A widow and an urchin prove to be a winning combo meal in chef-turned-filmmaker Vikas Khanna’s feature debut. Khanna’s earnest tale of liberation from discrimination is set in Varanasi. The Last Color explores the bond between Noor, a resident of one of Varanasi’s homes for widows, and Chhoti, a Dalit street performer. A fast friendship develops between the gentle and devout Noor (Neena Gupta) and the feisty and irreverent Chhoti (Aqsa Siddiqui), leading to the movie’s best scenes.

Noor escapes her humdrum life and oppressive supervisor by frequenting the banks of the Ganga, where she first meets Chhoti. The brave orphan brings light and colour into Noor’s monochrome world. Noor’s maternal instincts come into play and she urges the child to never let her caste status get her down.

Other marginalised characters breathe life into a film set in the City of the Dead – Chhoti’s friend Chintu, the transgender Anarkali, a woman berated by her husband and mother-in-law for constantly bearing girls instead of a prized son. Holi, the festival of colour that is denied to the widows, becomes a device to explore Noor’s desires and Chhoti’s rebellion.

Inspired by real-life events, the movie is based on a story by Vikas Khanna and a screenplay by Vibhav Srivastava. The inevitable feelgood ending is preceded by some sweet moments and harsh truths. Noor’s scenes with Chhoti are marked by warmth and elevated by tender performances by the veteran Neena Gupta and the fresher Aqsa Siddiqui. Transgender activist and model Rudrani Chettri is affecting as Anarkali, who is routinely abused by locals and frequently raped by policemen.

There’s too much going on to fit into the lean 90-minute narrative. Chhoti’s flight to freedom is clumsily portrayed, while Noor’s eventual fate is rushed through. The moments that linger are the ones between the white-clad woman and the colourful child, exchanging banter and wisdom by the banks of the Ganga.

The Last Color (2018).

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‘Wanted to create a new kind of art’: Chef Vikas Khanna on making his debut film ‘The Last Color’