Mom’s chicken curry and Madhuri Dixit

How would you like to watch Hindi blockbusters and eat Indian food all day? That seems to be the delightful lifestyle Indian-American filmmaker and writer Sri Rao is blessed with! This Philadelphia native has taken two things which everyone loves – Indian food and Bollywood movies – and made a fun living out of them.

Rao, like many first-generation Indian-Americans, is the child of immigrants but instead of becoming a doctor or an engineer (like his father), he has a foot each in Bollywood and Hollywood, as a screenwriter and director. He’s sold over a dozen pilots to various television networks, including “Red White & Bollywood” (with Priyanka Chopra), “Courtesan” (with director Shekhar Kapur), “S.O.B.” (with Kelly Ripa), “Bollywood Spy” (with Ryan Seacrest), and “I Am Not Myself These Days” (with Darren Star). Rao produced the films “New York” and “Badmash Company” for Yash Raj Films, and also wrote the film “Baar Baar Dekho” in Bollywood.

He is the author of Bollywood Kitchen, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a sumptuous coffee table book about iconic Bollywood films matched with his recipes for Indian home food. As he writes, “Indian food is like Indian films – bold, colourful and way over the top.”

Sri Rao in the Geffen Stayhouse world premiere production of Bollywood Kitchen. Directed by Arpita Mukherjee. (Photo by Kyle Rosenberg)

In these pandemic times, Rao has transformed the kitchen of his New York apartment into live theatre and garnered an audience through virtual media on two continents. He’s starring in this one-man show ‘Bollywood Kitchen’, directed by Arpita Mukherjee of Hypokrit Theater Co., and commissioned by Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, running through March 7.

This show is the natural outcome of the interactive talks he used to give when he went on his book tour, combining them with museum visits and food receptions or hosting dinners at restaurants with Bollywood dancers and dance tutorials. “From the virtual world that we are living in, due to the pandemic, came the idea to turn that into a theatrical experience,” he told me in an interview. “The concept was of doing something directly from my home in Manhattan into other people’s homes and giving them the opportunity to cook along with me, as we presented the play. It’s not a cooking class, it’s not a cooking show – it’s actually a play, but it’s a play that involves food and music.”

Rao is the author of Bollywood Kitchen, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a sumptuous coffee table book about iconic Bollywood films matched with his recipes for Indian home food.

Indeed, Bollywood Kitchen is a hybrid interaction which just can’t be categorized because it involves Bollywood song and dance clips as well as people cooking live from Rao’s recipes on Zoom, from the ingredients, spices and recipes sent to them by mail.

“The response of the audience has been really great because I think people are looking for something different to do on a Friday or Saturday evening,” he says. “We’re all stuck inside our houses for almost a year now and we’re just looking for something different to do with our families, an experience to share.  This is a way to actually have a dinner party and meet new people all sharing the same experience!”

 

Sri grew up in Mechanicsburg, PA. His family was one of the few families of colour in the entire town. (Photo courtesy: Sri Rao)

 

Growing up as the child of immigrants,  he has both Indian cinema and Indian food built into his DNA. “For me, as for most first-generation Indian-Americans, food and films are our primary connection to a motherland we never knew,” he writes. “Indian culture is defined by both its calming spirituality and its joyful zest for life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the earthy spices of an Indian meal or the kitschy, colourful musical numbers of a Bollywood film.”

His parents arrived from India in Mechanicsburg, a suburb of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1985, bringing a tradition of food and film with them. “I fell in love with Bollywood movies and with American television at a very young age, it was my escape, my toy, really,” he recalls. He started writing at a very young age and that was all he wanted to ever do.

The next big thing on his plate is a drama series for Netflix – starring the one and only Madhuri Dixit. Rao is the creator and showrunner for this series which is being produced by Karan Johar.  Rao can’t tell us too much about it right now but ‘The Actress’ is a suspenseful family drama, a series role that he created specifically for the iconic Madhuri Dixit. They had started filming before the pandemic but he had to evacuate in March. The shooting resumed in November and Rao is participating remotely. ‘The Actress’ should be out the end of the year, so Madhuri Dixit fans have a lot to look forward to.

Meanwhile, Bollywood and Indian food fans can get a treat from watching the play Bollywood Kitchen which has delightful dance clips from some of the hot Bollywood films as well as recipes from Rao who has his own versions of popular home dishes.

A self-taught (and mom-taught) chef, he told me, “For the longest time the Indian food in restaurants was primarily just one particular type but now the second generation of Indian-Americans are starting to found restaurants, and they’re creating food that is more similar to the food that I grew up eating, which is more like Indian-American food. So it’s food that is a little bit Indian, a little bit global, and that’s what I find to be really exciting because I think that that is ultimately going to be the future of Indian food in America.”

So in Bollywood Kitchen you’ll learn not only about the history of Bollywood films but also find recipes from Sri Rao’s repertoire. With tidbits about ‘Devdas’ you also get recipes for keema, rajma and naan crisps. With ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ you get recipes for Bollyburgers, sweet potato fries and mango lassi and the menu with ‘The Lunchbox’ is Tiffin Egg Curry, Upma and Mixed Vegetable Kura. The recipes are quite mouthwatering – and for Bollywood fans there’s also masala Bollywood Popcorn.

He says, “When I go home, my mom doesn’t allow me to cook. Like most Indian mothers, she just wants to feed her family and doesn’t allow anyone in the kitchen with her.”

The core values of home food and  Bollywood have seen Sri Rao, who is gay, through tough times too. As he recalls in his book it was stressful bringing his boyfriend Jason home to meet his traditional family for the first time but their common love of Indian food paved the way. “A few years later, we were married on a rooftop in Manhattan, surrounded by both our families, after which we celebrated with an Indian-meets-Americana menu and danced all night to Bollywood music – demonstrating once again that  food and films are at the centre of every Indian family.”

Yes, Indian food and Indian cinema continue to be the strength of the Indian Diaspora!

 

(Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read her columns here.)

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