Anubhav Sinha, by his own admission, “romanticises food”. Now that his next project Anek with Ayushmann Khurrana has come to a standstill due to the lockdown, he has channelised his creative energy to culinary activities, when he is not engaged in writing. His Instagram posts in the last couple of weeks feature a batch of fresh-out-of-oven nankhatai; aloo-pyaaz ki sabji in mustard oil cooked in an iron pan, steaming Lucknowi chicken korma, sinful aata ka halwa, aloo-matar-paneer, shahi tukda and butter chicken, among others.
Even though life as a filmmaker is hectic, Sinha is known to rustle up something when he has the time and often seeks food recommendations while visiting a new place. “This time, however, I’ve been cooking after a gap of two years,” says the 54-year-old. The last two years that kept him away from the kitchen, interestingly, saw him deliver three most talked-about movies of recent times — Mulk (2018), Article 15 (2019) and Thappad (2020).
Early influence lasts long
Years of living in Mumbai has not allowed the influence of his early up years in Garhwal and Benaras — when food was a way of life — to wane. “The moment we finished our breakfast, we would discuss our lunch menu and so on,” recalls the writer-director.
Till he was about nine years of age, Sinha’s family lived in Garhwal’s Kalagarh. His fondest memories are associated with food and music. What still lingers in his mind is the Sunday specialty: mutton cooked by his mother. “By the time we woke up on Sundays, my dad would have left home to get mutton. It was a kind of stew with thick gravy that my mother used to make in a pressure cooker. Even after the mutton was over, the cooker would still have some masala left. I used to polish it off with some rice. We lived in a small house. Until we finished lunch, the house used to be filled with the smell of mutton,” he recounts.
Sinha, today an efficient baker, got his initial lessons in baking at home. In the early 70s, his family had a traditional round oven in which his parents used to make biscuits and nankhatai. “There were no blenders at that time. It would take ages to bake. Yet, the whole joy was in getting it right,” he says.
Love, longing and cooking
When Sinha shifted to Mumbai, he missed north Indian food. “In Mumbai, you get good international food but there are few restaurants that serve good Indian cuisine. So, what does one do when one craves aloo ki tikki or chhole bhatura? I started making them myself.” Yet, the thought of cooking for others, especially a large group of people, had not crossed his mind.
During the London shoot of Ra.One (2011), his Italian crew, including DOP Nicola Pecorini, used to invite him to their apartment for dinner. “We listened to music, talked about work and other things while cooking. One day, I invited them to my rented apartment. I prepared fish curry, fried fish, grilled chicken with pineapples and some other dishes. They loved my cooking,” he says. That experience assured him that he can cook for a big group.
Once when he was filming Tum Bin 2 (2016) in Scotland, his team was taking time to fix the light for an evening scene. Suddenly, bread pakoda and bhajias were being served on the set. To everyone’s surprise, Sinha had utilised that break to prepare the snacks. “I derive a lot of joy from cooking. Had cooking been a mandatory task, I probably would have felt differently about it,” says Sinha. He counts mutton dopiaza, tikona paratha with aloo-gobi dopiaza cooked a lot of whole garlic pods and vegetarian tehri as his comfort food.
Tried and tested
Lucknow is where he has shot four of his recent films. “Today, we know of nearly 70 places in Lucknow from where you can order lovely food. Every evening there, we would decide what should we order the following day. The usual discussion is: ‘Keema mangale wahan se? (Should we order keema?)’ ‘Nehin nehin…biryani mangate hain (No no…let’s order biryani)’,” he recounts, with a chuckle.
When Article 15 was being filmed nearly two hours away from the main city, Sinha every day used to get something extra — some speciality of Lucknow from the homes friends or private caterers they knew — apart from what was on the menu. “I used to eat with my technical team and members of the cast like Kumud Mishra, Manoj Pahwa, Shubhrajyoti Barat and Sushil Pandey. I didn’t know Ayushmann (Khurrana) very well then. We were shooting in the summer and he used to eat in his van. However, I used to send that extra dish to him to sample. After 3-4 days, he got curious about these dishes. Later on, he too started eating with us even though it was hot as hell at that time.” One of Sinha’s must-have dishes when in Lucknow is Rahim Ki Nihari Kulcha and his favourite restaurant is Naimat Khaana, which is run by women who follow recipes of the nawabs.
What’s cooking next?
Next on Sinha’s culinary agenda is to make ice-creams. “I don’t want to use any ready-made mixes for it. That way, I’m a purist. Even when I make pizza, I make it from the scratch and prepare the dough,” says Sinha, who confesses to having a sweet tooth and love for butterscotch ice-cream. This apart, he has to appease his regular unit of around 20 people. “They are upset with me and their contention is: ‘Hamein toh nehin bulaya kabhi (You’ve not invited us yet)’. So, the deal between us is that once the lockdown is over, we’ll have a day party at my home that will start from 11 am. We’ll cook, drink and listen to music.”
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