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BWW Review: BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN is Much More Than a Cooking Show

Filmmaker and Author Sri Rao Finds His Calling in Home-cooked Food and Bollywood Films

BWW Review: BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN is Much More Than a Cooking Show
Sri Rao in BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN. Photo credit: Kyle Rosenberg

Even before the performance began, I was hooked. I couldn't stop smelling the spices.

Two of the three ticket levels for Geffen Playhouse's world premiere of BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN include a Bollywood Box sent to your home. This beautifully designed box - easily a keepsake in and of itself - contains recipe cards, a shopping list, specialty ingredients, and jars of the most aromatic spices you can imagine, that you'll use in Sri Rao's recipes. Ground cloves, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, the whole experience begins long before you start cooking. It's a perfect example of how food conjures memories just by the way it smells.

But if you think this is going to be just another cooking show you'd be wrong. It's much more than that. It is an intimate, honest, and insightful immigrant story shared while preparing a meal, and an undeniable expression of love for family in all its wonderful messiness. It also celebrates the impact Bollywood films had on a young Indian boy growing up in Mechanicsburg, PA, at a time when his was the only Indian family in town.

His parents had an arranged marriage. Shortly after, his father came to America to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech. They were separated for eight years until he could afford to bring his new wife to America. So, for eight years they wrote letters - one a day - until they could be together again. It may sound like the plotline of a romance movie but, in reality, it wasn't easy for either of them. The isolation of being a young man of color in an all-white community and a young bride living in her parents' home was difficult. Still, they survived.

BWW Review: BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN is Much More Than a Cooking Show
Mr. & Mrs. B.P. and Anu Rao, during their early years in America in the 1960s. Photo courtesy Sri Rao.

Much of the charm of the show is how candid Rao is about his upbringing. I won't go into any of the other stories he tells because the realizations that come in the quiet spaces of his storytelling are best experienced in the moment...in a pause, a look, a smile. Here, in the silences, is where Arpita Mukherjee's direction shapes the flow and makes the most of his words. It's a delicate dance and one that requires an audience member to be open and present. To one who is, the reward is great.

Rao originally conceived the show as a stage musical, but it has been reinvented for the virtual stage as part of The Geffen's Stayhouse Theater series. Written by Rao, and directed with great sensitivity by Mukherjee, it affirms the power of food to heal and the importance of making a connection at a time when so many in the world are disconnected. The 75-minute show is produced by The Geffen in association with New York-based Hypokrit Theatre Company, Rao's creative home while developing BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN.

The menu's centerpiece is Chicken Curry (or Chana Masala for vegans) which recreates his mother's flavors and has become his signature dish when cooking for guests. It's accompanied by Raita, a traditional blend of yogurt, cucumber and onion, and simple, everyday Basmati Rice. Dessert is a to-die-for Chocolate Chai Affogato. His recipe for a Mumbai Mule, Rao's version of a Moscow Mule, kicks off the evening and is a refreshing accompaniment to the Bollywood Popcorn you make as a starter. There is nothing stuffy here. This is a home-cooked meal, comforting and warm, in the company of an artist who quickly becomes a friend. I didn't want it to end.

BWW Review: BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN is Much More Than a Cooking Show
Photo credit: Jeff Lorch

Clips from some of Rao's favorite Bollywood films are interspersed among the cooking and storytelling. From them we come to understand what Rao means when he says there is something that happens when you listen to music in a language you don't understand, as he did when he first watched Bollywood films as a child. It forges a unique connection all its own.

If you purchase the interactive Chef's Table ticket, you'll have the added benefit of cooking on camera from your home via Zoom and you'll be able to talk with Rao during the performance. These conversations further embody the show's spirit and lend another personal touch to an already memorable production.

Though it has only just opened, the show has already been extended through March 6th. Tickets are $40, $95, and $175 per household with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 4:00pm and 7:00pm PT. For more information, call 310-208-2028 or go to www.geffenplayhouse.org.


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