DIFF 2019 Interview with Vikas Khanna

Many know Vikas Khanna as a Michelin star chef, a judge on MasterChef India, or for his work as a humanitarian. However, this well-known restaurateur is now making headlines with his directorial debut The Last Color, a powerful narrative about India’s Supreme Court decision to overturn a law that prohibits widows from celebrating Holi. Drawing from his own life’s experiences and driven by the need to tell honest stories, Khanna addresses misogyny, India’s caste system, and the importance of advocacy in this touching film.

Jitin Hingorani, Khanna’s PR manager for The Last Color, invited me to join them on the eighth floor of the Canopy Hotel for a private reception. With the Dallas skyline as our backdrop, I asked Khanna about the similarities between the restaurant industry and the film industry, India’s rich culture, and why The Last Colorresonates with so many people.

LT: Having a cooking background, do you find any parallels between cooking and filmmaking? Because I’m not a Michelin chef, but as a photographer I always try to plate my meals as well as I frame my shots.

VK:More than the plating and the framing, I think it’s so much about the team. If you look at the kitchen, we train almost twelve hours. The prep, the purchase, the mise en place, everything. It’s for hours and hours to serve the three minutes of that meal. The food is coming to you—the searing, the oven, and then to you with all the plating. I realized movie making is exactly the same. To prepare for one shot, you work hours and hours. I think that’s amazing, that filmmaking and kitchen operation is almost the same thing. The preparation time is so high, and shooting that one clip is five minutes. And then editing of that clip is another point when you garnish, when you trim it. It’s so similar and there’s so many people involved. And when this is happening, you need to let go. You can’t be controlling all the parameters. It’s going to be rain and then it’s going to be a dog running into the frame and it’s going to be the actress forgetting her scenes, a child breaking down. It’s exactly what happens in the kitchen. I’m like, this is so similar, I’m going to make a movie now! (laughs)

LT: And it’s interesting because you had said you didn’t even want to take credit for this movie. You were like, “I didn’t do this. God did this.” So, would you say that your first experience making a film was smoother than you had anticipated or was it still tumultuous?

VK:I only remember the worst days of shoot. Do you remember that shot where that lady’s coming out of the stepwell? And there are hundreds and hundreds of lamps lit everywhere? It took us two days to shoot. I didn’t want to give up. I said, “You know what? If there is a higher power who thinks that this story is so significant, of a family pushing a daughter-in-law to have a son, that’s not right.” We should grace any child who is born with great anticipation and respect and love.”

LT: And education.

VK:And education, which the movie leads to. I think I had too much faith in the movie, even [Valley of the Fireflies, Khanna’s second film]. I have too much faith in the people of it, the ones in front of the camera. More than I have ever had any faith in me. And I’m really not very good, I know that. I get very impatient, I get very intolerant of mistakes. But when you’re working with children, you have to let go. That little girl, when you see her in the first scene, she goes, “Oh, you got this money from gambling.” Chintu says, “No. I got it from the riverbank.” Chhoti says, “Liar. You gambled and we lost all the money. All the kids will go to school and not me.” And something unique happened: a monkey came and sat right between them. My line producer was like, “Get the monkey out of the scene!” I was like, “Shut up. Just shut up!” I’m saying this because I don’t want to distract the children. The way [Chhoti] jumps down and goes out of the frame and the monkey keeps eating…I thought, “This girl’s going to look back and…” I said, “This is gone. This scene will not work.” And I wanted a single shot, I didn’t want edits. As you see, most of the scenes are huge and long takes. The monkey’s sitting behind the children and they’re not noticing it. We’re all like, “Oh God, there’s a monkey right there!”

But I think that’s the beauty of cinematography and when you let go and say, “You know what? I did my best to make this dish. Now it’s in your hands. May you nourish your soul with it.” That’s something I learned with filmmaking. In the kitchen I’m overcontrolling and I’m not very good. I destroy everyone’s moods, and in this you can’t do that because the kids are like, “Okay, you know what? Screw this film, I’m not going to do it.” And they can walk away!

LT: She could leave production, yeah.

VK:She could be like, “I’m not going to act for this movie. You people treat me bad.” What would I do with my temperament in the kitchen? I could be like, “Get the hell out of here, I don’t want to see you. You’re an absolute misfit.” You throw them out, do their work in the evening shift, and in the morning you hire someone else. But here is not possible! That person is the absolute face of the movie, you cannot let them go. In the kitchen, we’re like, “Okay, I see you being terrible to guests and you do this intentionally and I can’t afford that. You need to leave.”

LT: It’s interesting you say that because with Chhoti, you were in the classroom to meet these kids and she already wanted to leave. She was hungry!

VK:That’s amazing. She’s like, “Yeah, I don’t want to stay here.”

