It’s a life I wanted, I chose it: Madhur Jaffrey
At the age of 85, most people would slow down, go on cruise vacations and spend time with their grandchildren. But Madhur Jaffrey, the New York-based grande dame of Indian cooking, who has opened up the intricate world of Indian food to generations of people in the west, author and an actress who won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale for her first film – Shakespeare Wallah – in 1965, is showing no signs of retiring.
“What is retirement?,” she asks seated in the buzzing Indian restaurant Saar, located in Manhattan’s theatre district. “Retirement is when you get pension and you do nothing. Why would you want to do nothing?”
Earlier this month Jaffrey released her 30th cookbook – Instantly Indian Cookbook: Modern and classic recipes for the Instant Pot. The Instant Pot is a modern day electric pressure cooker – first introduced in 2010 in Canada, with electronic buttons and settings for different kinds of foods. The market is flooded with cookbooks for the Instant Pot. Already some clever authors have cashed into this booming market with books on cooking Indian food using the pot. But Jaffrey took her time, tested her recipes using the pot. And she acknowledges that the Instant Pot is not a miracle cooking machine.
There has to be a trial and error period, she warns. “You have to work with the pot, play with it to get perfect results,” she says. “I didn’t want my gobi or my fish to be overdone.” In any case many Indian dishes require some basic steps before the Instant Pot is put to use. Rice, for instance has to be soaked and drained before it is cooked in the pot. “Nahin to bilkul al dente aati hai, aur kaun Hindustani al dente rice khata hain?” (Otherwise it comes al dente, and which Indian eats al dente rice?)”
Fifty years ago she began giving cooking lessons in New York City and writing cookbooks (she started working on her first book An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1969) because she says she was getting “awful acting jobs.” Writing was a necessity for her since she had to support her three young daughters after her divorce from the late actor Saeed Jaffrey. Later she had a popular cooking show on BBC.
After all these years she still has this grandmotherly approach in speaking to her readers, many of whom might be attempting to cook Indian food for the first time.
“Many of the recipes have more ingredients than you may be used to using,” she writes in the introduction to the book. “Don’t let it worry you. I did not want to dumb down India’s authentic tastes for this book. Remember that Indian food is as great as it is because of its magical use of spices.”
Two months ago Jaffrey played a different kind of grandmother. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London trained actress appeared in a video called Nani, by a young Indian American rapper Mr Cardamom, aka Zohran Mamdani. In the video Jaffrey appears as a smoking, four-letter mouthing grandmother who wears a long white wig (the last time she wore a white wig was when she played Shashi Kapoor’s royal mother in the 1983 Merchant Ivory production Heat and Dust), with makeup inspired by Goddess Kali. Mamdani – son of the filmmaker Mira Nair and Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, made the video as a tribute to his maternal grandmother, Praveen Nair, the founder of the Salaam Baalak Trust.
The video is mostly shot in the South Asian working-class neighbourhood of Jackson Heights in New York City. Jaffrey’s nani responds to her son who is scolding her by saying “I’m the best damn nani that you have ever seen…I’m the number one nani, don’t f**k with me.”
Jaffrey had no issue with the f-word in the video even though she does not think she has ever spoken it before in her long acting career. “But then I have played Lady Macbeth and Medea where I kill my children,” she says. “That was hard. This was much easier.”
If there was a challenge it had to do with Mamdani’s rapping. “He raps very fast and it was my lip movement and his voice.” And she had to learn to keep up with the beat. For that she took guidance from her violinist husband Sanford Allen.
The rap video has gone viral and her grandchildren now consider her cool. She is getting more offers to play grandmother’s roles in films. There was even a recent Disney animation project Mira, Royal Detective, an animated mystery-adventure series for preschoolers.
She has had a good life that continues to surprise her with interesting opportunities. There are no regrets. “It’s a life I wanted, I chose it,” she says. “Physically I am not that strong but mentally I am very determined.”