By the time you read this I will be nearly done with travelling for a new series I am presenting for NDTV Good Times. There is just Jaipur left to go and probably Gwalior after the elections. While everybody longs for shooting schedules to end so that the series can go on the air, I suspect that this one is going to be the exception. I have had such a good time making the show that I will be sorry when the travelling stops.
The provisional title for the series is Made To Order and it has a slightly unusual concept. I believe that India is perhaps the only country in the world where you can get nearly everything made to your specifications at a relatively reasonable price. The show follows my adventures as I criss-cross the country looking for bespoke experiences.
I have done political shows, interview shows, discussion programmes and food shows before but I have never attempted anything this ambitious. Because bespoke experiences take so many forms, I have tried to do all kinds of things. I’ve had shoes made for me, commissioned a Tanjore painting of myself, got a top Bollywood composer to write a tune for me (on camera), found a tree house to live in, wandered through cardamom plantations, hired a medieval boat built for Maharajas, got a magician to invent a trick for me, and persuaded a chef to design a dessert to my specifications.
As you can imagine, this has required a fair amount of travel. And because I have an excellent crew making the show (Monica Narula is NDTV’s head of food programming and my super-producer, Tanu Ganguly Yadava is the producer, Jhalaj Kathuria is the director of photography, Manish Jha is the cameraman and Needhi Verma is the researcher), we’ve been able to treat each schedule like a party or an adventure, visiting places we might not have gone to otherwise, staying in both luxurious and unusual hotels, and eating some fabulous meals.
One of my favourite locations (in terms of natural beauty) has been Kerala. We avoided the usual backwaters clichés and went to the hills instead. In Wayanad, we lived in the middle of a forest, in a house built on a tree, surrounded by an astonishing array of birds and animals. I was especially fascinated by something called the giant Malabar squirrel, which is less squirrel and more panda bear. The manager of the hotel we stayed in had adopted one such squirrel and had almost completely domesticated it.
In Munnar, we stayed in a cottage in the Windermere Hotel owned by Dr Samuel, who took me for long walks through his exquisitely fragranced cardamom plantation. And in Calicut, where we made a transit halt, I ran into my old friend Radhakrishna of the Bombay Taj, who is now manager of the Gateway Hotel in the city. His chef produced the best food we ate in Kerala and all of us still lust after the Moplah biryani.
We ended up shooting several segments on the beach at the Fisherman’s Cove near Madras. The Cove is my favourite beach resort in India because the cottages actually open out to the sea. I was taught to meditate by the seaside, and watched a magician invent a new trick for me as the ocean roared in the background.
The real revelation for me, however, was Jodhpur. Despite having gone to school in Rajasthan, I had never made it to Jodhpur before. That was a huge mistake. It is a charming city that is neither as overgrown as Jaipur, nor is it as touristy as Udaipur.
We stayed at the spectacular Umaid Bhavan Palace in which the Maharaja still lives. The hotel part of the palace is now run by the Taj Group, which has restored it so lovingly that you are constantly surprised by one detail or the other. The Taj arranged for me to have dinner in a pavilion in the palace’s European-style garden and the added extras (vintage cars, a path lit by torches, fireworks etc.) were so tastefully done that they took my breath away.
Jodhpur is Rajasthan’s great secret. If you ever want to visit that state, then give the usual places a miss and head for Jodhpur.
Having said that, I have to concede that the charm of Udaipur’s Lake Palace is hard to resist. We hired the Gangaur boat, a 150-year-old vessel, for a cruise around Lake Pichola. Older readers will remember the boat from the 1980s James Bond movie, Octopussy, but the experience we had beats anything James Bond managed. There was gourmet Rajasthani cuisine, there were liveried oarsmen, and most amazing of all was the folk dancer who performed on the boat. She managed the almost-impossible feat of throwing rings on the deck and then picking them up with her eyelids while still dancing.
Of course, the shoots had their ups and downs. I proved to be remarkably accident-prone. In Udaipur, I banged my forehead against a door, splitting it open just before we were scheduled to start shooting. But the Lake Palace arranged for a doctor to stop the bleeding and cover up the injury and we went ahead and shot anyway. At Fisherman’s Cove, I slipped and fell down some steps (possibly a consequence of too much Chablis) and ended up with cuts on my arms and legs that shed copious amounts of blood. Once again, medical assistance was sought, bandages were tied, and we continued shooting regardless.
Nearly everywhere we went, we ate the local cuisine. In Munnar, I tried the Malayali specialty of tapioca and decided that this was one bit of Kerala I could do without. In Madras, we survived mainly on fish that had been freshly caught by fishermen from the nearby village. And an old kitchen hand made us the local biryani, a spicy concoction favoured by the Muslims in the district.
In Jodhpur, we lived on the food of Marwar and though Rajasthani food has a way of getting on my nerves after a while (too many things made with gatta and vadis and not enough vegetables) our Jodhpur meals were a happy exception. At Kalmatia, in Almora district, we fell in love with the Pahari dal and ate far more than we should have, blaming it on the mountain air.
In Bombay, Tanu let out an involuntary wail as the giant crabs we were filming at Gajalee began to move menacingly towards her. Then, Rohit Sangwan, India’s single-best pastry chef, invented a hot soufflé for me that was shaped like a mountain range.
Through it all, Monica kept us going with a cocktail of her own invention. I vividly remember sitting around a camp fire in the Uttaranchal cold, watching in admiration as she patiently sliced ginger and slit chillies for her signature tadka cocktail.
By the end of the schedule, Tanu and I were able to persuade her to make the drink on camera. It was to be our own Made To Order cocktail. She spent days protesting that she was supposed to be behind the camera, not in front of it, and went on about how nervous she was. But when the shoot began, she demonstrated such relaxed confidence that we told her that she should commission a drinks show from herself in her capacity as head of food programming.
Made To Order won’t be on the air till June or July. I haven’t seen a single frame but Jhalaj is such a great cameraman that I’m sure it will look spectacular. The locations are outstanding and a legion of talented people have contributed their craftsmanship. I rather fear that the worst thing about the show will be the fat and bald presenter.