Sri Rao, is one of the first American-born Indians in the United States, an aspect of his identity which gives him a unique perspective on the Indian-American diaspora. His professional career began in the corporate world, then to writing and producing films in Bollywood and beyond, working with the likes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Yash Raj Films along the way.
His latest project is a cookbook titled “Bollywood Kitchen,” which pairs his original mouthwatering recipes with modern Bollywood Movies, connecting the taste and flavors of his dishes to storylines of movies. Some of the pairs include: Devdas and naan crisps, Masala crusted salmon and Lagaan, Dil Se and Dosas, and many more.
I also spoke to Sri about his upbringing, his pivot from the finance to the entertainment industry, his perspective on Bollywood, and even the meaning of “authenticity” when it comes to Indian cuisine.
Brown Boy in a White Town
Born in the small town of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and raised by one of two families of color that existed in an otherwise predominantly white and Christian community, Sri cites a dual upbringing. While he had a typical blue-collar caucasian upbringing outside of the home, he maintains being very traditionally Indian and Hindu inside the home. As many children of Indian immigrants can relate, some of the ways that culture was communicated in his household were through Indian cuisine, prepared by his mother, and through Bollywood movies, plopped in the VCR after dinner every night. Rao, originally from a South Indian, non-Hindi speaking background, mentions that was how he picked up Hindi: by reading subtitles and watching his culture being communicated to him through song, dance, and storytelling.
His Creative Journey
As for his creative journey, that began as early as kindergarten, when he wrote his first play. He nurtured this interest throughout his high school theatrical career during which he got the chance to write and direct more plays, but when the time came to go to college, Sri was at odds with his “good Indian immigrant parents” who he says, “were not about to go and let me study drama and literature.” He thus ended up at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business after which, he secured a job in the corporate world in New York City. It wasn’t long into his lucrative corporate career that Sri found himself at a crossroads. At 24, he had what most people would be content with: a well paying, stable, and glamorous job that had him jet-setting from NY to LA every week, however, he couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance that came with not pursuing his dreams. This was when he realized that it was time to make a choice.
“I took a leap of faith when I was young so that if I ever messed up, I could still go to grad school, get back into something else or my old job. So I quit my job.”
Sri jumped in head first, taking filmmaking classes, to slowly but surely, become confident on his path to becoming a writer and director. His first big break came about as a result of both luck and hard work—a low budget play he put together by seeking actors using an ad he put out. The play was picked up, brought out to L.A., and wound up being the reason he got an agent. Aside from being the vehicle that helped him get his foot in the door, the play and the process of putting it together ended up being one of the best experiences of his professional life.
“Because we were all so young and struggling, the people I met throughout the course of putting together that play became some of my best friends to this day. We were all in it together chasing our dreams and it was incredible.”
Sri’s TV and film career have brought him into contact with several of his professional heroes and allowed him to develop an insight into the Bollywood film industry. When asked about the changes that have taken place in Bollywood over the past few years, he mentions Bollywood films becoming more socially conscious and featuring female leads:
“Bollywood is going through a really interesting time in the past 5-10 years. If you notice in my book, a lot of the movies I’ve chosen have female protagonists at the center while also being commercially successful and critically acclaimed.”
Indeed, movies like Piku, Queen, NH10, and Kahaani, all of which are his book contain, feature complex female leads and in many cases, don’t even have a male star.
The Second Generation Indian American Take on “Authentic” Food
Regarding the food portion of his book, Sri wants to make Indian food accessible and flip the script on what “authentic” Indian food means. When asked about the term “authenticity,” Sri asserts that authenticity is relative to an individual’s experience.
Thus far, the Indian-American culinary space has been dictated for the most part by men, mainly North Indian, increasingly South Indian, who opened up restaurants recreating the food they grew up eating in India. Sri wants individuals to embrace a natural evolution of this trend by creating recipes that are authentic to their own Indian-American upbringing.
So yes, in his book, one can find recipes like beef kheema and mixed vegetable curry using those frozen mixed vegetable bags many of us grew up using. Even though traditionally, Hindu Indians tend not to eat beef, Sri says he included ingredients like beef because those were the items that were readily available in the United States, and thus authentic to his experience.
“I think that people actually fear that Indian food is super complicated and that it requires these exotic spices. And with my book, I’m saying you don’t have to be intimidated of making it at home. In some ways, historically, we have exotified Indian cuisine. So yes if we pick up a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook, you’ll come across techniques like dry roasting spices and all these ingredients that they use in India, but that’s not the way I grew up eating.”
He also contends that we are at a turning point in American history where 1st and 2nd generation Indian Americans have the opportunity to dictate culture. And he’s right; with the major wave of Indian immigration taking place after 1965, first and second generation Indian-Americans as an immigrant group are just now coming of age. This means folks like Sri, whose parents immigrated in 1959, are now becoming old enough to write cookbooks, open restaurants, and tell their own stories.
“The reason that Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari are coming up right now is because we’re finally old enough to come up. We are in an incredibly exciting moment because we are going to start outnumbering the people like our parents who were born in India.”
A Full-Circle Moment
When asked how his mom responded to him making a cookbook, Sri replies that for the first six months, he actually didn’t tell his mom he was writing it. When he did, her first response was:
“What American will pay to buy a book with your recipes in it?” Literally.It’s always been like pulling teeth to get recipes out of my mom as it is with most Indian moms.”
While she was a begrudging collaborator on the project initially, after seeing the book project was legitimate, she got on board. In fact, when the advance copies were available, she got really emotional.
“Most of her life, she’s been referred to as just a housewife. After seeing not only my immigrant story but also her story being reflected in these pages, the book also turned into a tribute to her. She felt like she had an identity again.“
As for his next steps, Sri has many exciting projects in the pipeline, one being a new book, which will take the conversation further on Indian American culture and identity. He’s also busy writing a pilot for a new show on ABC about the life of Madhuri Dixit starring Madhuri herself and Priyanka Chopra.
1.The best thing you ate recently-both Indian and non-Indian?My mom’s kheema which she makes with ground beef. As for non-Indian, I’d say Ice cream. I love trying new ice cream and recently had great Blue Bell ice cream from Texas.
2. A Brown Girl or Guy apart from family members, who inspires you?Hasan Minhaj. Talk about authenticity! He is not worried about what anyone else thinks. He is just telling his story and telling it so well.
3. Most significant accomplishment?Coming out. Because that is the thing that took most courage and most truth-telling
4. If you could create a Sri-Rao special menu, what would be on it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and dessert? Breakfast: Tom Colliquiou french toast Lunch: A slice of NY pizza from John’s pizzeria in Time’s Square Dinner: A big Indian dinner with rasam, Sri’s signature chicken, my mom’s kheema, raita, green beans and peanuts recipe Desert: Chocolate Chai Affogato
Follow Sri Rao on twitter @NewYorkSri and purchase Bollywood Kitchen today for $17.99.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.
An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.
The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.
Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.
Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.
“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”
“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.
“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”
“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”
“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.
Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.
Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.
Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.
“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”
Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need.
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.