Saturday 11 May 2019

‘I was cast as the exotic girl – then as the terrorist’s mother’: Madhur Jaffrey on acting, food and race

First she was a movie star, then she taught the west to love Indian cookery. At 85, she looks back on two remarkable careers

Winter is emptying the last of its sleet from the sky as Madhur Jaffrey opens the door to her home in upstate New York. The house, built in the 1790s, smells of ancient wood. Jaffrey and her husband, the violinist Sanford Allen, spend a few days a week here, driving up from the Greenwich Village apartment where they have lived for 52 years. At 5ft 2in, with her hair in a shiny bob, Jaffrey cuts an unfussily elegant figure.

We are here to talk about her newest venture, Madhur Jaffrey’s Instantly Indian Cookbook. A compendium of recipes for the Instant Pot, an electric pressure cooker that has won itself an army of devotees known as “potheads”, it is her 30th cookbook. What makes this particularly impressive is that, for Jaffrey, writing about food has always been a second career.

At 85, she is widely considered responsible for bringing Indian cooking to a western audience through her books and her cooking shows on the BBC. But she is first and foremost an actor. In 1965, she won the Berlin film festival’s Silver Bear for best actress for her work in Merchant Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah. A few years before that, she helped introduce Ismail Merchant to James Ivory. Today, she has 43 credits to her name on IMDb.

Most recently, she starred in her first rap video, playing the grandmother of the rapper Mr Cardamom. “The hardest part was learning the lines,” she says. “Because you’re talking so fast and have to know it all and have the beat right. We had to do it in two days.” Those lines included: “I’m the best damn nani that you ever done see” and: “I’m the number one nani – don’t fuck with me.”

“It’s like playing Lady Macbeth,” she told the New York Times. “If you’re an actress, you have to play everything.”
 Madhur Jaffrey at her home in Columbia County, New York. Photograph: Richard Beaven/The Guardian
Jaffrey grew up in Delhi, surrounded by cousins, in a sprawling family compound with extensive gardens owned by her grandfather, a successful barrister. In her 2005 memoir Climbing the Mango Trees, Jaffrey recounts an active, largely happy childhood marked by lyrical adventures: when she was five, she writes, she learned how to swim “with the help of a watermelon”.

The fifth of six children, Jaffrey began going to the cinema at the age of three, thanks to her father, the manager of a ghee factory and an ardent cinephile. “We were steeped in the history of film,” she says. She remembers loving Tyrone Power, Laurence Olivier and the first Pride and Prejudice, and wanting “to be Marlon Brando”.

Years later, Jaffrey would meet the actor at an event honouring Shakespeare Wallah and her work in it. “It was weird,” she says: she was seated between Brando and the director Satyajit Ray for part of the evening, and the two talked across her the entire time. Then, later, Brando’s head was turned by a woman in a black sari. “After that, he wouldn’t stop,” Jaffrey says. “Wherever she went, he would follow.”

Films were also Jaffrey’s introduction to broader political awareness: when God Save the King was played after each screening, her whole family, led by her father, would walk out of the theatre. “It was our little protest,” she says. In 1947, when she was 14, the partition of India brought an onslaught of violence into Jaffrey’s life: friends of her family were killed, and at school, her Hindu and Muslim classmates refused to talk to each other. For her part, Jaffrey just wanted everyone to get along. “I was always in the middle,” she says, “and actually disliked by both sides because they didn’t understand me.”

Having seen firsthand the way religious identity can be weaponised, Jaffrey has a dim view of today’s political climate, especially in her adopted home of the US. “Don’t start me,” she says. “I feel very strongly about it. I think it’s awful. I mean, this is supposed to be a democracy and a country made up of immigrants. Who is not an immigrant?” Intolerant thinking, she says, can “take hold of you like an awful disease”. She has seen it happen plenty of times, to people she knows. “We are all here for such a short time, for heaven’s sake. Let’s give each other respect and acceptance.”

At the age of 19, with the help of three scholarships, Jaffrey left India to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. It was 1955, and the city, she remembers, was cold and covered in smog at three in the afternoon. The food was terrible, save for the fish and chips. Longing for a taste of home, she wrote to her mother, requesting recipes. Her mother dutifully obliged, writing her instructions in Hindi on onionskin paper that Jaffrey still has.

By the time she was at Rada, Jaffrey had already fallen in love with Saeed Jaffrey, also an actor; after graduation, she decided to follow him across the ocean to the town of Winooski in Vermont, where he was doing summer shows. Thanks to the movies, she says: “We knew what to expect. I wanted to see a drugstore where you could have a milkshake and a hot dog, so that’s the first thing I did. But other than that – I mean, there were surprising and wonderful things like the amount of food they ate, but we’d seen the country in every film.”

She and Saeed moved to New York, where they lived in the Village and threw dinners for their friends, a broad circle that included actors, musicians and artists. Among them were a soft-spoken young director named James Ivory and a brash would-be producer named Ismail Merchant. After the pair began collaborating, Jaffrey would go on to appear in six of their films, the last of which, Cotton Mary in 1999, she co-directed with Merchant.

Those films would prove to be some of the highlights of Jaffrey’s screen career: although roles on Broadway and Shakespeare Wallah got her off to a promising start, it was the subsequent scarcity of work that made her turn to writing to support her family, which had grown to include three daughters. In 1966, she had divorced Saeed and was living with Allen when Merchant persuaded Craig Claiborne to write an article about her. Indian Actress Is a Star in the Kitchen, Too, the headline in the New York Times proclaimed. The exposure “totally changed my life,” Jaffrey recalls: it eventually led to her first cookbook, in 1973, An Invitation to Indian Cooking.

