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Making a splash in all hues

In an interview with Chethana Dinesh, celebrated chef Vikas Khanna talks about his journey from the kitchen to the camera.

Vikas Khanna is best known as the adorable chef with a Michelin star, a restaurateur, and a cookbook writer. That, apart from dishing out delectable fare, he has also penned the bestseller, The Last Color, and directed a movie by the same name based on his book is news to many. The movie, The Last Color, starring veteran actor Neena Gupta, has been making waves in the film festival circuit since its world premiere at the prestigious Palm Springs International Film Festival, California, US in January.

The plot of the 1-hour-26-minute film, which Vikas Khanna likes to describe as “a very simple story capturing the richness of India,” revolves around the lives of widows in Vrindavan.

The celebrated chef talks about his journey from the kitchen to the camera. Excerpts:

What describes you best: chef, author or filmmaker?

Don’t know, and I don’t think that it really matters as long as I stay inspired and create new forms of art in the shape of Indian cuisine or movies or documentaries or books. 

Was directing, in any form, similar to cooking?

Managing a Michelin-star kitchen and making a movie seem very similar to me. Both begin with a vision, the creation of a team, and the hiring of leaders or stars. Both also involve lots of preparation, purchases, and execution. And finally, the moment of truth when a director says “action” or the line cooks begin to cook the dish. So much preparation for that one frame or plate! 

What about filmmaking excited you?

The power of the screen, and the sheer revolution it can bring about. I think watching the works of Neeraj Ghaywan, Anurag Kashyap, Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair is what excited me the most. There was something magical about their works. Nothing is real, yet everything is real. 

What was your experience directing a film?

I tried to hire a lot of directors for my script, but everyone advised me to do it myself as I was very passionate about the story. I also had to face a lot of challenges right from the beginning — from choosing the cast to assembling the team. However, the most important part was to convince myself that I can do it. I used to tell myself every morning that I can do it, and that I have challenged myself in the past. My mind and heart had to be aligned very deeply. 

Being a first-time director working with an experienced actor like Neena Gupta. How was the reception?

She is the goddess of acting. She trusted me a lot with the storyboard and that gave me a lot of confidence. I still remember the two-minute single shot when Neenaji was looking into the mirror and doing an imaginary makeup. We were shooting in a very tiny bathroom and were totally involved as she performed. After the shot, she suddenly turned back and asked, “Was it okay?” I almost had a heart attack with shock as I was so engrossed in her performance that I had almost forgotten she was there, for real. The moment I said “action”, she became Noor. She also helped me a lot with her suggestions on improvising the scenes. 

Any challenges you had to face while directing the film?

Yes. Millions. As we shot on real locations, we had to deal with the issues of crowd, lighting, travel logistics, sound, and the like. We shot a part of the movie at sunrise. I think the greatest challenge any filmmaker faces is the reception for his story. Once everyone around me was equally passionate about the story, all the challenges seemed very tiny. 

Being a Michelin-star chef, what propelled you to write fiction, and then direct a film?

In one word, “inner call”. I have always listened to it. I think art and artists should not be boxed. We get only one life. It’s okay to experiment a lot, fail a lot. We should be very passionate when we hear the inner voice. Probably this has been the first time in history when an established chef has taken a different path. I am very sure of the fact that once you see the movie, you will be convinced of its organic quality, originality and rustic feel. 

You wear several hats with elan. How do you manage your time?

When I landed in the US, I knew I had to stay very focused and work hard. I think that required a lot of discipline and time management. Even now, I generally work for almost 18 to 20 hours a day as I believe in advance prep for my creations. 

Your best moments as director...

When I was behind the camera shooting a dance sequence with Neenaji and Aqsa in the frame during sunrise. It was a strange moment. The Ganges, Mom on phone sitting on the steps, Neenaji, and the music Har Har Gange. I felt that the Universe had created that particular moment for me. It was surreal. 

What would you like people to take away from the film?

Originality. Compassion. Entertainment. Victory of education. The entire movie has a theme — that change can be brought about only by education and acceptance. 

Your favourite fiction title?

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie.

Movies you have watched over and over again...

Masaan, The Shawshank Redemption, and DDLJ

What next?

A lot has been going on right now with new restaurants, books in the making, and finding new ways to tell the story of the victory of the human spirit.

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