BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN is more than a cooking show

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Sri Rao in the BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN. Photo credit: Kyle Rosenberg

Even before the show started, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop smelling the spices.

Two of three tiers of tickets for the Geffen Playhouse world premiere of BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN include a Bollywood box sent to your home. This beautifully designed box – easily a keepsake in itself – contains recipe cards, a shopping list, specialty ingredients and jars of the most aromatic spices you can imagine, which you will use in Sri Rao’s recipes. Ground cloves, cumin, cilantro and cinnamon, the whole experience begins long before you start cooking. It’s a perfect example of how food evokes memories just by the smell of it.

But if you thought it’s going to be just another cooking show, then you’d be wrong. It is much more than that. It’s an intimate, honest and insightful immigrant story shared during meal preparation, and an undeniable expression of love for family in all its wonderful mess. It also celebrates the impact of Bollywood films on a young Indian who grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, when he was the only Indian family in the city.

Her parents had an arranged marriage. Soon 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 plot of a romance movie, but in reality it wasn’t easy for either one. The isolation of a young man of color in an all-white community and a young bride living in her parents’ house was difficult. Yet they survived.

BWW Review: BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN Is Much More Than A Cooking Show
Mr. & Mrs. BP and Anu Rao, during their early years in America in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Sri Rao.

Much of the charm of the series lies in Rao’s frankness about his upbringing. I won’t go into any of the other stories he tells because the accomplishments that come in the quiet spaces of his storytelling are best experienced in the moment … in a pause, a look, a smile. It is here, in the silences, that Arpita Mukherjee’s direction shapes the flow and makes the most of her lyrics. It is a delicate dance and requires that a member of the audience be open and present. For whoever is, the reward is great.

Rao originally designed the show as a live musical, but it was reimagined 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 healing power of food and the importance of making connection at a time when so many people in the world are disconnected. The 75-minute show is produced by The Geffen in association with New York-based Hypokrit Theater Company, Rao’s creative home while developing BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN.

The centerpiece of the menu 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 served with Raita, a traditional blend of yogurt, cucumber and onion, and simple, everyday basmati rice. The dessert is a Chai Affogato chocolate to die for. His Mumbai mule recipe, Rao’s version of a Moscow mule, kicks off the evening and is a refreshing accompaniment to any Bollywood popcorn you prepare as a starter. There is nothing stuffy here. It 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.

Snippets from some of Rao’s favorite Bollywood movies are interspersed between the cooking and the storytelling. From them we understand what Rao means when he says that something happens when you listen to music in a language you don’t understand, just like he did when he saw for the first time in Bollywood films when he was a child. He forges a unique connection of his own.

If you purchase the Chef’s Table interactive ticket, you will have the added benefit of cooking in front of the camera from your home via Zoom and you will be able to speak with Rao during the show. These conversations further embody the spirit of the show and give another personal touch to an already memorable production.

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


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