The impact of that book still resonates. Although there were a few cookbooks about Indian cuisine written for western audiences, the food writer Mayukh Sen says: “Jaffrey was the first Indian cookbook author to really cut through the noise and challenge Americans to think beyond their misperceptions when it came to Indian food. “She was the perfect translator for American home cooks in that era when they may have regarded Indian food with a sense of prejudice or stupefied curiosity.” Crucially, Sen adds: “Madhur was also careful to root her writing in the personal rather than to make broad, overreaching statements about the cooking traditions of India.”

Nine years later, the BBC came calling, asking Jaffrey to be the face of a new cooking show about Indian food. But if Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery gave her – and by extension Indian food – exposure to a broader audience, it also reinforced a narrow idea of what she could do and the roles she could play.

As a young immigrant to England and the US, Jaffrey didn’t experience overt racism – that only happened once, she says, when they were filming the BBC show in Nottingham and a teenage boy ran past “saying ‘paki, paki’, or something like that”.

But throughout her acting career, Jaffrey repeatedly faced another kind of racism, the kind that pigeonholed her into roles she describes as “sort of Middle Eastern parts where I was dancing with a camel; the exotic girl. And then it became terrorists and terrorist mothers, and then it became doctors.”

That brand of discrimination was mirrored in her career as a writer. “It isn’t that I didn’t want to write about Italy and France. I wanted to, but they wouldn’t let me,” she says. “I would find articles by young [white] Americans going to India for the first time and writing about it in the New York Times, but I couldn’t do that in Italy, even though I’d been 50 times and loved Italy.”

When she proposed doing a world vegetarian cookbook to her longtime editor, Judith Jones, the idea was rejected. “She was a marvellous editor who taught me the most about everything, but she was stuck in a period and wouldn’t budge,” Jaffrey says. “Or maybe she thought it wouldn’t be accepted. I have no idea, but it was just very irksome.”

There is still a bit of that in the food world today, she says – the idea that certain kinds of food can only be written about by certain kinds of writers. But that is changing, thanks to a new generation. “The young Indians, they don’t take any guff from anybody. I’m so proud of them,” she says, citing the cookbook author and Guardian columnist Meera Sodha and the food writers Tejal Rao and Priya Krishna. “They don’t think of themselves as not being able to do anything. They have a different kind of attitude and I really admire them.”

Jaffrey in the 1965 Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah, with Shashi Kapoor. Photograph: Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

For her part, Sodha, who was born in 1982, the same year that Jaffrey’s BBC cooking show debuted, remembers Jaffrey as being a “hero” to her own mother, who had come to the UK from Uganda in the early 70s. “She wasn’t used to seeing Indian women on her British TV screen, let alone women looking glamorous, wearing a sari and cooking Indian food, which is what my mum did day in, day out,” Sodha says. She describes Jaffrey as “a trailblazer” who showed the western world that Indian food “wasn’t all kormas and vindaloo” – and her voice, Sodha adds, is still vital now. “I think people are only just starting to recognise that Indian food is as regional as Italian, in that ingredients and specialities can vary from village to village and town to town in a country of a billion,” she says.

Jaffrey’s latest book is a testament to the research and meticulousness that characterise her work: even basic rice recipes are prefaced by very specific instructions for how to remove the rice from the Instant Pot without ruining the delicate grains. It is one reason that her editor, Lexy Bloom, wanted her to write the book. “The Instant Pot market is crowded,” she says. “But there is no one like Madhur. She’s so smart and so careful and so precise, and has such specific taste.”

“I am sort of a perfectionist,” Jaffrey agrees. “I don’t stop until I have it absolutely right, even if it means trying it again and again.” She didn’t even own an Instant Pot before doing the book, and first had to learn how to use one, but managed to squeeze the research and writing into the two months she had before travelling to Los Angeles to film a series for NBC.

Even now, well into her 80s, she is still deftly switching back and forth between writing and acting. Over the coming week, in addition to press for the new book, she’s got a reading for a new project, something she won’t talk about except to say that it involves “wonderful actors.” There is an upcoming Pakistani literary festival, and in June, travel to the UK for various events. In July, she and Allen will take a vacation in Paris, and then she’ll be off to Mexico to visit her grandson. “He’s a foodie,” she says. “All my grandkids are foodies.”

 Jaffrey with Ismail Merchant in 2001. Photograph: Gabe Palacio/Getty Images

As she poses for photographs outside in the grey April chill, she points out the sorrel, lettuce and onions beginning to sprout in her extensive gardens and exclaims with delight over the blueberry bushes, which are starting to blossom.

She and Allen first began coming up to the area to stay with Ivory and Merchant, who lived nearby; it was 35 years ago, while they were housesitting for the couple, that they found their house. Back then, being part of the Merchant Ivory gang was like being part of a family. “But then Ismail died, and then Ruth [Prawer Jhabvala, Merchant Ivory’s longtime screenwriter] died. It’s just not the same,” she says. “It’s all changed.”

For dinner, she and Allen are planning to go out to eat with friends. But usually, whether they are here or in the city, they prefer to cook. Allen also knows his way around a kitchen, and they cook all kinds of things.

“What did we have yesterday?” she says. “Indian food. I was using chayote” – a pear-shaped fruit with cucumber-like flesh – “and used it like an Indian vegetable. I made that, and we had a dal and rice. And that was it.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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