In his latest movie, Today’s Special, directed by David Kaplan, Mandvi takes a leading role as Samir, a high-powered Manhattan chef who has purposely left his Indian roots behind. As circumstances unfold, Samir is forced to leave his fancy world behind and move back to Jackson Heights, Queens, where his parents—who run a low-key Indian restaurant—need his help, in more ways than one. It’s a sweet, feel-good comedy—co-written by Mandvi himself—that intertwines the sumptuousness of Indian cuisine with the second-generation immigrant experience, something with which Mandvi himself is quite familiar. This film also features some big Indian stars, most notably Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding) and Madhur Jaffrey, who has had simultaneous careers in both Indian cooking and acting.
As Mandvi prepared for release of Today’s Special, he sat down with us to discuss his move into leading man status, his own relationship with his South Asian heritage, and just who was backstage at the Rally to Restore Sanity.
Tribeca: I saw the movie this morning, and everyone in the screening literally ran to get Indian food afterwards.
Aasif Mandvi: I bet they did! What was it, like a 10:00 am screening? [laughs]
Tribeca: Yep. I got some takeout and took it back to my office… Can you share with us the genesis of Today’s Special? How did you translate the story from your own one-man play?
Aasif Mandvi: I did this play called Sakina’s Restaurant about 10 years ago, and the movie was inspired by the world of the Indian restaurant and my own Indian background. The actual, ultimate inspiration for it all is my real family. Even in the movie, the parents are based on my real parents.
Tribeca: Did they have a restaurant?
Aasif Mandvi: No, but my father was a small businessman—well a small business owner, not a small businessman [laughs]—so I transposed it into a restaurant, because we wanted the movie to be a Tandoori comedy. We wanted to set it in a restaurant because it’s so accessible, and nobody had done a movie about Indian food! Some of my favorite movies from the ‘90s are Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, Chocolat—movies that kind of have a slightly heightened reality, but also are magical but real… so we kind of wanted to write a movie that was in the vein of those films.
Tribeca: The play was a one-man show?
Aasif Mandvi: The movie is completely different from the show, aside from the fact that it was about a family that has an Indian restaurant. I think the film really re-exploited this idea of the alchemy of Indian cuisine—this idea of our hero [Samir] journeying from this idea of very strict rules into a world of much more fluid, inspirational cooking. And also, him reclaiming his ethnicity and his background, who he is, as a way to integrate himself, to become whole in some way. So that for me was the real journey of the story.
Tribeca: You’ve said that the parents in the film are based on your own parents. How much of Samir is in you? He doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor…
Aasif Mandvi: Yeah, he’s a bit serious, isn’t he? But then he has to lighten up.
Tribeca: Are there parallels between him and your own work in acting and comedy?
Aasif Mandvi: Yeah! I grew up thinking that I was a middle-class white kid. It wasn’t until I actually did and wrote Sakina’s Restaurant, and all these Indian people started to come and see this play—and they saw themselves in it, and they related to it—and suddenly I realized, Oh, there’s a whole ethnic background that come from that I had disassociated myself from. I didn’t have any Indian friends! And suddenly, at 30, I had all these Indian friends, and reclaimed this kind of heritage in myself. So that journey is sort of what Samir’s journey is, so I think that’s how we are similar.
But I think I have more of a sense of humor than he does. [smiles] I’m a little bit Samir, a little bit Akbar [the character who teaches Samir about Indian food in the film].
Tribeca: He’s a great character!
Aasif Mandvi: Yes, Naseeruddin Shah, who plays that character, is a great Bollywood actor. He’s a huge star, and we were so lucky to get him. He’s so busy, and he works all the time, but he came out to New York for I think a week and a half, and we shot his scenes. He brought a real—I wanted Akbar to have a kind of sex appeal to him, and he’s got that.
Tribeca: He’s got an earthy way about him, a man-about-the-world…
Aasif Mandvi: Yeah. [laughs] Look, the irony is that I’m playing a lead role in my movie, and all the women are swooning over Nesruddin Shah, who’s like 55 years old. [Sigh]
Tribeca: How about Madhur Jaffery? Were you involved in the casting?
Aasif Mandvi: Madhur was always the person we wanted for the role. She had done the readings of the screenplay when we did our first draft. Even though she’s a huge impresario in the cooking world—she has like seven James Beard awards; she’s written countless cookbooks—I primarily knew her as an actress, because I had worked with her in 1999 on a film called ABCD. She also had a relationship with Merchant/Ivory, and I had done a film with them 6 or 7 years ago, so she was always the person I knew I wanted to play that role; we always connected really easily.
There was one point we thought we might not be able to get her, because her schedule was so crazy, and the only other person I could think of to play my mother was MY MOTHER.
