Theater Review: BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN (Geffen Playhouse)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on January 25, 2021

in Theater-Los Angeles,Virtual

CURRY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CURRY

About a week prior to virtually attending Bollywood Kitchen, Sri Rao’s inventive solo memoir and home cooking experience, a beautiful box arrives containing seven jars of curated Indian spices, a Bollywood popcorn kit, a chocolate chai affogato kit, basmati rice, coconut powder, recipe cards, and a shopping list for a few perishables.

Bollywood Box. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

The richly decorated box alone is worth the price of admission. It’s a Technicolor harbinger of the delights to come. It may seem a little daunting at first, as you read through the recipes to learn what to prepare ahead and what to have on-hand—but it’s also quite fun—particularly now when entertaining friends with a meal at home is tricky at best, potentially unwise, and in some places illegal.

Bollywood Box spices. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

A household can choose between three tiers of tickets. The box comes with the top two. The priciest is Chef’s Table, which is fully interactive with a limited number of participants appearing on-screen from time to time when Rao checks in with them. My ticket was for the second tier. With the third tier you get the recipes digitally and are on your own for the ingredients.

Sri Rao in BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN. Photo Kyle Rosenberg.

The format is simple. While preparing a homestyle Indian dinner in his New York apartment Rao tells stories of cooking, of his parents’ emigration from India to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and of a childhood spent watching Bollywood films with his parents and his sister every single night on the VCR after dinner. The stories are interwoven with clips from five Bollywood films made from 1955 to 2016.

Sri grew up in Mechanicsburg, PA. His family was one of the few families of color in the entire town.
Photo courtesy Sri Rao.

Rao seamlessly connects the three elements. When he stops to give tips and take questions about steps in the recipes it feels natural and relaxing—like being at a friend’s house and chatting while he cooks. At first, the theatricality of the Bollywood films stands in stark contrast to the seemingly simpler family tales. But his exploration of his family’s drama becomes deeper and more poignant as he goes along, turning from mostly sweet to something more complex.

BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN cookbook by Sri Rao. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

The show is inspired by Rao’s cookbook of the same name. He talks about how during the publicity tour he became adept at the typical NPR-style interviews, selling the book with charming anecdotes about his “model minority” family’s upward trajectory into American life.

Sri's parents, Mr. & Mrs. B.P. and Anu Rao, during their early years in America in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy Sri Rao.

What he left out in those interviews was the unrelenting isolation, both for his father when he arrived with no financial resources in 1955, and for his mother who stayed alone for eight years in India until 1963, waiting until she could join the husband she had barely met before their arranged marriage and his departure.

Like many first-generation Indian-American kids, Sri grew up with a love of Bollywood films,
which is how he learned the language and culture of his parents' homeland. Photo courtesy Sri Rao.

For Rao came the isolation of being brown, gay, and sensitive in working class Pennsylvania. He struggled to understand his inchoate crush on a little boy in his kindergarten class and learned Hindi from Bollywood subtitles. He felt at home in the kitchen, associating the smells of his mother’s cooking with the part of himself that was rooted in a culture from a place he had never been.

Sri's parents were one of the very first Indian immigrants to settle in Harrisburg, PA in the 1960s.
Photo courtesy Sri Rao.

There are many gulfs between Indian and American cultures, but for me, the one that encapsulates it best is the fact that in India there is no spice called “curry.” What westerners think of as a single spice is a mixture of turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fresh or dried chilies and the entrée we call “curry” in India is a wealth of different dishes. We think of curry as one of two things. A spice. An entrée. For Indians it is a rich blend of flavors, identity, and experiences.

Sri Rao in BOLLYWOOD KITCHEN. Photo by Kyle Rosenberg.

Arpita Mukherjee’s direction is fluid and energetic. Video designer, director of photography, and animator David Bengali makes the cooking process easy to follow. He also keeps things going without any glitches—no mean feat as anyone on a zoom conference call can attest. Bollywood Kitchen is vivid, touching, and illuminating. It’s also delicious.

cover photo by Hartman Benzon Media

Bollywood Kitchen
Geffen Playhouse
Fri at 7 PT; Sat at 4 & 7 PT
ends on February 20, 2021 EXTENDED to March 6, 2021
for tickets ($40, $95, $175) call 310.208.2028 or visit Geffen

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