UK Web Archive
10:44:47 Jan 3, 2012  
10 PM 10 PM

External links, forms and search boxes may not function within archived websites.
The British Library

Exclusive Interview

Cooking Guru Madhur Jaffrey Makes Brief EastEnders Stop

By Larry Jaffee

Sometimes EastEnders actors are cast as characters that turn out to make only brief appearances, yet their real-life backgrounds overshadow whatever footnote contributions they have made to the series. Anthony Newley, Hywell Bennett and Susan George come to mind. An award-winning actress since the mid-1960s on both sides of the Atlantic in film, stage and television, Madhur Jaffrey falls into this category. She starred on Broadway in Bombay Dreams in 2004, and had guest appearances in the U.S. police dramas Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit, as well as the Hollywood films Flawless with Robert De Niro, Six Degrees of Separation with Donald Sutherland and Prime with Meryl Streep.

But she’s perhaps best known for her Indian cooking and as the author of more than 15 cookbooks, the latest being At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, published in October by Alfred A. Knopf. In an exclusive interview with the Walford Gazette, Jaffrey talks about her dual careers, her time on EastEnders and the quality of Indian food in the U.S. and Britain.

Jaffrey was brought in to be Pushpa, the estranged ex-wife of Dan Ferreira (played by Bollywood veteran actor Dalip Tahil). She appeared in a half-dozen EastEnders episodes, mostly dealing with her character maintaining secret relationships with her grown children, but culminating in an explosive wedding scene. Dan’s date Shirley accidentally meets Pushpa in the ladies’ room, and realises she is not dead, as Dan had led her to believe. I think that the episode, which WLIW broadcast in mid-October, ranks among EastEnders’ best. Although Jaffrey maintains homes in Manhattan and upstate New York, she wasn’t aware that her EastEnders episodes were being watched in the U.S. – seven years after those scenes were aired in the U.K.

“Somebody just told me. I was very surprised.” She recalls the 2003 experience as if it was yesterday.

“I had such a wonderful time. The kids who played my children were young Londoners and were such fun to work with,” says Jaffrey, who’s eager to share some behind-the-scenes information about what went on during the “big wedding banquet, which was shot at a wonderful home in the country over three or four days.”

She explains that the same real food had been placed on tables, and was not moved the next day nor the day after that (not for reasons of economy but of continuity). “They wanted us to pretend we were eating…. [The spoiled food’s odour was so bad] that it was like sitting in front of a garbage truck. The awful smells were assaulting our nostrils.”

Jaffrey says she thinks Tahil’s real-life immigration problems might have diminished her role, which she would have been interested in expanding. With Tahil no longer available, “they had to fade out my character,” she notes. EastEnders ended up rewriting 40 scripts. Pushpa Ferreira’s backstory involves her leaving Dan for his best friend. At the time of her casting, Jaffrey explained in an online chat with readers of The Independent, “I really wanted to do the [EastEnders] role because Indian women are usually portrayed as so proper and withdrawn – the kind of women who just stay at home cooking and cleaning. I thought, ‘How wonderful of EastEnders to write a character that is realistic’. What my character has done happens all the time in India; there are all kinds of stories of people running away and marrying their lovers. This is what commonly happens in those places, but somehow the image of Indian womanhood is different.” In that same interview, she was asked what the food is like in the EastEnders canteen, to which she responded: “It’s fine. But I don’t know why the BBC canteen doesn’t take advice from the corporation’s wonderful cooking programmes. The food is OK, but it is not food that you hunger for.”

Jaffrey tells the Walford Gazette she thinks the Ferreira family was unfairly slammed by critics for not being an “authentic” Indian family. “Goans are real Indians. Some are mixed race.” Of the series, which she would have been all in favour of continuing, she reflects: “I wanted to do EastEnders,” and that the show approached her U.K. agent. She also has one in the U.S., as well as literary agents in both countries.

Besides EastEnders, Jaffrey’s acting has run the gamut from police shows to Bollywood. In addition to the new book, she is promoting a new comedy film, Today’s Special, starring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, opening in the U.S. nationwide on 19 November. Jaffrey plays the mother of Mandvi’s character, Samir, a Manhattan chef who rediscovers his heritage and his passion for life through the enchanting art of cooking Indian food. The role allows Jaffrey to marry her two passions: acting and cooking. Jaffrey says she’s “involved” in the Manhattan Indian restaurant Dawat, where she occasionally cooks as well as helps out with the menu. Coincidentally, the Walford Gazette in June 2001 assembled a small group of fans for a dinner party there in honour of Wendy Richard.

Jaffrey says that Indian restaurants in New York are as good as in London, and the same is true in major cities in both countries. “There is now a much better grade of restaurants. Previously, everyone had the same menu.”

She agrees that curry has become the “national dish” of Britain. “It started with young people looking for a cheap meal, something spicy so they could have a lot to drink with it.” Not surprisingly, the British title of her new book is Curry Easy, which is a marketing strategy by her publisher. “I’m not the best person to know what sells.”

Queen Elizabeth II awarded Jaffrey a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for “her services to drama and promotion of appreciation for Indian food and culture.”

For Jaffrey, “cooking is soothing: it’s a means to an end. If I’m upset, it calms me down. I eat a very good meal for myself.” She also loves to entertain. “I do it all the time.” Her present husband, Sanford Allen, to whom she has been married since 1969, is a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. They support each other’s artistic endeavours. (Her first husband, Saeed Jaffrey, whom she divorced in 1965, appeared for a short time as Ravi Desai on EastEnders’ rival, Coronation Street.)

With cooking shows all the rage on television, Jaffrey clearly wouldn’t mind being asked to host of one of her own, and she occasionally makes appearances on other programmes. In 1982 Jaffrey’s eight-part cookery series for BBC Television, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, were aired nationally in the U.K., where it has been repeated at least five times and also shown at least twice in the U.S., Ireland, most of Western Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Earlier this year, she co-starred in a film Hiding Divya, in which she played Divya, a suburban New Jersey-based Indian-American woman battling mental illness following the death of her common-law husband. According to The New York Times review: “Divya has episodes: she retreats into herself, stays all night in the car with a blank look, and worse. (At one point she marches around with a carving knife looking for evil eyes to cut out.)” The Hollywood Reporter cited Jaffrey’s “fiercely committed performance.”

Proud of her heritage, Jaffrey sees how the success of Indian-themed films like Slumdog Millionaire and Monsoon Wedding (she wasn’t in either) has permeated popular culture. “I saw an immediate result: suddenly there was an Indian character on 24.” Born in Delhi, Madhur came to Britain aged 19 to study drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). An invitation to teach pantomime brought her to the U.S. in 1957, where she worked at St. Michael’s Playhouse, Winooski, Vermont. From there she went to New York in search of work in the theatre. She began writing food articles to boost her income.

Circa 1961, Jaffrey ran in the same circles as future film partners Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. In fact, she introduced them to each other; they repaid her by often casting her in the Merchant-Ivory productions including Shakespeare Wallah (1964), The Guru (1969), Autobiography of a Princess (1975), Heat and Dust (1983) and Cotton Mary (1999), the last of which she co-directed with Merchant. “We were all very young,” she says of their early New York days. “We were all dreamers. Ismail was a student at NYU (New York University). He once turned to me and told how he wanted to make Radio City musicals and plays. James, an American, dreamed of going to India. We met very often at my apartment. I could cook.”

But according to her book, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India, published in 2006, “When I left India to study in England, I could not cook at all. But my palate had already recorded millions of flavours. From cumin to ginger, they were all in my head, waiting to be called into service.”

Back to Latest Articles