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Home Life Madhur Jaffrey’s Undefinable Roles

Madhur Jaffrey’s Undefinable Roles

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“I haven’t given you anything particularly Indian today,” Ms. Jaffrey said, warming a chicken biryani in her kitchen in Hillsdale, New York, the small town upstate where she and her husband, the violinist Sanford Allen, live most of the year when not at their Manhattan apartment. They purchased the property, which is decorated with artwork and antiques that they have acquired from their many travels abroad, in 1983. “It’s how I eat. I eat a mixture of everything,” she added, nodding to the two side dishes, one made of smoked eggplant, the other a cucumber salad with the last of Ms. Jaffrey’s summer tomatoes, that sat on the white countertop.

Credit…via New York Review Books; Illustration by Michael Foreman

In 1966, when The New York Times first profiled Ms. Jaffrey, the headline for the piece written by the former restaurant critic Craig Claiborne read: “Indian Actress Is a Star in the Kitchen, Too.” Ms. Jaffrey had garnered praise and attention for her role in the 1965 Merchant Ivory film “Shakespeare Wallah,” playing Manjula, a jilted Bollywood film star. Her beauty and quicksilver temperament captivated viewers, and she took home the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, upsetting the producer’s expectations for the film’s lead, Felicity Kendal, to win the prize.

“You play your part for yourself,” Ms. Jaffrey said matter-of-factly. “You are the main character for yourself. To me, I was the most important character.”

At the time, Ms. Jaffrey considered herself an amateur, if passionate, cook. Her main profession was acting, having caught the bug when she was 5 years old (she played the mouse in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” for a school play, and recalled enjoying hot chocolate during the intermission) in her native Delhi. By the time she was enrolled in the University of Delhi in the early 1950s, she was seriously acting and eventually joined a repertory company founded by the actor Saeed Jaffrey (who would become her first husband) before earning a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1955. It was there that Ms. Jaffrey taught herself to cook from recipes her mother had sent from India, improvising with substitutes when original Indian vegetables were unavailable or making adjustments to account for matters of regional taste, such as using canned tomatoes instead of fresh ones. Cooking the dishes of her childhood was a way to manage her homesickness and avoid the less-than-mediocre English food at the drama school canteen.

Of her aspirations of stardom during her acting days, she said, “I thought I could handle any role.”

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