In a career spanning six long and illustrious decades, renowned actress and culinary legend Madhur Jaffrey has been seen in varied avatars.
She has won awards for her acting talent in film, several of her cookbooks have won James Beard Foundation Awards (considered the Oscars of cooking), including the revered Cookbook Hall of Fame Award, and she has earned herself a reputation as "the godmother of Indian cooking", thanks to several hugely popular TV shows from the '80s and '90s, in which she is seen introducing the world to the rich spices and flavours of Indian cuisine.
With such a long list of accomplishments to her name, you'd be forgiven for thinking there's precious little that could stoke the creative fires of Jaffrey at the grand age of 85. The truth, as it turns out, couldn't be more different.
The world recently saw the diminutive actress as a foul-mouthed grandmother in the YouTube video for Nani, a rap song by a little-known American-Indian singer and songwriter who goes by Mr Cardamom. The delightfully cheeky song has the otherwise mild-mannered Jaffrey sporting a canary-yellow beret over a snowy white wig, mouthing lyrics full of expletives as she traipses across New York City, dancing in a food truck, in the subway, at the supermarket … all the while making profane gestures, and even planting several loud, stinging, thwacks across the faces of young men who annoy her.
A little over two weeks old, the song has already won the hearts of young men and women around the world, particularly those with roots in eastern cultures. An obvious reason is Mr Cardamom's deliberate and complete departure from the norm. The loveable "nani", or maternal grandmother in Hindi, is almost always seen as a gentle, docile character in pop culture, not someone who would slap her son-in-law because he berated her for "meddling" or "neglecting her duties".
"You can't show nani her place," Zohran Mamdani, or Mr Cardamom, 27, tells The National. "The world is her place and she'll do what she wants," he says with a laugh.
Mamdani recorded the song almost two years ago as a dedication to his own grandmother, Dr Praveen Nair, then 85 and a children's welfare activist from India, to whom he is very close. Landing Jaffrey for the video was a stroke of luck. "A friend thought Madhur Ji would be great for the part. I was excited, but I didn't know her personally. A few months later, I was discussing the song with another friend who happened to know Madhur Ji and volunteered to email her on my behalf.
“After a few rounds with her manager and agents, I found myself being invited to her home in New York for tea. I didn’t even have a script at the time. I explained my idea to her and she was excited. And just like that, she was on board. I wrote the script after that.”
Mamdani can best be described as a part-time fledgling musician. He has a demanding full-time job that involves counselling people in financial crisis on how they can save their homes from foreclosure. His claim to musical fame is the song, #1 Spice, which he recorded with childhood friend and rap artist HAB for his mother, internationally acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair's 2016 film Queen Of Katwe.
In the four years since he started making music professionally, he has only produced 10 songs. Nani, too, was shot and recorded on a shoestring budget, using Mamdani's own savings. Naturally, the prospect of working with someone as prolific as Jaffrey was a daunting one. After all, the scale of her popularity and versatility has spanned the length and breadth of her roughly 60-year career.
Jaffrey started her professional journey with small parts in radio plays and children's programmes for the All India Radio in India pre-independence while still in school. She went on to become an acclaimed actress (winning the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for her role in the 1995 movie Shakespeare Wallah), and appeared in dozens of films and television series. Jaffrey's culinary career skyrocketed in the 1970s with the release of her first cookbook, An Invitation To Indian Cooking in 1973, and she has since published 30 more, with another in the works.
Despite the differences in their professional statures, Mamdani describes the experience of working with Jaffrey as one of the most enriching ones in his life. "It's humbling to see how easy Madhur Ji was to work with. She's unfamiliar with rap, so she was worried about lip-syncing at that speed to keep to the beat of the song, but we worked through that with several practice sessions. You feel a bit self-conscious about asking someone so experienced to give multiple takes, especially when you're a newbie. But she never once made us feel awkward about it," he says.
Jaffrey, Mamdani tells me, also refused her fee – already just a token amount – for the video. "She asked me to put it towards the cost of production. She only wanted to keep the yellow beret she wears in the song," laughs Mamdani. "And what nani wants, nani gets." Indeed.