- In the virtual and interactive show, the cookbook author, television writer and producer cooks his signature chicken curry on camera to a virtual audience, and takes them on a personal journey of his family's immigrant experience.
Cookbook author and television writer Sri Rao has found a perfect way to blend his two passions, Indian food and films. Rao launched “Bollywood Kitchen,” his first interactive show on Jan. 23. The show runs through March 6, every weekend, and is inspired by his cookbook of the same name.
Part of Geffen Playhouse’s virtual Geffen Playhouse series, in association with Hypokrit Theatre Company, “Bollywood Kitchen” is directed by Hypokrit co-founder Arpita Mukherji. Rao says the live show, filmed at his New York apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, is “an intimate dinner party” featuring “an evening of Indian American food and storytelling and Bollywood music.”
As he cooks his signature chicken curry on camera to a virtual audience, he takes them on a personal journey of his family’s immigrant experience. “I cook for you and invite you to cook along with me,” he told American Kahani. He draws on the recipes that were staples at his family’s table, when growing up in Pennsylvania. As the audience prepares the meal with him, they are transported to Rao’s growing up years in Mechanicsburg, as he interweaves the story of his parents immigrating to America, the joy and nourishment that Bollywood musicals brought to his whole family and the culinary traditions they shared.
“But I am not a chef by any means” Rao admits. “I didn’t know anything about Indian cooking while growing up,” he says, and adds that his mother was the “commander of the kitchen” and never let anyone else in. It was only after Rao started living alone that he learned to cook Indian food. “I was tired of takeout everyday, or making pasta,” he says.
But there was a challenge. “Indian mothers don’t really follow any recipe.” Along the way, Rao mastered a few dishes with the help of his mother, including the chicken curry he cooks in “Bollywood Kitchen,” which is the first recipe that he “cracked” when deciding to write the book. “It was a really personal objective of mine to figure it out and get it down on paper so that we could preserve it.”
According to him the show will attract people who are both familiar with and curious about Indian food. “The great thing about the show is that it works on both audiences,” he says, Indian Americans as well as mainstream, “who don’t know anything about Indian Americans, and are curious about the cuisine and Bollywood.” For the South Asian Americans, the show will be “comforting, entertaining and a celebration of our stories,” he says. “For many of us first-generation Indian Americans and myself in particular is that the way we connected with our heritage and where our parents come from has largely been through food and through films. These Bollywood films are oftentimes how we learned the language.” And for others it will be a deconstruction of Indian food. “People think Indian food is difficult and unapproachable, which it is not,” he says. “There is also curiosity about Bollywood.”
Rao delves into the genesis of “Bollywood Kitchen.” The idea of producing a virtual show came about when Matt Shakman, artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Geffen Playhouse, called Rao sometime in June, asking him if he’d be interested in virtual theater. “After my book came out, I had started developing a theatrical show, it was a different concept — had music and actors live musicians. But when COVID happened, it shuttered the entire industry and that’s how the show “Bollywood Kitchen” was born.
Rao says the concept for the musical was originally developed at Arts Nova in New York. Then Hypokrit Theatre Company in New York came on board and Mukherjee attached herself as the director with Hypokrit as the company behind it and we developed it further.
The best part of the show, Rao says, is working with an entirely South Asian American crew behind the scenes — the director, the lighting designer, the sound designer, production designer, costume designer as well the assistant director.
Rao is currently filming “The Actress” for Netflix, a suspenseful family drama he created for iconic Bollywood superstar Madhuri Dixit, in her first-ever series role. His projects, spanning both drama and comedy, often tell stories of the Indian-American experience, including, “Red White & Bollywood” (with Priyanka Chopra), “Courtesan” (with director Shekhar Kapur), “S.O.B.” (with Kelly Ripa), “Bollywood Spy” (with Ryan Seacrest), and “I Am Not Myself These Days” (with Darren Star).Previously, Rao wrote the Bollywood film “Baar Baar Dekho,” featuring the #1 hit song “Kala Chashma,” starring Sidharth Malhotra and Katrina Kaif. Rao also produced the films “New York” and “Badmaash Company” for Yash Raj Films.
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.