After travelling the world and garnering acclaim, Neena Gupta and chef-film director Vikas Khanna have brought their maiden collaboration The Last Color to Indian cinema halls. “It’s a very strange feeling for me because I don’t intend on having any children, but I feel if ever I have a kid, this would be the feeling when I take my baby to meet mom,” Vikas describes The Last Color’s homecoming.
In this interview with indianexpress.com, Neena Gupta and Vikas Khanna talk about creating the world of The Last Color.
As a debut filmmaker, was it a difficult choice to take the film to the big screen amid the pandemic? Didn’t the OTT option look more appealing?
Vikas: No. The film was supposed to release on Holi this year. But the pandemic happened, and after that, I had no breathing space because of Feed India. But I was very clear about the release strategy because the number of jobs that you create when you release a film in theatres was the bigger priority for me. And I am happy about taking that risk.
How did you react to The Last Color when you first heard the script and what was it like to be in the world of The Last Color?
Neena: It is a very emotional story, and it’s written and directed emotionally. It’s a film made from the heart. I didn’t know a lot about the child widows in Vrindavan and Varanasi. So, when I did scenes showing the life they lived, it started affecting my performance, both physically and emotionally.
As you mentioned, you didn’t know a lot about these women and the restricted life that they were living. As a woman, how did you react to this world?
Neena: I knew a little about it. Like Vikas always says that in our houses and neighbourhood you see that they (widows) don’t go for weddings and don’t wear any colour. I knew that beforehand. But I will tell you something. When I got into that white dhoti, wore torn slippers and went to the ghats, it just used to happen.
I didn’t have to plan my body language. It came automatically when I wore the clothes.
Anyways, I get very affected by women’s situation all over the world, whether it’s about widows or anything else. In my mind, I have made several documentaries on them. I feel very bad about it. So, it was not something totally new that women’s condition was bad, but there were (still) a lot of things that I learnt from there.
Did you choose The Last Colour as a directorial debut for a particular reason or did you become a director to especially tell this story?
Vikas: Like Neena ji, have I ever followed anyone’s path? (Laughs) Everybody expected it to be a food movie and that Neena ji would play a chef. But the surprise element in the film was so strong. We were touching a delicate subject, and we had to do full justice to it.
As a first time director, were there apprehensions or a fear as to how would the story be received by people?
Vikas: Neena ji, please answer this because I am totally new in this business. It is inspired by a true event.
Neena: Vikas, even when it’s true, problem arises. Vikas has efficiently handled a lot of sensitive details in the film. He has been subtle about it. He has said a lot without really showing anything. So, Vikas took many precautions because he is a sensitive person. We have dealt with it very nicely, and we are honest about it. Everybody is entitled to their point of view.
What went through your mind when you took the script to Neena Gupta? Did you fear not being taken seriously because while you are a celebrated chef, this was your first time as a filmmaker.
Vikas: I had taken Neena ji’s number from Mr Anupam Kher, and he told me one thing about her. “Neena is emotions and instincts. She will decide on instinct. She is unlike how it’s typically done where we read a screenplay, and then our managers would give you a call after a month. So go fully prepared. She is too intuitive. She has rebuilt her entire empire so she can catch cracks.”
So, I went with the full screenplay, but when I reached there, it was a night shift of Badhaai Ho! and she was looking tired. So, I felt that I should make the meeting happen fast so that she doesn’t go to sleep. But she was so patient. She did not blink, and paid full attention.
She is like a child who is being taught something. She will take notes. And I didn’t know if she is reacting to my script or not, but then she said, “This film I will definitely do. Tell me the dates.” That’s the only thing she asked me.
What was your impression of Vikas? Did his public image of a chef ever make you doubt his ability to tell a story when he came to narrate The Last Color to you?
Neena: I never had any preconceived notion about him. I had heard about him that he was a Michelin chef and that he has written books. In my film career, I have done a lot of people’s first films. So, to me, first, second or third doesn’t matter. The script matters.
I also had to do some horrible films that I didn’t want to do, but I needed money. I used to pray that these films don’t release. So, I have done those kind of films too. Like he said, I have an emotional intuition.
Recently, somebody told me that there was this very nice role and I said, “No, no. I am not going to play this.” So, my manager asked me to at least listen to the script and reject it if I still don’t like it. I went into it quite reluctantly.
The director finished narrating the story and I said, “When do you want to do it?” The same happened with The Last Color. He narrated and I saw his passion. You get to know a person when he is talking. I knew Vikas knew what he was doing and what he wanted from me. And most importantly, I loved the script and my role.
So, would you say that you have come so far as an artiste and a person based on your emotionally-driven choices?
Neena: No. Because of that, I also suffered a lot. I took some wrong decisions. That was a different time when I didn’t know the business. Now, when Vikas opens up a restaurant, he understands how the business works. When I came, I had no understanding of what kind of role I should not do.
At that time, the mind used to think differently, that even if you don’t like a character, see how big the director, the producer and your co-star are. So, you should do it as you will benefit from it in the future. But nothing like that happens. There was no one to guide.
So, those emotional and intuitive decisions were actually not emotional and intuitive. They were circumstantial. I needed money. I was calculating that if I do this, then that would happen. It wasn’t that if I didn’t like the script, I could say no. I couldn’t! Had I taken emotional or intuitive decisions, I would have been fine! (Laughs)