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Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN

Sri Rao's BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN world premieres for the Geffen Stayhouse January 15, 2021.

By: Jan. 15, 2021
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Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  Image

Sri Rao's BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN world premieres for the Geffen Stayhouse, previewing January 15, 2021; with opening night January 23, 2021. Written and performed by Sri, BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN pairs an interactive cooking experience with Sri's knowledgeable Bollywood musicals recommendations. Viewing audiences can choose the level of interactive participation, from cooking along with Sri, cooking beforehand (with provided recipes and spices mailed prior to the show), or simply viewing the cooking lesson by a connoisseur of India food. Sri will teach you his signature dish chicken curry, (vegan substitution: chana masala), as well as, an appetizer, cocktail and dessert.

Co-produced by Hypokrit Theatre Company, BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN runs through February 20, 2021.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sri!

Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  ImageWhen you first published your book Bollywood Kitchen in 2017, did you visualize it as an interactive theatre project, like what you're presenting at the Geffen now?

I never even imagined writing a cookbook, much less turning it into a theatrical production. The reason I wrote the book is because I found myself routinely being asked the same two questions by friends and acquaintances: 1) "Can I borrow a recipe for one of your mom's home-cooked Indian dishes?" and 2) "I don't know anything about Bollywood - can you recommend a movie I should watch?" So I finally decided to put my answers into a "dinner and a movie" book which pairs home-cooked recipes with my favorite Bollywood films that you can stream online.

Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  ImageWhat initially brought you together with the Hypokrit Theatre Company, who's co-producing BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN with the Geffen?

The idea for turning Bollywood Kitchen into a show originally started at Ars Nova. After a period of development there, I met Arpita Mukherjee, who is the Artistic Director of Hypokrit. She immediately connected with the material as a fellow Indian-American who grew up with Bollywood music and Indian food. She offered to come on-board as director and also for Hypokrit to develop the show, which has been a delightful experience.

You wrote your first script at five years old. How old were you when you first started cooking? What was your first dish?

I actually didn't start cooking in earnest until I started writing the book. I grew up eating all this amazing food that my mom prepared, but I never took it upon myself to learn how to cook it. I think a lot of us first-generation kids have a love-hate relationship with the food of our heritage because for the longest time, we see it as something that makes us feel "different" from the norm. But then at a certain point, Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  Imagewe realize how incredibly special this food is - not just because it's delicious, but also because it connects us to the people and culture that we came from. So I realized it was important for me to learn these recipes as a way to carry on the tradition and share it with others.

What education courses did you pursue? Writing? Or cooking?

Neither! I actually studied business at Wharton. Like all immigrant parents, mine insisted that I pursue a "stable" career... which I did for a few years, but then quit to pursue my passion of filmmaking. I'm grateful that my parents made me get a good education and "something to fall back on." And ultimately, my business background has helped me in the entrepreneurial side of being an artist.

Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  ImageYou were raised in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Where did you go to see Bollywood films?

The first scene in the show is my memory of the day in 1982 when my parents got a VCR. That moment changed my life because I was suddenly introduced to Bollywood films, and through them, the language and music of my heritage.

Your cookbook Bollywood Kitchen weaves in Bollywood musicals with your recipes. What was the first musical (Bollywood or American) you saw that made a lasting impression on you?

Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  ImageI was influenced by countless Bollywood musicals, several of which are included in the show. But as far as American musicals go, I was deeply impacted by the high school field trip we took to see LES MISÉRABLES. Broadway was the reason I fell in love with New York City as a kid and dreamt of living here someday. And then I ended up moving to New York the year that RENT opened on Broadway. That show became a touchstone in my life because it encapsulated all the dreams I had about being a New York artist.

Describe growing up Indian/American in the predominantly Caucasian Mechanicsburg.

Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  ImageAt the time, I thought Mechanicsburg was a great place to grow up because, frankly, I didn't know any better. When everyone around you looks exactly the same (albeit different than you), it's almost like you convince yourself that you're just like them. But looking back on it now as an adult, I see it much differently. The way I was teased and bullied - for having a funny sounding name, or because my mom wears a bindi - these were all things that were rooted in racism. And now more than ever, Mechanicsburg is a really painful place for me to return to because it's Trump country and I feel unwelcome in my own hometown. The racism that may have been dormant or unspoken in the past is now clearly on display.

Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  ImageThe main dish you're presenting in BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN is your signature chicken curry dish, my favorite childhood dish. I recently viewed your video of you making this dish. You added seven spices, but, to my surprise, no curry powder. My mom always used curry powder. So, 'curry' in Indian cooking refers to the 'sauce of spices' and not the spice 'curry?' Do you ever use curry powder in Indian cooking?

I always tell people who want to cook Indian food: if you have that yellow curry powder in your pantry - the one that McCormick makes - please throw it out (or save it only for deviled eggs)! Curry powder has nothing to do with Indian curry. In Indian cuisine, a "curry" is anything that's cooked in a sauce. And the sauce is made with a combination of spices - like, cumin and coriander, ginger and garlic - stewed with onions and often times, tomatoes. That being said, these days there are some very nice Indian curry powders which you can buy in specialty stores that combine these spices for you as a shortcut.

Interview: Filmmaker & Cookbook Author Sri Rao Really Cooks In His BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN  ImageIs there a logistical way to adapt BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN from interactive online to live theatre audience participation?

Well, the project actually started as a live theater concept and has been developed as such for almost three years. We're working on a version that has original music, a full cast, dancers, etc. This online version has been a welcome detour from our main trajectory.

What upcoming projects can you share with us?

I'm currently in the midst of filming a series for Netflix titled The Actress. It's a suspenseful family drama set in the world of Bollywood. And I'm writing two pilots, one for Netflix and one for HBO Max.

Thank you again, Sri! I look forward to checking out your signature curry for myself.

Thank you so much for your interest!

For BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN viewing access through February 20, 2021; log onto www.geffenplayhouse.org



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