With love from Banaras
“Wow, Neenaji, that’s quite a view with the hills”… “I love the chandelier behind you, Vikas…”… “I couldn’t keep my eyes off you in Masaba Masaba…”
Even the small talk is different – genuine, respectful. It almost makes me feel like I’m eavesdropping. But that’s what happens when two seasoned players who are masters in their respective fields come together for a project with a powerful message. For instance, Chef Vikas Khanna and actor Neena Gupta, who’ve come together to talk about the former’s directorial debut, The Last Color, which released in India this Friday.
A chance meeting on a flight five-and-a-half years ago right after Neena’s Threshold released, cemented their bond. “I only meet people in planes. I even met my husband on a plane,” laughs Neena.
Vikas had a complete fanboy moment, he confesses. “Bauji ki taraf se (like my grandfather),” he says, explaining how his grandfather, who wasn’t a film buff, was obsessed with the show Mirza Ghalib because he was a “die-hard fan” of Neena.
“He was in his ’80s, and was a Urdu and Persian poet and would say Neenaji has that ‘lehja (tone)’,” Vikas says, breaking off to ask if Neena remembers the ghazal Royenge Hum Hazaar Baar Koi Hame Sataye Kyun, before adding that his grandfather, who had dementia in his last few years, remembered Neena till the very end.
So, it was natural for the chef to inherit this love for Neena. “Neenaji has never followed a path and the younger generations admire that. When I was writing the script of The Last Color, I kept this still of hers from Threshold where she’s wearing a shawl. I wanted this look,” he says.
Chef, director, writer, spotboy etc.
Why pick a topic like the widows of Banaras for his debut movie? “All our lives, we who’ve grown up in small cities have seen this prejudice. Widows would have to wear white saris, were not allowed to touch children, be part of weddings or celebrate Holi. No one questioned it because when something becomes part of the culture, it’s very difficult to break that chain. When I saw the chain break on Holi, I knew I had to make this film,” the chef tells us.
Neena chooses a script only if it appeals to her and choosing this one was a no-brainer. The shoot, the veteran actor says, was unique, with chef Vikas donning multiple creative hats. “He would suddenly say wait and spread out five saris in the background before the shot,” laughs Neena, adding that she would nap every day for half an hour after lunch, in costume because Chef Vikas wanted to show the creases of a worn-out sari.
“There’s a scene where Chhoti and Neenaji fight, and we ran and got a huge lamp from a nearby temple. Everything was done on the spot. Literally,” Vikas explains.
“I’d see him sweeping the ghats. Someone would have pooped there and he would clean again. We didn’t have spotboys; it was all Vikas,” Neena says.
This also wasn’t a typical actor-director relationship. Neena improvised scenes, which helped the chef grasp nuances. “She said, don’t spoonfeed anyone. For example, when Chhoti (the nine-year-old flower seller and tightrope-walker who befriends her) asks Neenaji’s character if she can call her maa, Neenaji replaced the dialogue after that with a simple look, which made the scene much more powerful,” explains Vikas.
“Intuition actor ki bhi toh hoti hai, na (actors also have intuition, isn’t it? There’s a healthy give and take here,” smiles Neena.
So, did they swap recipes on set? “Vikas didn’t feed me a thing!” says Neena, to which a charmingly astounded Vikas says, “I cooked for you with my hands at the New York event. It took two days.”
“I meant, during the shoot. Anyway I don’t eat fancy food, only dal-chawal,” laughs Neena. But food helped the kids memorise their parts and Vikas made sure they had apple pie ever day.
This was the first time the chef saw the raw cut of a film. “I was like, what the hell have I made! I took a flight to Mumbai and spent a month editing it,” he says. After that, Neena tweaked a few things, which Vikas graciously calls the points in the movie ‘jahan pe taali bajti hai (where people clap)’.
“My husband was crying! And having a man watch a film about widows and cry speaks for itself,” Neena says.
The objective of activism
Some critics say this is not a movie; it’s activism. Vikas shrugs. “If I am picking up a subject then it has to lead to activism,” he says, giving the example of how Neena flew to the US for 24 hours for the UN screening of The Last Color and how her presence has today brought big reforms in Africa and India: the UN is launching microbanking for widows this coming week. “Activism toh hona chahiye (activism is a must)! Use your power to tell impactful stories,” says Vikas.
It’s an objective, Neena adds. “If you’re making a documentary or film without it, it will never work. I’ve always had something to say with whatever work I’ve done on TV – like extramarital relationships or empowerment.”
Even the timing of the release, which was supposed to hit theatres on Holi 2020, has a goal: To generate jobs during the pandemic.
“Creators, agencies and people at theatres get work. I don’t have to prove myself at the box office with Neenaji and she won’t be asking for numbers either like in commercial cinema. Even if we lose money, it’s going to many houses,” says the chef, who’s written his fourth book, set to release next year.
Chef Vikas’ lockdown lesson? Prioritising people. “I’ve lost too many people and been part of way too many Zoom prayer meetings,” he says, promising to make a video call to Neena from Times Square the minute the film releases.
Follow @Kkuenzang on Twitter and Instagram
From HT Brunch, December 13, 2020
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