60 Minutes with Madhur Jaffrey Society

‘I am an actress who acts the part of a cook’: Madhur Jaffrey

Madhur Jaffrey | File   | Photo Credit: Anu Pushkarna

I had been fretting over the prospect of interviewing Madhur Jaffrey at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) from even before I boarded the flight early this year. The reason is shameful: my knowledge of cooking begins and ends with boiling Maggi noodles.

What could I possibly ask the cookery legend who single-handedly changed the way the West thinks about Indian cuisine with her BBC show and cookbooks? But I had a fallback ready: Shakespeare Wallah, that deliciously decadent 1965 Merchant-Ivory film about a British theatrical company in post-Independence India for which Jaffrey won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival that year. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say about working with James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and, above all, Satyajit Ray, who had composed the film’s music.

When I see the petite lady walking towards me in the authors’ lounge at Diggi Palace hotel, I have a déjà vu moment: this is Manjula from Shakespeare Wallah — the same dangerous eyes, the same wicked half-smile — only, this time, she is dressed in an everyday salwar-kameez rather than the chic attire of the Bollywood diva she played in the film. And she declares cattily, if a bit wearily, that she will keep the interview short with “chhota chhota” replies, deflating my enthusiasm.

A performance

The first question I ask is how she would like to define herself — as an actor, a writer, or cookery expert. Pat comes the reply: “I am an actress who acts the part of a cook.” So is there a distance between her ‘real’ self and her cooking persona? “There’s no distance as such but I am also watching myself. And it’s a kind of performance because I am really an actress.” And what about her writerly self (Jaffrey is the author not only of some 30 cookbooks but also of the delightful memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, about growing up in a sprawling, affluent Delhi family, surrounded by sumptuous food in the final years of the Raj, and Robi Dobi: The Marvellous Adventures of an Indian Elephant, a children’s book, among others)? “Even while writing, I am trying to be as honest as I can, which is also something an actress does. Be honest and clean and clear, instinctive, intelligent — all the qualities you want in an actress, I bring to my writing too, I hope,” she says.

Earlier that day, I had attended Jaffrey’s session, ‘Climbing the Mango Trees: Food and Memory’, with author Chandrahas Choudhury, where she had talked about how she first started cooking — out of necessity rather than passion. Once she had left the comfort of her home for London, to join the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1955, everything changed. “There is this pea-green smog that comes in at 3 o’clock and you see nothing. This was just after the War, and the food was simply awful. I was dreaming of hing jeere ki alu or bhara hua karela while having some watery cabbage mess or transparent roast beef at the canteen.” Out of desperation, she started writing letters to her mother, asking for recipes. Jaffrey tells me later: “I wasn’t taught cooking. I am self-taught through my mother’s handwritten recipes. But I must have had a good palate, although I didn’t know the word ‘palate’ at the time. I could instinctively translate a three-line recipe into a dish and through trial and error I got it right.”

Food memories

From 1973, when Jaffrey wrote her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, a lot of preconceptions and misconceptions about Indian food in the West have changed, so much so that chicken tikka masala is now arguably the national dish of Britain. What is Jaffrey’s take on this? “Some people have learnt nothing, but there are many others who have read my books and their attitude to Indian food is a little different now. When I cooked on TV in England, attitudes started changing. England is filled with people with Indian blood who are hardly aware of it but I think some memory, some historical connection, stays. The show just brought back memories for them. America doesn’t have this connection. The British never liked Indians but they liked Indian food.” She adds, “I have three generations of Westerners and Indians who learnt to cook from my books and taught their children, and now those children are cooking for their children from my books. It’s very gratifying.”

Does she relate to the term, ‘foodie’, as it is used now, involving, for the most part, Instagram posts on the food one is having in fancy restaurants? Jaffrey scoffs, “That I think is being obsessed with taking pictures of food and showing off. The younger generation is very much into that little gadget you have there [pointing at my phone] and into sending around what they are doing to all their friends — it’s a new attitude that I don’t have. I don’t want to tell the world what I am eating, I just want to enjoy it.”

While we are on changing worlds, I pop the question about her Shakespeare Wallah days. Her eyes light up. She says, “I was very young, I introduced James [Ivory] and Ismail [Merchant] to each other in England, we were all friends. The initial plan was that my ex-husband, Saeed Jaffrey, and I would go back to India and start a touring theatrical company there. Jim said that was a wonderful idea for a film and we would sit and discuss it in his apartment. Then he went to India and met the Kendals, whom he wanted in his film. But what would happen to me? So Jhabvala [the story and screenplay writer] created the character of Manjula so that I could be in it as well. That’s the story. When Saeed and I were divorced, they were very angry with him, so they kicked him out.”

Like a serpent

Did she see the Silver Bear coming for her performance in Shakespeare Wallah? “No, not at all. When the award was announced, everybody was shocked since they expected Felicity Kendal to win and not me. I said, what can I do? Jim said, go apologise to Felicity. I felt great but also felt bad...,” she says, smiling mischievously. Then I get to the question I was itching to ask: how was Ray?

“I interacted with him later in funny ways, but not during ShakespeareWallah. Jim conceptualised me as a serpent in the film and, if you notice, Manjula’s entry is always accompanied by a serpent-like music — that’s what Ray did for my character, that much I know. Much later, when Shakespeare Wallah was getting an award from the President in Delhi, I was there with my father, who was telling his friends disparagingly, ‘Iski toh hobby hain (acting is her hobby),’ as was his wont. My supposed escort turned out to be Marlon Brando, who was my hero! Brando and Ray sat on either side of me, talking to each other across me. I tried to speak but whatever I tried to say was wrong. So I told myself, chup baithi raho, inko baatein karne do (sit quietly, let them talk). I didn’t have much to say, I was so scared of them.”

After such a long reply, Jaffrey looks visibly exhausted and I try to wrap it up. “Do you still cook at home,” I ask her. “Yes. Though I would rather somebody else did it now that I am 86. But they won’t make it as well as I do.” She leaves me with an admonishment when I confess my cooking prowess: “Kyun nehi sikhti ho? Ghar mein koi sikhanewala nahi hain or you don’t want to learn? (Why don’t you learn? Don’t you have anybody to teach you at home?) You have to learn to cook some basic things, even if it is one sabzi, chawal or roti — something simple that you can enjoy. Somebody teach her.”


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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 1:36:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/i-am-an-actress-who-acts-the-part-of-a-cook-madhur-jaffrey/article31247433.ece

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