Celebrity Chef Vikas Khanna, (who has also been featured in People Magazine’s list of Sexiest Man Alive) says he was both excited and nervous about the new dish he was serving to New Yorkers on Mother’s Day. It isn't surprising, considering that this time what the Michelin star starred chef is bringing to the table is not on a platter but on celluloid. Vikas was showing his debut film, The Last Color, to a full house at 19th New York Indian Film Festival. Following all the appreciation for the film, which is written, directed and produced by the celebrated chef, the first time filmmaker, has been accorded a rare honour, being invited to speak at Cannes later this year.
The celebratory after party dinner had Vikas making a special dish, the Gadbad ice-cream, a delicious traditional dessert from Udipi in South Karnataka, a place with such wonderful food traditions that is very close to my Punjabi heart, he laughingly says. “The dish evoked many feelings. I find it a little strange when people begin to get emotional with food. But then it’s only natural.”
“When you are cooking you combine all the carefully gathered ingredients after much preparation and then everything is combined in the right proportions and the right way. It was a similar experience with film making, I wrote a fictional story, my first and then made it my first feature-film by adapting the Vrindavan-set book, The Last Color for the big screen. Of course, it was difficult to chart a completely unknown territory but my experience as a chef and restauranteur taught me all about coordination and preparation which is common to film making too.”
Vikas’s The Last Color, published last year, is the story of a 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. Neena Gupta plays the widow, Noor, (Vikas says he was so impressed by the honesty of Neena’s tweet seeking work that he decided that he would cast only her as Noor) and Aqsa Siddiqui is cast as her young friend, Chhoti. Neena says, “Through his film, Vikas wants to talk about the change that has happened in the condition of women. He has fictionalised this very nicely so that it is interestingly told and it touches your heart because of the very honest emotions he has portrayed through all the characters. It was very nice working with him because he was very clear about what he wanted. He used to improvise on the spot and he would do everything himself. He was working on a small budget so he would even clean the ghats himself if required. He took very good care of me; we were shooting in the hot sun so he was very considerate towards everyone. It was beautiful to experience working with him.”
He furthers adds, “I was in Vrindavan at the Banke Bihari temple during Holi for my book Utsav. The festival is celebrated with a riot of colour but there I saw a line-up of widows without a spot of colour on them. One old widow, she must have been about 90, and she had such a resigned, peaceful look on her face that that image stayed with me when I went back to New York. When I am cooking at Junoon my restaurant in New York, I am surrounded by colour all the time, cooking is all about colour. So, the lack of colour in the appearance of the widow was an image I could not shake off. To me, their stark white colour had a very dark side to it. And so, the book began taking shape.”
Then came the Supreme Court’s observation in 2013 on the plight of widows in Vrindavan. “The very day, I caught a plane to Delhi and to Vrindavan to the windows in the ashrams and heard their stories about the time when they had colour in their lives. I based my main character, Noor, a window on what I observed there.”
The other character, a child, is a tight ropewalker Vikas 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 all those police and people who bother her on the ghats. So, 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, she became my other main character. Once the book was published it was my editor, Paul, who suggested that the film could be a good screenplay and that it would be a good film. That got me thinking and instead of gone back to my world of cooking, I felt challenged to try another form of creativity, film making. In the film both the main characters educate each other. There is a lot of symbolism in the film.”
The film is now headed to Atlanta for another sold-out showing later this month. So, what is next for chef-and-director? Vikas Khanna says “I leave it to the universe. Cooking is a constant. Its something I can never stop doing.” Another movie? “Sure, but only if it comes to me as powerfully as this one.”