Sri Rao grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, spending evenings watching Bollywood films at home with his family after dinner. Today, he works in entertainment, both in Hollywood and as one of the few Americans to have worked in the Indian movie industry. Rao's new book is part cookbook, part guide to Bollywood, where he pairs full Indian meals with suggested films. He talked to Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about working between two film industries, being part of the first generation of American-born Indian-Americans and what his mom said when he told her he was writing a cookbook. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: You are a writer. You've sold a thing to ABC, right? And now what, cookbooks?
Sri Rao: A natural transition, right? Well, I'm one of the few Americans who has worked in Bollywood, the world's largest film industry, and I love these films that I grew up watching. And so I wanted to introduce Americans to this great musical genre of films, and while I'm at it, cook them some really good home-cooked Indian food at the same time.
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Ryssdal: Let's talk about Bollywood for a second before we get into the food. You have chosen in this book not the classics but sort of modern Bollywood. OK, so first of all there's a difference — there is classic Bollywood and modern. Help us understand. Help me understand.
Rao: Well, in the mid-90s, there was sort of a turning point in the Bollywood film industry, and that was when movies out of India became a lot more global in their appeal. They had higher production values, they had more sophisticated storytelling, they started telling stories in a way that appealed to audiences outside of India, particularly here in America and in the United Kingdom. And I sort of started my journey at that point and worked forward so to show you what the new era of contemporary Bollywood cinema looks like.
Ryssdal: You tell stories in this book, or a story in this book about growing up in Pennsylvania, watching Bollywood films with your parents.
Rao: Yeah, so I'm from a small town in central Pennsylvania, and I was one of very few nonwhite kids in my community growing up. Every day after dinner, my parents would pop a tape into VCR and we would watch these fantastic Bollywood movies, and that's how I learned the language. That's how I learned about the music and the culture and so many of the traditions of where my parents came from.
Ryssdal: So there you are, like, a 10-year-old kid, watching the movies in Hindi and not really understand yet?
Rao: Yeah, with the subtitles, and then I fell in love with them because I'm a writer, and I have been writing scripts since I was 5 years old, so it immediately resonated for me. And through these films, I was transported to another place different from where I was growing up in this working-class, primarily white town, and it meant a lot to me. And I think it means a lot to second-generation Indian immigrants like myself. Children who are born here. For us, the Bollywood movies are the way that we learn about this place that our parents come from.
Ryssdal: It's a thing in your generation?
Rao: It very much is, and anyone who's ever been to an Indian wedding here in America knows that it's, like, three days straight of just Bollywood dancing and Indian food.
Ryssdal: So let's talk about the book for a minute. But before we do that, I want to ask you about Indian cooking in this country. So I've spent a lot of time in China, and you go to China and the Chinese food in China, it ain't the food that you get here. Same deal with India?
Rao: Yes, it's very, very much true. The Indian food in America is now its own thing. And as people like me are starting to come of age now — you know, I'm one of the oldest American-born Indians in the country. Immigration from India was only legalized in 1965. At that time in 1965 when immigration was opened up from India, there were only 10,000 Indians in the entire country, my dad being one of them. And now there are over 4 million I believe, something like that. And so you're starting to see us as a group come up and sort of find our voice in various fields. So people like, you know, Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari in entertainment or Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley in politics. And then in the world of food, this is one of the first or one of a few cookbooks that have been written by someone born in America who is of Indian descent.
Ryssdal: When you have this conversation with your parents, I assume you talk about this stuff as you were doing this book. What did they say about that?
Rao: My mom doesn't believe that I actually wrote a cookbook, and I didn't actually tell her for the first six months that I was working on it because I knew that she would just laugh at me. Which is exactly what she did. She said to me, quote, “What American is going to spend $25 to buy a book with your recipes in it?"
You can read an excerpt from Rao's book below.
