In the words of French artist Fernand Leger, ‘Man needs colour to live; it’s just as necessary an element as fire and water’, then why are some, bound by customs, deprived of colours in their lives? A husband’s death often takes everything away from his widow including her identity and in some cases, especially in rural India, the right to be what she wants to, how she wishes to lead her life and what ‘colour’ she wants to wear.
Some parts of our country are still clinging on to these regressive customs when it comes to a Hindu widowed woman — she is compelled to live a life devoid of colours and shringar and white colour (saree) becomes her garb. While a widow no more throws herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, life is no cake walk for her, especially if she is financially dependent, uneducated, or disowned by her family.
Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna, who penned the book The Last Color, based on the lives of such widows in Varanasi, recently showcased the first look of his directorial venture based on this book at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. Written and directed by Vikas, the film is a poignant story of promises, resilience, love and friendship, the inimitable human spirit unfolding on the banks of Ganga. Veteran actress Neena Gupta plays one of the lead characters in the movie, along with real life street children playing other characters after undergoing a two-month training.
Tell us about this shift from ruling the kitchen to writing and then directing films. How was the experience?
It was challenging. Doing something that I have never done before and choosing a sensitive topic is difficult, but I am really looking forward to it. Filmmaking is the most difficult form of storytelling, but also the most effective. When you are in the kitchen, you can do things on repeat mode but when you are working on a set, the effect of the film stays with you for the rest of your life.
Give us a peek into your book and the film. What thoughts went into writing the book and making a film out of it?
My book revolves around the Supreme Court order against an age-old tradition of not allowing widows in Vrindavan to play Holi. I wrote this book in 2011 when I was shooting in Vrindavan, and I found this story so compelling that I could not resist telling it to the world. Honestly, while writing the book, the idea of making a film out of it never occurred to me, nor did I have the time for it. I realised it later how much the subject meant to me and I was convinced that nobody would be as close to the story as I was. A lot of research went into this. I visited ashrams in Varanasi and Vrindavan to understand the culture, the tradition, so that I can deliver what the audience should know.
The film features veteran actress Neena Gupta in one of the lead roles. Tell us about the choice of the characters.
Well Neenaji was the obvious choice to play Noor. I had auditioned many children through agencies, schools, NGOs etc, but when I went to Zeenat Mahal School, New Delhi, I truly respected the energy of the principal Meena Kumariji. She was so encouraging for the girls and that reflected in the confidence of her students. There we did several auditions and then we met Aqsa Siddiqui. She was our Chhoti. She is the topper of her class and is a very bright girl. She went through a lot of workshops before, and during the shoot.
Her innocence, brilliance and spontaneity were very inspiring for the crew. We used to take her to the ghats to observe and talk to the children and understand their energy. She picked up the role very genuinely.
What is the significance of the ‘colour’ in the film and book and the life of Noor and other widows. Why is it called ‘the last color’?
The word ‘colour’ holds a great significance in the life of Noor and other widows. In fact, colours play a significant role in our lives as well. Talking about my life, it is all about colour in the form of spices and vegetables. Even the thought of someone taking that privilege away from me, drives me crazy. The movie is based on the friendship between a young tight-rope walker and a widow named Noor in Vrindavan; ‘the last color’ lays emphasis on one last wish of Noor and other widows to play Holi like Radha, Lord Krishna’s love.
Do the book and film aim to throw light on more such age-old traditions the society imposes on widows?
My film is about girl education and girl empowerment. During my research, I was drawn to stories of some widows who were not playing Holi. Noor and other widows wanted to play Holi, but they could not as they are held back by tradition. Yes, it is an attempt to bring focus to the rigid traditions. I started working on the story in 2011 when I learnt about this. One of them reminisced, “Aarey bachpan mein toh main Radha ki tarah Holi khelti thi (as a child, I would play Holi like Radha)” and those words have haunted me since, so I wrote this piece of fiction imagining the glorious change that would come about if they were allowed to celebrate the festival of colours too.