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January 11, 2000


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Madhur Jaffrey Cooks Up Several Ventures

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Aseem Chhabra Madhur Jaffrey Greta Scacchi in Cotton Mary

Actress Madhur Jaffrey was a guest on the Food Network recently, playing the other role of her life, that of a chef and a cookbook writer. In between the show, the producers showed photographs from her films, including the 1975 Merchant Ivory production -- The Autobiography of the Princess , in which Jaffrey starred with the late actor, James Mason.

"About half an hour later, a woman called in the show and said, 'I am James Mason's daughter'," Jaffrey said recently in an interview IN New York. "She said, 'I was so moved to see my father in a photograph and to hear Madhur talking about my father in such a loving way.' "

"It was so amazing. I got gooseflesh," Jaffrey said.

Listening to Jaffrey narrate incidents from her life is like sitting with a storyteller.

For the last four decades (which she has primarily spent in New York City) Jaffrey has led a rich life. She has moved smoothly back and forth between theater, cinema, journalism, cook book writing, hosting television shows, consulting for an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, and doing what seemed the most important role of all -- being a mother of three grown daughters.

The year 1999 has been perhaps the richest of all. She worked on four movies and co-directed one of them, acted in Ayub Khan-Din's second play, Last Dance at Dum Dum, staged in London, and recently added one more book to her seven cooking titles -- World Vegetarian (published by Clarkson Potter).

One of the four movies, Joel Schumacher's Flawless was released earlier this fall. In the film Jaffrey plays Robert DeNiro's doctor.

In both Krutin Patel's ABCD and Nisha Ganatra's Chutney Popcorn she plays an Indian-American mother obsessed with the marriages of her rebellious children.

In real life, she is obsessed with grooming young artists.

"One of the things I do in New York is to help younger fringe playwrights, directors and screenplay writers," Jaffrey said. "I do that because I get exciting by the screenplays, which are so different than the terrible stuff I get from Hollywood."

She praised Desai and Ganatra for starting the trends of writing about the Indian-American experiences for films.

"We have had Scorsese with the Italian-American experiences and we have had Jewish-American writings for films," she said. "Where are our writers doing the Indian immigrant experiences? Here they are. They are just starting now. It's this generation that grew up in America. They are just coming out of colleges and writing for films. I love that."

She also got to do something recently that she has been longing for a long time.

Finally, in Ismail Merchant's film, Cotton Mary, Jaffrey plays the title role. Based on a screenplay by a young Columbia University film school graduate, Alexandra Viets and set in Kerala in the 1950s, Cotton Mary focuses on a complicated relationship between a group of Anglo-Indian women and a British family. The film opened last month in England and is set to be released in the US in early spring.

Viet's screenplay came to Jaffrey through her daughter Sakina, who acts with her mother in Cotton Mary and Chutney Popcorn.

"Sakina read the screenplay and called me and said that Alex needed help with casting and reading," Jaffrey said. "She sent the screenplay to me and I immediately said 'Yes, yes, yes. We must do whatever we can.' "

Jaffrey took the Cotton Mary project to Merchant. When her plans to direct the film fell through, she agreed to play the lead role in the film. Due to the intense pre-production work that she had done on the film, Jaffrey is billed a co-director in Cotton Mary.

Jaffrey started her feature film acting career with James Ivory's second film Shakespeare Wallah (1965). She did three other films with Ivory (all also produced by Merchant and written by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala) -- The Guru (1969), The Autobiography of a Princess (1975) and Heat and Dust (1983).

With Cotton Mary she returns to the Merchant Ivory group after a hiatus of 16 years.

"I see it as a group of siblings," she said about her relationship with Merchant and Ivory.

"We have all grown up together and our relationship, at least mine with them has been very sibling-like, with battles and making-up. You know what it is like. You have disagreements and you come back and you agree on doing something else. So it is a very loving relationship."

She said that one of the what excites her to work with Ivory is that "he leads actors to work things out pretty much themselves, unless you are going overboard in some way. And I seem to flower best when I am trusted and left alone."

On Jhabvala's scripts, Jaffrey said: "I feel I know how to play her writing, because she writes in a very fair kind of way, and then you have to fill in. I like that too, because it allows and gives you room. It is more challenging."

Jaffrey said that working with Merchant as a director had no surprises for her.

"Seeing Ismail directing is like seeing Ismail eating, and seeing him doing other things," she said. "He is the same person, I am very used to. And we do a lot of thing together, not just making films. So his ways are very familiar to me."

Jaffrey said that she and her ex-husband -- actor Saeed Jaffrey -- had introduced Ivory to Merchant in the early 1960's. At that time the couple had their day jobs: Madhur was a tour guide at the United Nations, and Saeed was an employee of the Government of India Tourism Office. In the evenings the two would act in Off-Broadway plays.

Merchant, a NYU student, first approached Saeed for a proposal to produce a play. The first idea -- a staging of the Sanskrit play -- never materialized, Jaffrey said.

Jaffrey recalled with fondness the time she and Saeed would sit in Ivory's East 63rd Street apartment on the floor and discuss their future plans.

"At that time Saeed and I had a plan to go back to India and start our own theatrical company," she said. "Jim (Ivory) said what a good idea it was and he started to jot down ideas of a traveling actors troupe in India."

Out of these conversations (and also through the chance meeting with the Kendals, a Shakespearean traveling group in India) Shakespeare Wallah was born, Jaffrey said.

When the critical success with the Merchant Ivory films in the sixties never resulted in substantial acting work, Jaffrey began to write, initially providing magazine articles for such reputed publications as The Smithsonian and then writing her own cookbooks.

"I had to continue working, because my kids had to go to school and I had to pay for It.," she said. "I was writing about culture, travel, food. But the food part of it took off and I have made a very good living with it."

Later she got a chance to host an eight-part BBC cooking series.

"BBC made me a household name," she said. "Ironically enough I got more acting work as a result. Suddenly people said, 'Oh yeah, she is still around.'

"Now I can pretty much write my own ticket as far as cookbooks are concerned," Jaffrey said. "When I pitch an idea, generally people say yes I can work on the project."

Jaffrey, reportedly sixty-plus, doesn't like to reveal her age.

"Only because as an actress people start to pigeonhole you and it's best not to say it," she said. Today she lives in Manhattan's Greenwich Village with her musician husband Sanford Allen.

Summing up her acting career she said: "I have had a chance to grow and develop parts in the way that they can be developed. I have acted according to how I believe acting should be as opposed to somebody's style of acting."

How An American Writer Thought Up Cotton Mary

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