To the uninitiated, watching a Bollywood movie for the first time can be a bit dizzying. The music, the action, the melodrama — it's enough to make your head spin — which, I admit, may be part of the fun.. But before you jump into the world of dancing damsels and handsome heroes, allow me to provide you with a brief road map to guide you on the adventure.
No, They’re Not Actually Singing
Many people are surprised to learn that the actors in Bollywood movies are not singers. But they are excellent lip-synchers. For those of us accustomed to American musicals, both Broadway and the film variety, we just assume that the melodious voice coming from each actor’s mouth is his own. Not the case in Bollywood. Instead, the voice belongs to what is known as a playback singer. This group of performers has been integral—some might even say imperative—to the success of Bollywood films over the past century. They are the unseen voices behind the screen that belt out thousands of songs every year, while the glory goes to the beautiful actors on-screen who move their lips and shake their hips to match.
That’s not to say that playback singers don’t have devout followings of their own. It’s an elite group for sure, with the same five to ten names popping up in the credits of every film you watch. The most famous playback singer in Bollywood history, Lata Mangeshkar, is nothing short of a national treasure in India.
She’s been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having sung thousands of movie songs over the course of her seventy-year career. Even though she no longer records for films, she remains my all-time favorite singer, whose irreplaceable voice is synonymous with Bollywood. With all respect to Ms. Mangeshkar, it’s easy to understand why Bollywood films separate the actors from the singers: Most truly great vocalists aren’t necessarily known for their looks. To put it another way, it’s very difficult to find actors who are genuine triple threats (performers who can act and sing and dance). When you’re producing hundreds of musical films every year, there just aren’t enough actors who can juggle all three talents. And while it’s possible to teach someone to dance, at least marginally, a great singing voice can’t be faked. So Bollywood separates the two groups of performers and, I would argue, has consequently cultivated some of the best singers in the world. If only we could say the same for the majority of its acting talent.
Speaking of music, one of the reasons that Bollywood movies are so much fun to watch for fans is because we’re usually familiar with the music before we see the film. By and large, pop music in India is film music. Radio stations and cable TV music channels are continuously playing songs from the latest movie releases. So by the time you go to the theater to see the film, you already know the music and can sing along with the songs on-screen.
Please Refrain from Silence During the Show
If there’s one piece of advice I have for enjoying the concept behind my book, it is this: Please don’t watch these movies the way we watch American movies. Don’t get me wrong. As a writer and director, there is nothing that frustrates me more than people who talk during a film or TV show, disrespecting the hundreds of artists whose time and talent went into that piece of work, regardless of whether or not you happen to be enjoying it. But conversely, there’s no better way to express your enjoyment and respect for Bollywood artists than by actively participating with a film as you’re watching it. Applause, criticism, running commentary— bring it on.
It’s really a matter of self-endurance. These films typically run two and a half hours (older films used to cross the three-hour mark), so there’s no way to stay diligently silent for so long without falling into a stupor. And like all things Indian, watching a movie is a communal experience. It’s meant to be shared with your family and friends—loudly, if you so choose.
Along the same lines, every movie comes with an intermission. So when the word interval flashes on the screen, consider it part of the Bollywood experience to pause your viewing for a social break. Grab another plate of food, serve chai and dessert, or catch up on your text messages before settling back in for the
Gods Among the Stars
We may feel like we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture here in the United States, but we pale in comparison to India. Bollywood stars are akin to gods—literally, in some cases, with makeshift shrines to actors erected in villages and hundreds of millions of fans fiercely devoted to their favorite heroes and heroines.
The current holy trinity of Bollywood are the Khans: Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan. Though no relation to one another, these three men have ruled screens and hearts for close to thirty years. Typically, devotees have an affinity for one of the three sacred branches. There’s Aamir, the serious actor, Shah Rukh, the romantic leading man, and Salman, the action star of the people.
