When Michelin-star chef Vikas Khanna decided to combine his fiction-writing debut with his feature-filmmaking debut by adapting his Vrindavan-set book The Last Color for the big screen, he knew he faced a tough task. But the celebrity restaurateur came out of the experience realising that there are some common ingredients in running a kitchen and a film crew.
“Running a kitchen is all about bringing all your ingredients together after hours and hours of preparation,” Khanna said. “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.”
The Last Color, published this May, traces the friendship between a young tight-rope walker and a widow who yearns to play Holi but is held back by societal norms that frown upon such celebrations for women who have lost their husbands. Khanna’s film stars Neena Gupta as the widow, Noor, and Aqsa Siddiqui as her young friend, Chhoti.
The film will be premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California in January.
Khanna, who runs the popular Indian restaurant Junoon in New York City, has written several culinary books and is popular back home for hosting the reality cooking competition Masterchef India. The Last Color was conceived during his trip to Vrindavan for his book Utsav: A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals in 2011.
“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,” Khanna said. “The streets, the walls and the people were drenched in colours while these women were in white. There was this guy who was extremely rude and called them inauspicious. We are in the 21st century and heading to Mars, but we are still punishing people for something they did not do.”
He caught a glimpse of an old widow with a peaceful expression, whose image stayed with him when he went back to New York, he recalled. “There was this lady in her 90s absolutely hunched back and she looked so at peace,” Khanna said. “Being a chef all my life, everything has been about colour. Food is all about changing colours to temperatures and different levels of cooking. The moment you wear white, you are going to be in some kind of isolation. The white colour had a very dark side to it.”
The book took firm shape over the years. The first catalyst was the Supreme Court’s 2012 observation on the plight of widows in Vrindavan. “The same day [as the Supreme Court judgement], I took a flight to Delhi and then went to Vrindavan to speak to the widows in the ashrams,” he said. “I found the hunch-backed lady and spoke to her about how it was to play with colour. She recalled how her grandfather used to call her Radha as she used to dance.”
Khanna based Noor on the old woman and Chhoti on a tightrope walker he met in Varanasi in 2015. “When I asked her what she wanted to do, she told me she wanted to become a lawyer and slap the police people who bother her so much,” he said. “That was a novel right there.”
On his publisher’s advice, Khanna decided to turn his book into a film. “It was my editor, Paul, who suggested that the film could be a good screenplay and told me that it demands a movie for its honesty,” he said. “I could have gone back to my world of cooking, but I needed to be challenged and wanted to create a new kind of art. This has a whole different thought process.”
Getting Neena Gupta on board was a prerequisite, he said. The film was shot in 2016 in three schedules. Handling the logistics was the most difficult part of filming he said. “Making a film was a whole different animal,” the chef recalled. “But these people were so important to me that I joined the dots and started making the film. The logistics are hard because I had conceived the story in my mind without any technicality to it.”
Are more more films on the cards for the chef-turned-director? “I don’t know if the universe wants me to make another movie. But only if it comes so powerfully will I do it,” Khanna said.