The Poet of Karma

There are actors and actresses who shape themselves as great images, and others who shape themselves as great interpreters. Elizabeth Taylor is of the first type, as was Clark Gable; they are the camera’s lovers, they require the camera’s recording of even her tantrums or his sleazy trickeries as a form of adoration. Madhur Jaffrey of Delhi is of the second type; she may accept the camera’s adoration, even invite it, but the actress who forms herself as a great interpreter also defies the camera, refuses it, rebukes its easy credulity, reminds it of all it does not and can never know. Her performances do not depend on the projection of brilliant personality, but on the suggestion of history—complex, unresolved, at times unknowable and inescapable. Madhur Jaffrey confronts the camera with its limitations; the machine can film her in the most intense close-up within its capacity—but it cannot film what is inside her un-less she allows it. She is an actress who treats the camera as if she were its director.

Madhur Jaffrey, with her sweeping black galaxy of hair, her eyes set in kohl and transfigured into radiant limitlessness, comes from a world where every woman is the poet of her own femininity, a world where death has never been considered absolute or final.

Exiled princess, caged tigress in purdah, vicious and vulnerable Bollywood actress, exotic guest as prized objet at an American party, Madhur Jaffrey uses the same materials of face and body again and again to arrive at different destinies, creating a strand of lives that are separate, but somehow linked, with a craftsmanship that seems deliberately informed by an awareness of the concept of karma. Karma, the notion of a soul living a cyclical series of thematic lives until it reaches enlightenment, is an idea almost uncannily given physical expression by film, the actress sealed into the frames of her current film like the soul into the frame of its present life, crafting a partial freedom in her exploration of the confines of the script.

Her two consummate performances are both in Merchant-Ivory films, Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and The Autobiography of a Princess (1975), and both roles play on the kinship and contradictions between a person’s public social life and the invisible private cosmos inside. In Shakespeare Wallah she plays Manjula, a Bollywood actress, whom we first encounter in the act of creating a woman—dancing and miming a song while being filmed, with stylized and prescribed expressions and gestures, assembling an emblematic Indian beauty out of her own face and body for her audience. We see her in the act of making a work of art of herself, impersonating a wide-eyed virginal nymph dancing and singing through a forest, her lips sculpted into the expression of exaggerated sweetness and her body yielding and curving with the suggestion of graceful submission that seems a mark of the Indian aesthetic for young women. Off-camera her eyes lose their wondering quality, and her mouth its unselfconscious sensuality, as…

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