Vikas Khanna Discusses Barefoot Empress: “We Can’t Be Impatient With Change”

Barefoot Empress
Following his film The Last Color, Indian American chef, writer, filmmaker and humanitarian Vikas Khanna will release a new documentary based on the life of Karthyayani Amma called Barefoot Empress. Amma grabbed the headlines in 2018 after winning the top spot in the Kerala State Literacy Mission Authority’s Aksharalaksham (KSLMA) literacy examination with a 98 out of 100.

In his most recent work, Vikas Khanna tells the inspiring tale of Karthyayani Amma, a legendary figure in Kerala. It depicts her unwavering determination and fighting spirit as she sets her sight on pursuing education and succeeds in passing her fourth-grade examinations at 96. Khanna hopes that this film will set a tone for conversation around girls’ education and the ecosystem at the local level.

In an Interview with SheThePeople, chef-turned-filmmaker Vikas Khanna discusses his film.

Khanna got to know about Karthyayani Amma through social media. He believes that social media is just like a fire. Whether it is good or bad depends on how you use it. He says, “it depends on how much you can control and how much you’re ready to be a part of that ecosystem. Do you attract that gravity? Of course, we get trolled. Of course, we get negative people all the time. But again, how you use it.”

Amma’s story of achieving formal education at the age of 96 tells us that it’s never too late to dream and work on your dreams. Sharing his experience about the movie, Khanna says, “The movie started from a very intimidating point of view, for when I started shooting this, there was so much scepticism, even in my team. Why am I putting so much energy, time, and money into going to a place which almost takes 24 hours for me to go one way? Why are you doing it? I said because I see my grandmother in her.”

Don’t give up on your dreams

We’ve had a whole generation of Indian women who were never allowed access to their dreams. They had to follow the norms of society, and that’s what Amma did. He asks, “But how many of them, at the age of 96, got the opportunity to do something and embraced it?”

Khanna believes you cannot be entitled and must work hard. He adds, “I feel that the story is so universal of people not giving up on their dreams. Some say you’re putting so much energy and time into something, and we don’t know how long she will live. The universe gave this story to me because the universe trusted me to do it wholeheartedly. And imagine she’s 100 years old as we release the movie. She’s 100 years old now.” Amma dreams of studying up to grade 10. 

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Amma’s journey also highlights the aspect that women have been traditionally marginalised and not given access to basic things such as education and healthcare like menstrual products or reproductive healthcare. So can education and financial independence uplift the status of women in India?

Khanna shares, “when you’ve been just put at the receiving end, there’s a chance that you’re subjected to this brutality, destroying your self-esteem and ego, and your dreams are all crushed.”

We cannot be impatient with change

There is also a common thread in his two films The Last Color and Barefoot Empress. The Michelin star-winning chef has put a widow at the story’s centre. Widowhood, however, remains a stigma in the country. So what kind of conversations should we have, at the household level, at a family level, to break the stigma?

Khanna has been spotlighting women’s issues since 2011. He says, “You cannot compare twelve years to thousands of years, and that conditioning has been happening for centuries.”

He believes you cannot be upset or impatient, saying that the change is not happening. The difference is happening very slowly, and the United Nations passed a bill. We cannot be impatient with change because we understand it comes from centuries of conditioning.

Khanna has written books, worked on TV shows, judged reality TV shows, directed films, and used storytelling to break stereotypes. He says, “I love to break stereotypes, and many other people are also doing that. Hard work and choosing the project are the key to this.”

Recollecting a special moment with Karthyayani Amma, he shares, “In Covid- 19, I was at home and not going back to Kerala, but when I went back to Kerala, she was crying. She said, ‘I waited for you and prayed for you every day.’ And I said, ‘That’s all I need. I told her I’d fly from LA to Kochi when I get the Oscar. She has a little shelf on her table where she places her awards, and I will come and put the Oscar there.’

The film Barefoot Empress is directed and written by Vikas Khanna and produced by Oscar-nominated Doug Roland.

Transcription by: Priya Prakash