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Backstage Interview: 7 Questions with Actress Madhur Jaffrey

Roots are important for celebrated Rada-trained actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey but she says she always knew she was destined to travel.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   27-04-2015
Madhur Jaffrey
Award-winning actress Madhur Jaffrey first shot to acclaim playing a divaesque Bollywood star in the 1965 Merchant Ivory movie "Shakespeare Wallah." She was named Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, for her role as haughty and glamorous Manjula in the iconic film. Her other works include the Hollywood film "Six Degrees of Separation," and lively roles in Merchant-Ivory films like “The Guru,” “Heat and Dust” and "Cotton Mary."

Miranda House-educated Jaffrey's cooking career, however, began well before her film days when, at 19, she left her family's sprawling home in Delhi after winning a place at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada).

As a Rada student, living in a north-London bedsit in 1955, hungry for home-style Indian cooking, Jaffrey wrote to her mother for recipes. She was blessed with a landlady who didn't give a fig what she did in her kitchen, so she experimented with the recipes her mother posted from Delhi. 

"I have letters from her which start with an egg curry," says Jaffrey. "So when I became this so-called authority on Indian food, well, my mother thought it was rather funny." 

The seven-time James Beard Award winner has gone on to write 30 cookbooks and a memoir "Climbing the Mango Trees." Jaffrey's first book, "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" (1973), stamped Britain and America's love affair with Indian food. Her "Ultimate Curry Bible," published three decades later, is still considered one of the most comprehensive books ever written on the subject.

Jaffrey married Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey and they moved to New York to look for acting work. They have three daughters. In 1969, after a messy divorce Jaffrey remarried violinist Sanford Allen and they live in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. She now splits her time between Manhattan and a farmhouse in upstate New York when she's not traveling the world. Upstate, she has created a little corner of India, cultivating hibiscus, jasmine and azaleas. The couple also grow their own fruit and vegetables.

Here are excerpts from Jaffrey's lively and disarmingly candid interview with on the sidelines of an event in the Tamrind Art Gallery.

  1. Did you encounter resistance when you wanted to go off to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art?

    My father had two perfect sons, two perfect, pretty daughters. And then there was me. My father rather enjoyed, I think, having this very odd child, who had beatnik interests. So they all sort of indulged me. My father just thought I was weird and interesting.

  2. What attracted you to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art?

    I wanted the Marlon Brando kind of strong Method Acting. I wanted honesty, intensity and all those things that Bollywood cinema in the mid-1950s did not offer.

  3. What was your greatest inspiration?

    When I was at Rada, I went to see a film starring the wonderful Italian actress Anna Magnani, who was earthy and marvellous. And the next day I rolled into an exam feeling totally inspired.

  4. Was it your acting dream that gave you the push to leave India?

    Yes, I did want to chase the dream. But among the things that propelled me to leave India was the whole position of men and women in society. I come from such an old Delhi family that I would have constantly heard that ‘Certain things are done this way.’ Even though freedoms were given, you still had to conform. I just didn’t want to do that.

    I left because I was so irritated by the position of women in society. That made me want to leave regularly and I left with pleasure!

  5. Why does your engaging memoir "Climbing the Mango Trees" move smoothly but halt quickly at your childhood?

    My life is messy and not so wonderful in every area. I certainly don’t want to reveal too much. But I was asked many times to write a memoir so I finally gave in and said I would write about my life but I would not go beyond 18 years. Till then, it is sort of not so bad.

    The book is about me growing up in Delhi in a city that no longer exists. It is another Delhi now, but this is a city that I loved. I grew up in a sprawling tree-filled compound with a large extended family — my grandfather often presided over dinners at which forty family members would eat together.

  6. Would you have the career you've had if you had stayed in India?

    I wouldn't have had a full-blown cooking career in India because the cook would have cooked which is the way things go in India. I taught myself to cook from recipes my mother sent me in letters when I was a student in London. That's when I began my other dream. Not the dream of coming to the West, but the dream of somehow re-creating that Indian food that I wanted so badly. The longing for family, people you love, the smells of your city — it is all evoked through the food. Food brings it all back and you want your food back because then that way you get your memories back.

    I consider both acting and being a food writer to be my professions now. But one was the one I sought and studied for, and the other dropped from heaven.

  7. When you look in the mirror what do you see?

    A rather short person who is getting on, but is comfortable with that.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.



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