The Last Color movie review: Vikas Khanna's picturesque film has the right intent, but not much else
If each dish is a scene, the lavish seven-course meal that is The Last Color seems to arrive in the wrong order.
This review was originally published after the screening of The Last Color at the New York Indian Film Festival 2019. It is being republished in view of the film's Indian release on 11 December.
Vikas Khanna might seem like a jack of all trades from a distance, but up close, he has mastered a number of them. He is a Michelin-star chef and world-renowned TV host, has written 30-something books, and his documentary Kitchens of Gratitude premiered at Festival de Cannes, and was even showcased at the White House.
His varied skills finally coalesce in The Last Color, his first narrative feature based on his book of the same name. It's a picturesque work, filled to the brim with meaning and heartwarming intent, though sadly, it also appears to be where Khanna finally meets his match — for the time being, at least.
Written in dedication to Khanna’s own mother, the film is about Noor (Neena Gupta), an exiled elderly widow living a life of white-clad solitude in a Varanasi ashram, and the uncanny and, at times, liberating friendship she forms with Chhoti (Aqsa Siddiqui), a nine-year-old “untouchable” tightrope walker. It also happens to be about a dozen other things. Some are relevant to the main characters — Chhoti wants to raise enough money to go to school, though doing so means navigating a world of caste oppression — while others are less so, falling on the shoulders of supporting characters that feel disconnected from Chhoti and Noor. Khanna hopes to touch on every issue near and dear to his heart, from sex trafficking to police violence (not to mention a litany of smaller, more specific traditions that marginalise women), though he seldom weaves these mores into the fabric of his story.
The framing device in the film, which bookends its main plot, centers an adult Chhoti as she returns to Varanasi after defeating a regressive law preventing widows from celebrating Holi (based on the real-life 2012 Supreme Court case). While Khanna eventually peppers this introduction with hints of nostalgia, the opening minutes are already bogged down with straight-to-the-camera exposition from reporters explaining legal jargon and other minutiae.
For a film dripping with symbols and powerful ideas — the contrast of widows’ ghostly white with the bustling colour of Holi is especially potent — The Last Color is too often held back by the literal, the factual, and the logistical. This juxtaposition of colour appears just once as an actual contrast onscreen. For the rest of the runtime, it's relegated to a half-baked motif that characters rarely, if ever, mention (let alone observe).
A culinary metaphor feels apt for Khanna’s cinematic concoction. Each dish is impeccably plated; every scene is filled with frames and movements that exudes allure and purpose. But the ingredients don’t quite mix, and don’t sit well in the stomach. Each shot carries immense power on its own, but the way they’re cut together rarely creates coherent meaning — each bite leaves a funny aftertaste.
And if each dish is a scene, the lavish seven-course meal that is The Last Color seems to arrive in the wrong order.
Like the best meals, films evoke memories, but the story here feels jumbled and repetitive. Siddiqui is a firecracker as Chhoti, and her playful dynamic with a world-weary Neena Gupta is a marvel to behold. But after a minor hesitance on Noor’s part before she first touches Chhoti, the duo’s scenes soon plateau. They exchange thoughts, dreams and personal histories — on paper, their mutual understanding as marginalised people is touching — but rare are the moments where their story has forward momentum. They frequently allude to other characters who are off performing their own, often unrelated tasks, but these supporting players merely veer in and out of Noor and Chhoti’s orbits between their conversations, which begin to feel like scheduled appointments after the third or fourth sit-down.
Chhoti has a best friend Chintu (Rajeswar Khanna), who you could practically excise from the film and lose little of emotional value. Though Chintu also forms a logistical bridge between several key plot points, as does Anarkali (Rudrani Chettri), a trans woman and sex worker who takes Chhoti under her wing, so their presence feels like an awkward Catch-22. Both Anarkali and Chintu have to face the wrath of local police chief Raja (Aslam Sheikh), as do Raja’s wife and mother. But after a while, the film has hopped so many degrees of separation away from its main characters that it becomes entirely unfocused. Few of its sprawling subplots are tethered to Chhoti and Noor beyond the vagaries of injustice; the film's tapestry is realistic, but it’s out of tune with the abstract melody Khanna tries to play with his story of dreams unrealised.
However, where The Last Color feels as meticulously prepped as Khanna’s kitchens is in his partnership with cinematographer Subhransu. While the dialogue seldom dramatises the film’s lofty themes, the way the characters are framed positions them within the larger communities they’re a part of. In the moments they feel free, they’re also still shackled by tradition; Chhoti emerges from the Ganga, but she has to navigate floating diyas on all sides; she and Noor stand beside the flowing water, but they’re often separated from it, whether by the bows of boats or the boundaries of concrete steps.
The camera sweeps over the vibrant landscape before returning to the stillness and colorlessness imposed on Noor. When characters move, the frame places them between living, breathing elements in the background and foreground — smoke and fire, thrown colour, strewn flowers, and so on — but just as often, it traps them between iron poles or behind concrete balconies. As soon as free-flowing freedom feels within their grasp, they’re boxed back in by their harsh surroundings.
Khanna has a keen eye for imagery, though the ultimate irony of The Last Color is that the real-life photograph it ends on — a group of widows celebrating Holi for the first time, their white saris drenched in pink, and their faces stamped with radiant joy — feels more impactful than any edit or juxtaposition during the actual film. You could reassemble its striking images in practically any order, and you’d end up with a similar aesthetic experience. The film’s heart is in the right place, but touching anyone else’s feels like a chasm too wide to cross.
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