A new role for Madhur Jaffrey: Rap grandma
At 85, the actor and cook brings sass to a music video by Monsoon Wedding’s director
Nani: Madhur Jaffrey with Zohran Mamdani, aka Mr Cardamom. Photograph: Nicole Craine/New York Times
The halal cart was shaking. Inside the hot tin box the 85-year-old actor and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, masked in giant sunglasses and a rippling white wig, was hopping up and down and making profane gestures with both hands.
It was day two of the video shoot for Nani, a rap song by Zohran Mamdani, a young Queens MC who calls himself Mr Cardamom. The elegantly feline Jaffrey, who is best known for her BBC series Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery and Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India, was incarnating a gangster granny who refuses to submit to her son’s bleating demands for less meddling and more dutiful child care.
In the video, which debuted online on Monday, the character describes herself as “85 years gold” and “the best damn Nani that you ever done seen”, among other assertions too colourful to repeat. She is prone to slapping bothersome men on the street (who cower even as they loom over her) and insisting that restaurant maitres d’ come grovel and refill her water glass. “It’s like playing Lady Macbeth,” Jaffrey says. “If you’re an actress you have to play everything.”
In what may be the unlikeliest pairing since Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg, Madhur Jaffrey agreed to appear in Mamdani’s video after he wooed her over a cup of chai
In what may be the unlikeliest pairing since Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg, Jaffrey agreed last spring to appear in Mamdani’s video after he wooed her over a cup of chai. “I thought, I can do this,” Jaffrey says. “Then I read the words.”
She watched rap videos as research, and grew nervous. The biggest challenge: to mouth the lyrics at top speed while staying on the beat.
The song was written two years ago as a homage to Mamdani’s then 85-year-old nani, or grandmother, Praveen Nair, a former social worker in Delhi, and a founder of the Salaam Baalak Trust, which helps underprivileged children living on the streets. “She has gone against the grain in so many different ways,” he says.
This manifests in the video as a fantastical vision of her running a crime syndicate and recruiting children at Khan’s tutoring centre in the New York borough of Queens, who are supposed to be preparing for the city’s high-school admissions test. “It’s an Indian I Will Survive kind of song,” Jaffrey says.
For many in the desi diaspora, Jaffrey is a revered figure, almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the complexities of Indian food to the West, and asserting its place in the pantheon of great world cuisines.
A mutual friend approached Jaffrey on Mamdani’s behalf, and she was intrigued. The two met, and he pleaded his case, then proceeded to build the video around her, weaving in clips from her movies and TV cooking shows.
Mamdani, who is 27, was born in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and moved to New York at the age of seven. In his official, buttoned-up life, he counsels homeowners facing foreclosure. But he has always had an alter ego as a musician. As a junior at the Bronx High School of Science, he ran for class vice-president with a rapped platform promising freshly squeezed juices for all. He lost.
Four years ago he reinvented himself as Young Cardamom, and with his childhood friend Abdul Bar Hussein (aka HAB) recorded Kanda (Chap Chap), a rap about the fatty, greasy splendour of Ugandan-style chapatti. (At one point in the video the flatbread spins on a turntable.)
#1 Spice, the duo’s biggest hit, was written for the 2016 movie Queen of Katwe, in which it is first sung by a child in Uganda selling salt, then blasted as a fully fledged rap over the credits: “Bring the flavour to the fish, bring the flavour to the rice / Who’s the number-one spice?” (The film was directed by Mamdani’s mother, Mira Nair, whose work includes Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!)
Mamdani wanted his first solo video as Mr Cardamom – “Better drop the act that I’m young,” he said – to be “a love letter to desi New York”. So the crew wound its way from an apartment in Parkchester, in neighbourhood in the eastern Bronx that is home to many Bangladeshi immigrants, to Kabab King, a nostalgically dingy 24-hour diner and cabby sanctuary in Jackson Heights. “The service is horrendous, and it’s beautiful,” Mamdani says. “You can make direct eye contact with someone and they will not come to your table.” The owners let him shoot without charge.
There were few frills on set. Mamdani asked a friend to arrange Jaffrey’s transportation, and was horrified to learn later that she’d had to share a Lyft from her home in Greenwich Village. “Somebody carried my shoes,” Jaffrey says.
Between takes she swapped recipes with the crew and offered tips on difficult ingredients like bitter gourd: “We don’t cut down on the bitterness – we think it’s good for you.”
The shoot took place last May, during the holy month of Ramadan, a difficult time for a Muslim rapper to make a video celebrating food. Mamdani fasted for the first day but couldn’t make it through the second, not with kebabs so close at hand.
It took nearly a year to finish the video. Among other obstacles, one would-be editor pocketed Mamdani’s hard drive and was never heard from again.
In the meantime Jaffrey shot the first season of I Feel Bad, an NBC sitcom (the series is awaiting renewal), and wrote a cookbook, out this May, dedicated to the pleasures of the Instant Pot, the bestselling programmable pressure cooker. “If you follow my directions – not the Instant Pot directions – any rice comes out perfect,” she says.
When Mamdani tried to pay her for her work on the video, she refused. But she kept the yellow beret he had bought as a final, Che Guevara-esque touch for her costume. Mamdani likes to imagine her wearing it every now and then, eyebrow cocked, still prowling the streets as Nani. – New York Times