The granddaddy of them all, though, is Mr. Amitabh Bachchan. Consider him the Zeus of Bollywood, revered by even the biggest demigods themselves. The septuagenarian burst onto the scene in the late ’70s/early ’80s as “the angry young man,” and has continued his reign without interruption ever since. He is perhaps the most famous movie star in the entire world, in sheer number of fans and films. To this day, mobs congregate outside his house every Sunday just to get a glimpse of him for a few moments, waving to his admirers who’ve been waiting in the sweltering sun for hours.
But it’s not just the men. The goddesses of Bollywood have their own pantheon— from the elegant Nargis and Madhubala in the ’40s and ’50s to divas Rekha and Sridevi in the ’80s, dancing queen Madhuri Dixit in the ’90s, and current-day global beauties Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone, and Priyanka Chopra (of TV’s Quantico). Although these leading ladies continue to mesmerize audiences from one era to the next, their individual careers seem to have a shelf life of only around ten years, unlike their male costars. After that point, although they may occasionally find a role of substance, they usually choose instead to seek a suitable (read: wealthy) husband and go into semi-retirement—while their male costars continue to sing and dance on-screen with actresses twenty years their junior. (We could decry sexism more vociferously if we didn’t suffer from a similar double standard in Hollywood.)
It’s interesting to note that the phenomenon of Bollywood gods isn’t confined to India. Stars like Shah Rukh Khan have millions of fans all over the world, in places as diverse as Dubai, Russia, Singapore, and Great Britain. Even in the United States, there have been instances of theater managers having to reprimand audiences for lighting oil lamps and performing religious ceremonies inside suburban movie theaters on the opening night of their favorite star’s latest film.
So if you find yourself falling in love with one of the larger-than-life personalities in a film from this book—you’re not alone. And if you’re lucky, you could see them in the flesh. They regularly go on world tours, like the Rolling Stones or Madonna, lip-synching and dancing to your favorite film songs in packed stadiums from New York to Sydney. The best part is, instead of popcorn and hot dogs, the venues serve samosas and mango lassis.
Pledging the Film Fraternity
Although it’s a multimillion-dollar business that spans the globe, Bollywood is often referred to within India as a “film fraternity” as opposed to a “film industry.” The reason is because it functions as a tight-knit, largely family-run business—an exclusive club that most of its members were born into, and that rarely permits outsiders entry. In this way, Bollywood harkens to a bygone era in Hollywood, when the studio system ruled and producers like Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer ran the town. If you do a Wikipedia search for almost any actor, actress, writer, director, or producer in Bollywood, you’ll discover that he is related to one, if not many, other artists in the industry, often going back generations. Some families, like the descendants of Prithviraj Kapoor, form entire dynasties of Bollywood royalty. The Kapoors have been acting since the silent era, with no end in sight. Every decade, the crown is bestowed upon the next prince- or princess-in-waiting, sometimes deservedly so and other times . . . well, not so much.
The fraternity label befits Bollywood in another sense: its social scene. Most of the celebrities in Bollywood grew up together. Their childhood friends, siblings, and cousins are now their costars in both films and gossip websites. Paparazzi regularly snap them partying together or celebrating holidays jointly with their families in a way we don’t see with major Hollywood stars. Many also marry within the fraternity, forming supercouples that eventually spawn the next generation of celebrities. It’s great fodder for us fans because the romantic storylines behind the scenes can be even more melodramatic than the ones on-screen. Understandably, it’s always been incredibly difficult for new talent without family connections to break into the industry. That’s slowly changing, though, as the business itself shifts. Taking a cue from the structure of entertainment companies in America, Bollywood has become more corporatized in the past decade or so. Whereas producers routinely turned to underworld, mob sources to finance their films in the ’80s and ’90s, these days Hollywood studios like Disney and
Fox have partnered with or purchased Indian production companies to get into the Bollywood game. And the money now goes both ways—Indian conglomerate Reliance is the major funder behind DreamWorks Pictures.