Author, actress and now music video star: Madhur Jaffrey knows the recipe for success
The culinary great opens up about social media, the #MeToo movement and why older actors shouldn't be 'invisible'
“At 85, there’s something I should be allowed to be bad at,” says internationally acclaimed actress, award-winning writer, culinary great and TV personality Madhur Jaffrey with amused exasperation. She’s talking about social media. “Unlike you children, if I have to tweet, I have to carve out time for it. I can’t do it on the go, while doing other things. It’s too much work, don’t you think?”
It’s amusing to think that anything could be “too much work” for a woman who has spent the better part of 60 years winning awards for her parallel careers. By her own admission, her professional journey started early, in the 1930s and early 1940s, while she was at school in India, with bit-part roles in radio plays and children’s programmes for All India Radio. In the 1950s and 1960s, she featured in a series of theatre and radio plays in both India and Britain, as she tried to find her feet as an actor after winning scholarships and grants to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
Jaffrey’s acting career took off in 1965, with the award-winning Shakespeare-Wallah by producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, for which she won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival. In the past five decades, she’s acted in dozens of films and television series, including several Merchant Ivory productions, and even one Hindi film, Saagar (1985), in which she plays veteran Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor’s grandmother.
Jaffrey’s culinary career began in the 1970s, taking off after the release of her first cookbook, An Invitation To Indian Cooking, in 1973. Since then, she has published about 30 cookbooks, three children’s books and a memoir; in addition to hosting several wildly popular cooking shows. Jaffrey has won a staggering eight James Beard Foundation awards – the Oscars of cooking – and in 2004, she was made an honorary CBE for her role in strengthening cultural ties between Britain, India and the US through her work in film, television and cookery.
Last year, she was seen in the American comedy TV series I Feel Bad and her latest cookbook, Instantly Indian Cookbook, will be released next month. Less than a month ago, she was also seen in the YouTube video for Nani, a rap song by American-Indian singer and songwriter, Mr Cardamom. Jaffrey’s portrayal of a gangster grandmother is the major driving force behind the song’s popularity.
“I love working with young people,” says Jaffrey, who lives in New York with her musician husband, Sanford Allen. “What they lack in experience, they make up for in knowledge. I’m constantly amazed by how much the younger generation knows about their craft. Besides, I know how hard it can be to make your first film as a struggling student. I like working on experimental projects with budding talent. Some of them, such as Nisha Ganatra (director of 1999 dramedy Chutney Popcorn) go on to do great things. I love being a part of that journey.”
Choosing to work with the next generation of artists might be Jaffrey’s way of staying abreast of a rapidly changing creative world, but there are some aspects of being a celebrity today that she simply doesn’t understand, or even care that much for, like the incessant need to first seek and then criticise famous people for their opinions on everything under the sun.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But is every opinion worth articulating? I’m told that I might be losing out by not being accessible and opinionated on social media,” Jaffrey says. “But it seems very frivolous and negative to me. My time is much better spent reading and gardening.”
Jaffrey might prefer to keep her opinions on a lot of subjects to herself, but even she isn’t immune to the shock waves that were sent across Hollywood by the #MeToo movement. “In my time, we didn’t think of sexual advances as workplace harassment,” she says. “We thought of it simply as something that men do. I was lucky – I was always able to get myself out of it. I’ll even admit that there were times when I even enjoyed the attention from directors and casting agents.
We’ll always be enamoured by youth, but that doesn’t mean older characters need to be treated like they’re invisible
“But I know my experiences aren’t reflective of the vile treatment that many women have been subjected to. Some of them have suffered violence and rape. I think, no matter what your personal experience is, it’s important to stand by them and give them our complete support. It’s a good idea to force men to stop this nonsense. They take it for granted too – that this is something they can do and get away with. In my time, you could only move away. You didn’t know you could fight back legally. It’s great that the younger women are supporting and empowering one another.”
Given her long career in front of the camera and at the computer (for the purpose of writing her many books), Jaffrey has been a witness to the various changes in the way Eastern cultures are perceived and the opportunities available to artists that share her cultural background. She recognises her own contribution in chipping away at the stereotypes that shackled her career trajectory, but she does it without chest-thumping and unnecessary pomp. “When I was younger, the only parts available to people who looked like me were the exotic Eastern dancing girl or terrorists,” she says. “It was very unappealing, but I did them. At the same time, I worked very hard to find opportunities that went beyond those stereotypes.
“When it came to cooking, there were so many misconceptions about what Indian cooking really meant. I couldn’t believe what awful, tasteless food was being passed off as ‘Indian’ in even fancy restaurants in the US and UK. I knew that I had to change that.”
Her conviction to do exactly that has resulted in a career spanning more than 40 years, which has led to her fondly referred to as the “high priestess” and “godmother” of Indian cooking. “And yet, I can’t shake off the irritating stereotype that Indian cooking is all spices and all curry,” Jaffrey says with a laugh, before launching into a long, passionate monologue about how magic can be created with two spices.
“What I love about Indian food is that there’s room for everything. You can spend hours slowly cooking something, and you can toss things together for instant, healthful wonders. I wish I could encourage more younger people to cook – it doesn’t take that long, and it’s so much healthier than ordering food made with ingredients of questionable quality.” Predictably, Jaffrey’s latest book is all about instant pot-style cooking.
As thankful as she is for her long, fulfilling careers, Jaffrey would prefer that pop culture made more room for older actors and their stories. “We’ll always be enamoured by youth, but that doesn’t mean older characters need to be treated like they’re invisible,” she says.
The ideal roles and scripts might be hard to come by, but Jaffrey isn’t about to lose hope or satisfy herself bemoaning it. She loves Bollywood (Saif Ali Khan is her favourite actor, while she has also been impressed by “Rishi’s son” – Ranbir Kapoor) and would like to return to it if the right script comes along. What about creating her own YouTube channel? “Why not? If someone can take care of the technology,” she says. How about a Netflix series? “That would be fantastic!”
Is there anything Jaffrey won’t try her hand at? “Nope,” she says cheerily.
Updated: April 22, 2019 09:21 AM