Lost and found
The last four years have seen celebrity restaurateur Vikas Khanna face his biggest loss and most meaningful gain, all between Vrindavan and Varanasi. How did a Michelan star chef make a film that's made it to the 2019 Best Film Oscars nomination list
It was in 2011 when chef Vikas Khanna was in Vrindavan to celebrate Holi when he first encountered the widows who live there, cast away by families. He was there to shoot for a show. Just as he was being rushed out from the backdoor exit of Bankebhai temple to avoid the rush of onlookers who had gathered, he walked into a street lined by hundreds of widows lining both sides, watching the Holi festivities from afar. "Until then, I hadn't thought about them. When I was growing up, there was an aunt who was always at home, beautiful, not allowed into any family function. We [Indians] consider it normal. A boy walking behind me was trying to explain, 'Inko mat dekhna, apshagun hai [don't look at them; it's inauspicious]'."
Khanna remembers making eye contact with a 90-year-old. "I smiled at her, organically. And she looked happy for that, that someone had acknowledged her," Khanna narrates over an early 8 am breakfast interview at an Andheri five-star.
The chef and restaurateur says that smile broke his heart. He put pen to paper on the flight back to Delhi, and began writing a short story about his experience. His first line, which he wrote in Punjabi, was: the country which is famous for its colours, has daughters who are colourless".
It as in that moment that Khanna had turned into a filmmaker, and the seed for his debut movie, The Last Colour, was sown. Unveiled last year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, it travelled to Cannes where it won Best Film. But the recognition everyone is talking about is about making it to Best Film final list of Oscar 2019 nominations.
The journey, Khanna calls, life changing. He mailed the story he wrote on the flight to magazines that he thought might be interested in publishing it, , "The New Yorker". There was no reply. Khanna went back to his life and his Michelin star New York restaurant. "I had money riding on me, I couldn't be following crazy dreams," says Khanna, who hails from Amritsar. Junoon, the restaurant that has been bagging a Michelin star every year since 2011, is among many responsibilities, including authoring cookbooks, and anchoring Masterchef India and UTSAV - A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals.
Neena Gupta in The Last Colour
But, when he came across an NPR story on Vrindavan's widows titled, For India's widows, a riot of color, an act of liberation, he returned to his short story and decided to hire an agent, who told him that the story needed a narrator. But the universe, the wily ways of which Khanna believes in, had another plan, and it started with a tragedy. In 2015, his father, Davinder Khanna, passed away. "I couldn't believe the news. I told my sister-in-law, 'you are joking!' Dad handled everything for me, my contracts, paper work. I am terrible at handling money. I went into hiding."
After putting all projects he had on hand on hold, he found himself in Varanasi, cut off from the world except for contact with his mother, Bindu. He would spend his days ambling in the streets, and nights, sleeping on a boat on the Ganga. It was here that he met a girl, who walked the tightrope, a drama commonly played out on India's streets. She told him that with the money she made, she would go to school, and become a police woman. She wanted to escape the trouble she got into with the police. Khanna had found his narrator. "My boatman told me that I had to tell the story of the girl. She was the daughter of Ganga, and I might have an old debt to pay the holy river. The universe had led me here," Khanna says, overwhelmed.
The story of the Last Colour is about the uncommon friendship between a widow, played by Neena Gupta, and a little girl, who vows to colour her on Holi. She can't fulfill her promise, but leads a movement that promises to reform their lives. Khanna has directed and written the film, composed the music and designed the costume for the film that has been four years in the making. "I don't know where it all came from!" he laughs, "I would type, 'qualifications required to be a music director' and search Google. I didn't know anything!"
Aqsa Siddiqui in The Last Colour
And that's ironical because those who watch it and give it a standing ovation, including at a recent screening at the UN, don't believe it is made by a first timer whose real talent lies in the kitchen.
Khanna can sense he has won us over with his genuine positivity. He is no stranger to adulation, especially from women. But he accept attention gracefully and says modestly, "I am grateful for the love I get from women of all ages. I feel it's about taking food to the next level, and they all gravitate towards that. I try and share my story with them."
As he waits for the film to hit streaming sites, he has begun work on his next feature, but he won't tell much. "It's fun to work in secret."
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