Madhur Jaffrey, the elegant, 85-year-old culinary icon and award-winning actress, has a wild new avatar, thanks to Queens desi rapper Mr. Cardomom, known in real life as Zohran Mamdani – and she couldn’t be more pleased. It’s as if she’s been handed the role of Lady Macbeth on a platter! The cussword-spewing, pot smoking gangsta grandma in Mamdani’s rap video
‘Nani’ is a delicious role after her own heart. Madhur Jaffrey as rapper Nani.
Mamdani, 27, has been a rapper for a while now and
Nani, his homage to Praveen Nair, his own feisty grandmother in India, is creating quite a buzz in all the social media circles. Asked about his love affair with rap, he recalled, “Soon after I moved to New York City (NYC), a family friend bought me a copy of Jay-Z's The Blueprint for my birthday. I was nine-year-old so it was obviously the clean version, but from there I fell in love. Since then, rap has been the soundtrack of my life.” For ‘ Nani’ specifically, the influences vary from the Ying Yang Twins to Amine. Mamdani has also done a hugely popular video with the rapper HAB titled Kanda (Chap Chap). Their big hit #1 Spice was written for the film ‘Queen of Katwe' which was directed by his mother Mira Nair.
He adds, “I think it's important to acknowledge that rap, while both popular and performed worldwide, is fundamentally tied to the African American experience. For those of us outside of that experience, we can't lose sight of that as we seek to tell our own stories. Regarding this video, I think it's more that rap is suited to the underdog experience. In this song, that underdog is Nani."
So how did Madhur Jaffrey, the lovely Recipe Queen with her perfect English enunciations turn into this riotous rap-spewing harridan? From a mild, sweet grandma she transforms into a no-nonsense avenger who will take no bullying from her family.
“I shared my idea for this video of a Nani lipsyncing my lyrics and generally being a take-no-shit character with Rahul Chitella, a good friend of mine, and he said that Madhur would be the ideal person,” recalls Mamdani. “I thought it was a genius idea but I told him I had no idea how to contact her, never mind convincing someone of her stature to be in a video like this. I sat on the idea for a bit until I spoke with another friend of mine – actor Poorna Jagannathan - who told me that she was friends with Madhur and could pitch her idea.”
Jaffrey says, “I was certainly intrigued by the character of Nani – she was fascinating - and I had never done anything with such language before. He came over and we had a cup of tea and I said, yes, I’ll do it. And that's how it started.”
In retrospect, she recalls, “It was very hard–learning those lines to be able to sync them with the rap because they speak very, very fast and to get the beat and to sync the rhythm was very hard. I was always struggling with words and rhythms. It was really, really tough for me and I watched a lot of rap videos. It was a whole different world for me and I found it to be just fascinating and I desperately wanted to be a part of it and I wanted to play this character!”
Cardamom aka Zohran Mamdani with Madhur Jaffrey and crew in a halal cart in Queens.
Doing the shoot was no luxury ride as Mamdani and his friends were always short on money and time. He says, “The fun was just how ramshackle it all was - we were shooting in my friends' parents apartment, paying the owner of a halal cart to use his cart for two hours, taking over a tutoring centre, and just running around the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn over the course of 48 hours to try and bring a ridiculous concept to life. The difficulties stemmed from that same ramshackleness, but it looks like it all turned out well!”
For her part, the adventurous Jaffrey found it a delightful if cramped experience. She says, “It was such fun with all these young people – I found it totally fascinating – we shot in elevated subways, restaurants in Queens, little shops and even right inside a halal cart. It was a teeny teeny cart and it was a hot day and we were all sweltering. The cooking smells were just marvellous and we also ate at Kebab King. It was a recipe talking fest, and an eating fest and it was such fun!”
Asked about his experience of working with the noted actress, Mamdani said, "Jaffrey was a dream to work with. She put up with so much during the shoot and in return gave us joy, belief, and an amazing performance. Nani zindabaad!”
Jaffrey, asked about working with a director who was young enough to be her grandson, replied, “Well, I felt he
was my grandson – he was just like my grandchildren. I always like working with a director who trusts his actors and lets them do what they can do. He's the kind of director who trusts you and I flourish under those circumstances."
How does Nani compare with the other strong women Jaffrey has played? “Nani really takes the cake. She’s gone through it all and seen what it is to live under the thumb of men. She won’t be bullied and pushed anymore. She’s not a very easy person or a very good person but she’s got gumption. You can let your whole being enter into the character and let go!”
Madhur Jaffrey as Nani in action.
While Jaffrey herself is the loving, cooking-for-the-family type of grandma, she says there are aspects of Nani in her – the idea that she can survive, and she’s had that strength since her early days so that nothing fazes her.
She accepted no fee except the yellow beret she wore in the video. She smiles, “Yes, yes, yes! I love it!” Jaffrey has always been a supporter of young people following their dreams: “Zohran has his own vision of what he wants to do and is doing it. These young people are totally different. They think of themselves as Americans and as brown people. They know how they're treated and they know how they have to fight and what they have to fight for. I have great admiration for them – my heart really goes out to them and is with them.”
Asked if it was a good time to be young and South Asian in New York, Mamdani says, “I think it's both an exciting time to be a Desi in NYC and also a frightening one, especially as a Muslim man.”
In real life – away from rap life, Mamdani works at the housing nonprofit Chhaya CDC as a counsellor specialising in foreclosure prevention. He says, “I love it but it's pretty different. One of our offices’ is in Jackson Heights, so I do get to frequent all my favourite spots that I put in the video.”
Zohran Mamdani happens to be the son of the academic and activist Mahmood Mamdani and filmmaker Mira Nair. Did he feel tempted to follow either of their paths?
He says, “I'm quite content to forge my own path, one that works towards both joy and justice.”
For Madhur Jaffrey, at 85, unexpected roles like Rapper Nani are the icing on the cake of life. She says, “These are the happy surprises that come along - they are such lovely joys and I’m excited to do them. I like surprises. I love challenges - people say, you can’t do this and I say “Yes, I can!”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at
Lassi with Lavina.