Tribeca: Was she on call?
Aasif Mandvi: I approached her, and I was like, “Madhur can’t play this part. Can you play my mother in the movie?” Which was like, for someone who’s not an actor, it’s a tall order. But my mom was totally game for it—up until the point she realized that when you’re making a movie, you are going to be working 14-15 hours a day. At that point, she was like, “Oh, I’m not sure I can do THAT.” [laughs] But up until that point, she was game.
Tribeca: Do they live here, your parents?
Aasif Mandvi: No they live in Florida. But the reason we picked Jackson Heights [as the setting for Today’s Special] was because I grew up in a town called Bradford, in the north of England. Bradford has a large Pakistani and Indian population, with a lot of great Indian restaurants. I wanted to sort of have this movie that was set in a neighborhood like my childhood. My dad used to have a store—like a bodega—in that neighborhood, and so Jackson Heights sort of felt like a place that was similar to that place in the UK.
Tribeca: Queens is such a perfect setting for this classic New York immigration story, and food just fits in so well. What do you think makes food such a universal theme that everyone can relate to?
Aasif Mandvi: Well, I think food is what brings people together. Especially when you are immigrants, and you’ve gone to another place, the thing that you hold onto from your own culture, and of your own uniqueness and ethnicity, is language and food. And so, the way your prepare food is very much tied into who you are, and identity. It’s a natural metaphor, and it’s used in movies all the time—we didn’t invent it.
And food represents so many things—family, love, romance, it can represent sex. It’s a very visceral, tactile thing, and it’s sensory in so many ways.
Tribeca: You’re right—and it’s surprising that there hasn’t already been a movie about Indian food. I can think of books that describe Indian food, but not a movie.
Aasif Mandvi: When we started writing this, we were like, “Let’s write a tandoori comedy.” And nobody had written one—and now I am going to coin that phrase! I’m going to put a little hashtag in front of it and put it on Twitter.
Tribeca: I just might steal it for my title… So I know you used some “stand-in” chefs during the shoot, but do you cook in real life?
Aasif Mandvi: I have cooked, and I do cook. I need my cell phone attached to my ear with my mother on the other end explaining to me... The first time I tried to make rice, I completely screwed it up. But I’ve gotten better, and I took cooking lessons before we started shooting the film; Kevin Corrigan and I actually took classes together. You can’t become a master chef in two weeks, so mostly I was learning how to fake it really well—to have the confidence in my body… the one thing that chefs have is that they carry the knives and the utensils, and the chopping, and the slicing, and even the way you pick up food is different if you are a chef. There’s a lack of tentativeness, of hesitation. So I needed to embody that in some way.
Tribeca: You’ve been in a lot of movies… How does it feel to be a leading man? Is it frustrating that you had to essentially create the role for yourself?
Aasif Mandvi: Well, I was a leading man in another movie: The Mystic Masseur, which Ismail Merchant directed. But nobody saw that movie. [laughs] Maybe because I was the leading man, I don’t know. There is a certain level of frustration, but look, it’s Hollywood, and this has my journey in Hollywood: If you build it, they will come.
When I did the play, nobody wanted to produce the play: “Indian people don’t go to the theatre!” And when we tried to get financing for the film, they were like, “No way! Nobody’s going to want to see this movie!” And I feel like, this is what I’ve got to work with, and this is what I’ve got, this is what I do…
Tribeca: Maybe since this movie is so accessible, this will be your moment!
Aasif Mandvi: I’m an actor. People think of me now as a comedian, from The Daily Show, and it’s a bizarre gig, because it’s made me known, but people think I do this one thing. And meanwhile, I’ve been on Broadway, and I’ve been doing movies and things for over 10 years. So now I feel like it’s a reintroduction to myself, and to what I can bring—which is what I’ve always been doing, but now with The Daily Show, people will be excited about going to see it.
Aasif Mandvi: Well, sanity has been restored, and we are very proud to have done that, and you’re all welcome, I guess, is all I can say. [smiles]
It was a tremendous experience—no one knew how many people were going to show up, and we were all like, “Let’s see how this goes.” For me, it was like being part of something that was really monumental and historic. And come on, I got to hang out with Cat Stevens backstage, and R2-D2, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar! It was ridiculous, the people who were hanging out backstage with us. And then we all got to go out onstage at the end and look out at 200,00 people—which only people like Mick Jagger and Kanye West get to do.
It’s easy to be snarky and cynical and funny about it all, because we’re The Daily Show and whatever, but when you really look at it, it was kind of earnest, and it was honest. And even Jon was really moved by the whole thing. It wasn’t sort of ironic in any way; it was real.
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