For the past many months, theaters have been scrambling to figure out what works for their audiences online. Is it filmed drama performed to empty seats? Zoom readings? Radio plays? The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles has chosen to switch lanes from a conventional theater dedicated to new plays and classics to a kind of neo–variety house: Its current lineup has a participatory whodunit, a deal-yourself-in magic show, and Bollywood Kitchen, a cook-along dinner-theater experience. Venues have been programming immersive light entertainment forever — Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding dates back to 1988, and guys with cards up their sleeves have been doing close-up sleight of hand since the pharaohs — but this sort of boulevard repertoire has gained significant cachet during the pandemic. Thanks to our hunger for connection, we’re paying closer attention to the stuff that takes “contact” as its first principle.
Three different experiences are available to a ticket-buyer of Bollywood Kitchen: At the first tier, you can watch Sri Rao’s monologue, filmed live in his New York apartment, and cook as he cooks, using recipes emailed ahead of time. You can pay more to be sent the “Bollywood Box,” a meal kit that arrives in the mail with beautifully presented ingredients and recipe cards. At the third level, you can pay to appear live on Zoom with Rao — chiming in about your own cooking experience and being able to ask the man himself about whether your chicken looks too browned. Theatergoers are used to paying more to get close to the stage, but online, we choose from different types of “nearness.” We’re willing to pay for proximity via a transitive object, in which the box makes the show manifest on our countertops, or proximity via reciprocity, in which the artist can see us.
Rao is very frank about what he is not. Despite having us make two recipes alongside him, he’s not a professional cook — the presence of a chef in his Zoom audience the night I saw the show made him a little nervous — nor is he an actor. In fact, he’s a filmmaker and writer, with a stint as head writer on General Hospital and a Bollywood feature, Baar Baar Dekho, under his belt. He is also clear that he’s not teaching us to make traditional Indian cuisine. Here, as in his 2017 cookbook (also called Bollywood Kitchen), Rao is re-creating food from his mother Anu Rao’s kitchen in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where she adapted Indian dishes to her life in the U.S. suburbs. She also imparted a love of Indian movies, so Rao’s book is full of stills, the Bollywood films paired like wines with his and his mother’s fusion creations, including “Bollyburgers” and spiced Brussels sprouts.
The show Bollywood Kitchen can occasionally feel like a promotion for the cookbook. It has the glossiness of those coffee-table pages, and the film stills that interleave the recipes have become clips, loosely connected to the rest of the content. (“My parents were pioneers!” Rao says, before showing Raj Kapoor dancing Charlie Chaplinishly down a road in the 1955 movie Shree 420.) Certainly, director Arpita Mukherjee, set designer Neil Patel, and lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker have given everything a smooth, advertising-ready shine. But Rao insists he’s telling us the raw truth after having told the tidy version of his parents’ history on the book tour. White audiences, he says, prefer immigrant stories with a little sweetness added. “If you’re too messy, they won’t invite you back on NPR,” he says.
The messy version is painful. Rao’s father immigrated to the U.S. to go to a university, while his teenage wife — left behind after only ten days of marriage — was ostracized for eight years by a community that believed she had been cast aside. Decades later and a generation removed, the harshness of that treatment clearly still pains their son. His own childhood in Mechanicsburg wasn’t great “for a brown, not-very-straight-seeming boy,” he says. Home-cooked food and movie nights on the couch were thus clearly a refuge for them all. Rao’s connection to his Indian American identity is completely bound up in his parents, so recording their experiences is his way of mapping at least some of this particular country, the tiny one made up of his small family.
Rao manages to tell us all this while walking us quickly through a curry recipe and a dessert. The lift for the cooking part of the show is light since the audience is asked to prepare quite a bit ahead of time. (My own glacial approach to vegetable chopping meant I spent hours working on the show before it even began. Not everyone will be so … artisanal.) Rao’s ability to multitask is impressive, and he’s both graceful and gracious at managing his audience, his stovetop, and his storytelling. The one element that’s sacrificed is a sense of spontaneous revelation since his more vulnerable disclosures can seem overrehearsed. In one breath, he tells us his mother told him his cookbook gave her a sense of identity, and his eyes well up; the next, he’s telling us to scoop ice cream. His control slides, at such moments, into glibness.
So what works best in Bollywood Kitchen is its cheerful approach to error. Rao is at his best when things are going wrong: The night I saw it, as we were all tossing our spices in the pot, his eyes went a little wide when he realized no one could hear him. The battery on his earpiece had given out, and he needed to exchange it but it didn’t cause a crisis — if anything, his manner warmed and eased. “It’s theater!” he said, unruffled. He also assured us that Indian cooking goes gently on the nervous cook and that our curry couldn’t go awry, even if steps were skipped or measurements approximated. Add yogurt if it’s too hot, he said; add coriander if it needs a little boost. (I have never improvised while executing a recipe in my life, but his encouragement to do so here met with incontrovertible success. I’m still preening.) In Rao’s kitchen and in his show, “wrong” doesn’t mean disaster. Instead, accidents are expected, and they’re an opportunity for adjustment and invention. As he tells his parents’ stories, Rao clearly worries that he may not share their ability to bear up under suffering; he describes them as heroes even when he isn’t illustrating their lives with a Bollywood clip. But his nothing’s-so-broke-you-can’t-fix-it attitude is the smaller version of their larger courage. It seems they gave him a key ingredient for the conduct of life — and he recommends we use it too.
Bollywood Kitchen is at the Geffen Playhouse through March 6.