana said. “Impact films are not just films with a message, but also a road map to actually ignite or start a conversation. If there are eateries that take up the cause of ‘Eat and Teach’, it can change a lot of things in India, where there are about 300 million people who are illiterate.”
The film has been written by Khurana and Ashish Aryan and is set in the fictitious village of Bajjar near Uttar Pradesh’s Agra. “Ashish and I went to the interiors of Uttar Pradesh and did the entire research there and took about six months to write the script,” Khurana said. “Subrat Dutta is the most extraordinary actor. We did our rounds of auditions and all that and there was absolutely no doubt that Subrat was the right choice because of his versatility and depth in understanding characters. The same goes for Bidita Bag. In this film she plays a very demure village girl who wants to get married to a literate man.”
The son of ace animator Bhimsain, Kireet Khurana started his career with animation. He has made several award-winning animated shorts, documentaries and commercials, including Trade and Mahagiri. He made his directorial debut with Toonpur Ka Super Hero (2010), starring Ajay Devgn and Kajol, which combined live action with animation. But Khurana considers himself to be “genre agnostic.”
“My animation films are also in the emotional, evocative zone of telling stories,” Khurana said. “It requires that kind of social storytelling prowess and I always thought I had it in me. When you are working in a certain genre, people tend to give you more work in that same genre.”
Khurana credited Sony Pictures Entertainment for his film’s recognition at the Cannes Film Festival. “I was glad to find like-minded producers to believe in the same thing as me,” Khurana said. “It is one thing that you have a good film in hand and it is a completely different thing that the film gets what it deserves. We see a lot of undeserving films out there that have money backing them up and many deserving films, which have no money backing them up. The Sony Pictures Entertainment had a robust team in place including festival coordinators.”
T for Taj Mahal will be premiered at the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival in June, and the makers are looking at a year-end release in India. “The idea is to kind of create the buzz around the film and then release it end of this year,” Khurana said. “So we are doing well so far.”