In his first feature film The Last Color, writer/director Vikas Khanna tells a story at a time in India when Indian culture exiled its widows in the ashram and forbade them from participating in society. This unjust horror serves as a backdrop to a story of love and friendship between a widow and a young girl.
The Last Color takes place in 1991 in the city of Banaras at a time when Indian citizens began to push back (more nudge) against the caste system and political corruption. Khanna’s film focuses on the friendship of two women. First is the widow Noor (Neena Gupta) banished to the ashram and forced to wear a white saree as a badge of humiliation for her low position in society. She is not allowed to travel far from the ashram or converse with the locals. She is forbidden to display any color other than white. Noor keeps to herself as all widows at that time should.
Then there is a small girl named Chhoti (Aqsa Siddiqui). Chhoti is slang for “shorty.” She lives as an orphan on the streets of Banaras with her friend Chintu (Rajeshwar Khanna). Chhoti and Chintu earn money each day performing a tight rope act in the town square. The two are always in trouble with the local police chief Raja (Aslam Sheikh) as begging on the street is illegal.
“…free-spirited Chhoti decides that she must be friends with Noor and buys her a cup of tea.”
One morning Chintu mysteriously disappears, and in Chhoti’s search, she meets Noor. The free-spirited Chhoti decides that she must be friends with Noor and buys her a cup of tea. Chhoti insert herself into Noor’s sadness, and soon they become fast friends. The story ultimately leads to the town’s celebration of Holi, the festival of color. As a dumb Westerner, I understand this festival is marked by basically a “color fight” when participants play with bright and vibrant colors, often in the form of various colorful flower petals and powders. Widows, like Noor, are legally prohibited from participating in Holi, which doesn’t sit well with Chhoti.
At its core, The Last Color is a story of rebirth. For Noor, she lived a sheltered and inhibited life as a widow, and she finds new life thanks to the youthful, naïve Chhoti. Chhoti, on the other hand, sees the discrimination against the widows and decides that she must stand up for them.
Director Vikas Khanna does a fantastic job telling this story of love and friendship. This world-renowned chef-turned director has done his due diligence shooting with dramatic camera angles and lighting to produce a film that shows off the beauty and vibrant colors of Banaras as well as the plight of the two leads. Gupta’s portrayal of Noor grounds the seriousness of the story and elevates the performances of those around her. Aqsa Siddiqui is adorable as the tiny Chhoti. Her acting feels natural, which is hard to find in a child actor.
“…sweetness and believability to their friendship, which ends with a silent moment that will break your heart.”
On the downside, the scenes involving the corrupt authorities comes off as a little spaghetti western, making an odd contrast to the scenes of just Gupta and Siddiqui. The acting of the locals and other supporting characters do come off as a little stiff. Also, some of the events leading to the end particularly the tightrope escape are a little too fantastical thus tipping off that this may not be a true story.
The real enjoyment of The Last Color comes from the leads, Gupta and Siddiqui. The two are fun to watch and bring sweetness and believability to their friendship, which ends with a silent moment that will break your heart.
The Last Color is also a film of hope marking India’s shift in the way it treats its women, particularly the widows. In 2016, after years of litigation, India’s Supreme Court allowed widows to legally celebrate Holi without fear of retribution. Mind you, 2016 is not that long ago.
The Last Color (2019) Written and directed by Vikas Khanna. Starring Neena Gupta, Aqsa Siddiqui. Rajeshwar Khanna, Aslam Sheikh. The Last Color made its World Premiere at the 2019 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
7 out of 10 stars