For centuries in India, Hindu widows have been cast aside, sent to live in ashrams, and denied access to even the most universal of celebrations, like the bright devotions of Holi, the festival of colors. For master chef Vikas Khanna, that injustice – and the societal pressures reversing that cruelty – was the inspiration behind his first film as a director.
Khanna originally set The Last Color in Vrindavan, the childhood home of Krishna and site of the most important Holi celebrations. But he found more personal resonance in Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, which he visited after his father died. "I needed some time to reflect on a few issues in my life," Khanna said, but he soon became engaged and enraged by the suffering of others written off as untouchable – the lowest of the low in India's ancient and repressive caste system. He saw a young girl in the street, trying to buy some chai from a street vendor. The man harangued her, and Khanna intervened. "I did get into a verbal argument with the chai seller," he said, but he quickly realized that this was about more than one innocent and one bully. "A truck driver spat chewed betel leaves on a street child and she did not even react. When I asked her, she said they do it all the time. It brought me to tears."
The people of Varanasi permeated what would become The Last Color. "All the characters are inspired by real people I had met during my research," Khanna said. Like the young tightrope walker who risked her life above the streets to earn enough money so she could go to school and become a police officer: Her experience illuminated his central character, the orphaned Chhoti (Aqsa Siddique), and her best friend Chintu (Rajeswar Khanna). Or Munna, a transgender woman who lived on the riverbank. "She protected street kids from abuse. I love and respect her so much," said Khanna.
Yet it was a simple movement that inspired the character of Noor, the widow who has endured so much and is denied even the smallest pleasure. In 2011, the Michelin-star-winning Khanna was working on what may well be his masterwork as a food writer, the 1200-page UTSAV: A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals. The book looks at Indian food through the lens of religious celebration, and so he visited Vrindavan during Holi. He recalled, "I saw an elderly woman standing on [the] sidewalk in pure white sari in the middle of riots of colors, disallowed to be a part of the festivity. It broke my spirit. As I passed by, she gently bowed." As he flew back to New York that day, he said, "I wrote about the glow on her face, the pain, the gratitude her eyes had in middle of the injustices and prejudices."
The power of the true stories behind his film demanded authenticity from the performers, and Khanna found two actors in particular that brought their own weight and experience to the story. He auditioned 29 transgender actors for the part of Anarkali, the homeless woman who befriends Chhoti, but finally chose Rudrani Chettri, a political activist and founder of India's first transgender modeling agency. When she came to the audition, she was wearing makeup and jewelry, but Khanna encouraged her to strip off those trappings. He recalled telling her, "I think your eyes are so powerful without all the ornaments and your soul shines through them. We will have you in the movie without any makeup."
As the widow Noor (the name meaning "light" in Punjabi), he cast Indian acting legend Neena Gupta, who broke taboos in the 1980s by becoming a single mother and using her fame to help normalize her decision. He credits her with giving heart to Noor, such as in a key scene in which Chhoti asks to call her mother. "Neena ji was practicing the scene with me and she said, 'Let me just turn back and not answer. No dialogue.' When we did the first take and the room was in full silence as she turned back to Chhoti, we all had moist eyes. She later told me that silence is a very powerful tool. Her strength is her silence and staying strong."
The Last Color screens at Indie Meme Film Festival Fri., April 26, 6:30pm @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35. Director Vikas Khanna will be in attendance. Tickets and info at www.indiememe.org.
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