My husband and I went on a resolutely romantic movie and dinner date last Thursday. It was resolute because this time we decided to keep our phones switched off throughout. Depending on which face of the coin you like these days, this could be seen as a freedom-enhancing or freedom-diminishing move. Either way, it worked well for us. We ended up holding hands throughout the movie, paying attention to every nuanced flavour in our meal and telling each other stories of our childhood.
We made an important discovery that night. We had one family ritual in common growing up despite being brought up in different parts of India: the movie-cum-meal ritual. It turns out that all middle class families across the country were doing the exact same thing on public holidays in the 90s! Going for a movie and getting a meal at a good restaurant afterwards (or before, depending on the of time of the movie).
It turns out that all middle class families across the country were doing the exact same thing on public holidays in the 90s! Going for a movie and getting a meal at a good restaurant afterwards (or before, depending on the of time of the movie).
I listened to my husband with fond nostalgia as he spoke of those elaborate excursions. Standing in line to get to the ticket counter, feeling helpless as the display-board behind the cashier’s head turned from ‘open’ to ‘house full’ without inching any closer, spying around for tickets in black with the stealth of a criminal mastermind. And then that joy of actually bagging enough tickets for the whole family, of collapsing into uncomfortable last-row seats, of surrendering mind and body to the star on screen and his (her) fantasy world.
As a teenager in the 90s I was in love with Shah Rukh Khan. The boy with anything-but-camera looks and a musical voice who had captured the imagination of millions of young Indians as a 20-something commando in the tv-series Fauji (soldier). With soldier-like bravado, Fauji found its way to the spotlight in ’89, defying heavy-weight theological dramas like Mahabharat and Ramayana that ruled the roost at the time. That was the beginning of Shah Rukh Khan’s legend. His success was unfathomable, incomparable, and writ all over the 90s – Deewana (1992), Baazigar (1993), Darr (1993), Karan Arjun (1995), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Pardes (1997), Dil toh Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). It carried him well into the 2000s. There were others who rose to much fame and adulation alongside him – Aamir Khan, Salman Khan – but Shah Rukh was above competition. He had ‘transcend(ed) movie-star status to something else’, as David Letterman put it recently.
That Shah Rukh Khan movie and that meal. Those were my best days. For the more ‘pouff-pouff’ among us, going out in the 90s could have meant Chinese or continental food. But for the remaining majority – me included – it was always and unflinchingly good ol’ Butter Chicken, sometimes with daal makhaani and Naan: the holy trilogy of the quintessential Indian gastronomical experience. The right mix of tangy and sweet, with its glorious orange-red hue and thick, creamy, texture, a good Butter Chicken can uplift any mortal chicken-eating spirit. Not surprisingly, it occupies a place of pride on the dinner table of every Indian household celebrating anything at all. One could fall-back on a Tandoori chicken or biryani for the sake of variety, but that’s only so as not to overdose. Tandoori chicken and biryani are to Butter Chicken what Aamir and Salman are to Shah Rukh: really good plan Bs.
That movie with Shah Rukh Khan in it and that meal… it was always and unflinchingly good ol’ Butter Chicken, sometimes with daal makhaani and Naan: the holy trilogy of the quintessential Indian gastronomical experience.
Shah Rukh and Butter Chicken. They really are birds of a feather when you think about it. They are present in the happiest memories of my childhood, and of my husband’s, and of god knows how many other 30-something Indians. They have both become world-famous. In fact, they both personify the things India is known best for in the world: Bollywood and curry. Don’t tell me you have never come across a foreigner exclaiming, ‘Hey, you Indian? Shae Rookh Kahn, haaahh?!’ or ‘From India? I love Butter Chicken and Naen!’
Who would have thought that Shah Rukh and Butter Chicken would have so much in common? But they really are birds of a feather when you think about it.
There is one more thing that they have in common though. They both have foreign origins. Neither Shah Rukh nor Butter Chicken belong to India alone. Shah Rukh’s dad lived in a Pakistani town called Peshawar, his grandad was an Afghan (Pathan). Fable has it that Shah Rukh’s dad joined the movement for India’s Independence at the tender age of sixteen and was the youngest freedom fighter at the time. He left his home-town to settle in Delhi before the partition. Khan himself was born in Delhi in 1965. Butter Chicken’s grandfather also lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, in pre-partition India. His name was Mokha Singh and he ran a sweet-shop called Mukhey da Dhaba. It was here that one of his employees, a Punjabi by the name of Kundan Lal Gujral, first came up with the recipe of Butter Chicken and eventually took over the reins of Mokhey da Dhabha, renaming it Moti Mahal. When India was partitioned, Mr Gujral moved to Delhi with Butter Chicken and Moti Mahal in tow. Over 70 years later, India’s first Moti Mahal – the restaurant which still serves an astounding Butter Chicken – stands proud and tall in Daryaganj, Old Delhi.
Yup, that’s right. Shah Rukh Khan and Butter Chicken are Pakistani by descent.
I think about this and I wonder what the fate of my childhood would have been if only one of these two had actually made it to India and the other had been turned away. Say, if Shah Rukh’s Muslim dad had no choice but to remain in Peshawar. How damaging would that have been to the romanticism of Indian movies in the 90s??!! Shah Rukh would have been the Badshaah (king) of Lollywood (Pakistan’s film industry) today and I would have had to grow up watching Aamir and Salmaan’s movies. Oh wait, Aamir and Salman also have foreign, Afghani, antecedents. Err… I guess I would have had to fall-back on Govinda?
I wonder what the fate of my childhood would have been if only one of these two had actually made it to India and the other had been turned away. Say, if Shah Rukh’s Muslim dad had no choice but to remain in Peshawar and Butter Chicken’s Punjabi dad had moved to Delhi.
The other way around would have been just as stomach-quenching, if not worse. I can’t imagine a world without Butter Chicken! Only Tandoori chicken and Biryani??! Oh wait, tandoori chicken was also invented by Mr Gujral, the Punjabi dad of Butter Chicken. And Biryani came from Persia / Iran. Good lord! Would I have had to live my life on Rajma Chawal?
Fancy that! An India without my favourites. Would it even be the India I know today, with all its grandeur and diverse, pluralistic, heritage? What would we become if we were left with only Govinda and Rajma Chawal to gloat over? To display to the world as symbols of our identity? To write blogs about?
But that wasn’t the country I grew up in, thank god.
(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)