LT: And so you knew you had to have her, but you also had to reign in that impatience to keep her.

VK:Yeah, kids do that. They’re not going to act. “I’m not going to do this. I need to go home. I’m cranky, I’m sleepy.” Here, hundreds of people are working to clear the riverbank and we can’t have the girl saying, “I’m leaving.”

LT: Just shut down production.

VK:Shut down production. And this does happen. One day she was not in the mood and she wanted to rest, but the riverbank was already cleared. (laughs)

LT: (laughs) Everyone’s cleared the way and she’s like, “No.”

So, India is such a vibrant country and you had mentioned, “I want to capture the spirit of India, the freedom that the colors offer.” Were you ever intimidated by that, this big goal?

VK:Yes, yes. I was.

LT: How did you handle that?

VK:I was very intimidated by the last scene. Every time I began writing the last scene, I would break down. Something would happen to me. Actually, not the last scene, the scene before that, when Chhoti is running to keep her promise. Everybody was like, “It’s impossible to shoot.” It was a two day shoot, making that girl walk on the rope. Do you know how big that frame was? And [Chintu] had to keep pulling it. God bless these kids. I think the worst thing and best thing that has happened to me is not budging. She had to throw the color in real time and it had to fall in the right place. If we missed it, the whole thing had to happen again. Neena was laying flat. She was patient like anything. I told her, “Why don’t you take a nap? We’ll get you at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Because the sun was too sharp and Aqsa Siddique, who played Chhoti, had to practice walking on the tightrope. Aqsa did a very good job shooting. She was amazing, actually.

LT: Piggybacking off that question, you had mentioned in previous interviews that The Last Color, at its core, is a very simple story. How did you find a balance between telling this simple story with the complexities of India and all the age-old traditions that came with that history?

VK:I was very clear that, if I’m getting into a movie production, it can’t be that I’m making commercial cinema. I can’t be making it to be famous. I just worried that the message and victory was going to seem so small to people. That victory was huge. I just wanted to lead up to that moment. When Chhoti escapes after splashing the color, people forget that there was a story that started in the beginning. That moment is so precious to them, like, “Oh, how far she came! That little girl is so brave.” I just feel love does that to people.

LT: And it was such a triumph. To have that come full circle and then remind us that “Hey, this is a flashback. And now look at her. She’s on the Supreme Court and she’s holding [Noor’s] book and now she’s celebra—”

VK:The book is a real story, actually. My grandfather left his book in Arabic for me. I can’t read it, but I will pay the entire world just to own that piece of literature. I remember his finger trying to read that poetry and translating it to me. Most of the people who lived in my part of the world, they only spoke urdu before India and Pakistan got divided. And then the punjabi language became prevalent. Before the partition, everyone wrote in urdu and spoke urdu, but that’s not the national language of Pakistan. My grandfather only wrote in urdu, he did not know other languages of India. And he left a book for me, which I can never read in my life. But I love not knowing it. I remember his finger as it would move on those pages and the crumpling and the smell and the seasons it has lived. That book connects me to so many memories, so let there be a book [in the film.]

LT: You had mentioned during the Q&A, and even right now, that a lot of the elements in The Last Colorare tied to your life in so many ways. With your aunt, with your trip, with the people you meet. Was it hard for you to decide, “When I’m writing this, how much of myself do I want to put in it? How much investment, how personal do I want it to be?”

VK:Very hard. There was no limitation to that. That incident in the restaurant is real. But it was not a restaurant in India, it was a restaurant in New York, where they refused to serve me after 9/11. Because I looked so much like someone they misunderstood, they refused to serve me food. They said, “The kitchen is closed.” I came out and I threw the money. I’m like “Bullshit!” My skin is always going to be standing in between me and what I want to do and what I am. I really want to show the pain of being in the restaurant, in a public space, or in any place on the planet where we don’t welcome people. Mother Teresa used to say that the worst feeling a human being ever receives in life is being unwelcomed.

LT: Yeah. And throughout the movie, both of them are so unwelcomed throughout so to have that sense of support in each other, like, “Okay, they’re not going to serve us. Let’s go. Forget about it.” That was really special because [Noor] didn’t stand for that type of treatment.

Last question: in a former interview, you stated that this was your most organic work yet. Why did you say that? Why did you use that word?

VK:Because when the movie was being created, we did not know that things would snowball. I’m seeing how the work of destiny is working on the movie right now. Some people just don’t know how to get over the movie. Some people find it very hard. Some people in Palm Springs, I remember all night they were sending me emails from the festival and said, “We just were so moved by the bravery of that girl. That character, may she always live and thrive.” People got so close to the girl, it was unbelievable.

This interview has been edited for clarity.