Noted Indian chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Vikas Khanna is now a director and film writer. The former chef of Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Junoon, MasterChef India host, and, more notably, winner of Eater’s back-in-the-day hottest New York chef competition two years in a row, is premiering his first narrative film, The Last Color this week in Austin. It’s the opening night movie at Austin-based South Asian film festival Indie Meme screening today, Friday, April 26, at the Austin Film Society from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Last Color is about a nine-year-old girl who becomes friendly with a widow in the city of Varanasi, India, while navigating country’s oppressive patriarchal culture — in which widows, at the time, weren’t allowed to participate in the Hindu festival of Holi.
Khanna is familiar with filmmaking. He produced documentary series Holy Kitchens starting in 2010, and documentary film Kitchens of Gratitude in 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival, both of which covered the correlation of faith and food.
He drew inspiration for the movie based on real-life experiences and current events. First, he remembered seeing Hindu widows in the holy city of Vrindavan not being allowed to engage in the colorful festival of Holi (i.e. throwing colored powder on people) because they were treated as “untouchables. Later, he saw photos of widows finally participating in Holi with the support of an NGO. Then there was his encounter with a nine-year-old child who performed on a tightrope in India. He first combined these stories into a novel, which he adapted into a screenplay for the film.
“Color is everything,” Khanna told Eater, explaining why the chef decided to tell this story. “The ripeness, cooking stages, spices, herbs, how things get spoiled and the radiance of produce, it’s all about color.” This film was his way of bringing color to those who weren’t allowed to participate in color because of old traditions.
“Making a movie and managing a Michelin-starred kitchen seems a lot similar to me,” Khanna said. It “begins with a vision, creation of a team, hiring leaders or the stars, lots of preparations, purchasing, and execution. And, finally, the moment of truth when a director says ‘action’ or the line cooks begin to cook the dish.”
There’s a particularly touching scene in the film where the young main character Chhoti tried to buy samosas for herself and her widow friend Noor. As the child talked about her particular way of eating samosas (she likes the exterior with red chutney), they were kicked out of the restaurant the server didn’t want to be “impious by serving them,” as he explained.
Khanna was inspired to include that specific incident because of something that happened to him. While in New York after 9/11, he went to a cafe in the Tribeca area: “They politely asked me to leave saying that the kitchen was closed and that people around me were feeling very uncomfortable,” he said. “I still remember the feeling of being unwelcomed and unwanted, but these experiences shape you up and somehow echo in our work.”
While promoting this film, Khanna is opening a new Indian restaurant in Dubai. Kinara by Vikas Khanna will be found at the JA Resorts starting in early September. He’s also working on his third PhD on spices and global warming, which will lead to another new cookbook, Blossoms. And then there’s also another new book, “Sacred Foods of India,” which will cover foods served at holy places in the country. And then finally, there’s his next documentary too, Valley of Fireflies.
Khanna will attend the screening at Indie Meme as well, participating in a Q&A after the film.
- The Last Color [Indie Meme]