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 voluptuous and innocent as a piece of fruit. At home she is assembled differently, made up to look like an Indian version of Jackie Kennedy, her looks not a form of invitation but of protection, a form of weaponry that backs her claim to her prosperity, and requires constant, vigilant care.

In one superbly frightening scene, after her servant has warned her that her lover (whose leaving her would clearly affect her not only emotionally but socially, economically, professionally) is involved with an English girl, Manjula savagely slaps the handicapped servant, and examines herself in the mirror with murderously intense attention; she sits down on the edge of her tub, and begins to paint her nails, preparing herself for her lover’s arrival like a soldier cleaning and reassembling the parts of his rifle. When he arrives, she has achieved something of the manner of her on-camera self, her voice a jet of sweetness as if there were a perpetual song playing just underneath the surface of her speech. When she goes to see her English rival play Desdemona in Othello, she arrives exploding with jewelry like an endangered animal’s puffed-up crest, just before Desdemona’s climactic scene. The play is Othello, but it is Manjula, with her jealousy and her determination to kill the English girl’s love affair, who is both Iago and Othello; she herself is playing Shakespeare without realizing it. When Othello strangles Desdemona onstage, Manjula clasps her own neck, terrified of her own lust for murder. She covers her eyes as Othello kills her rival, as if she is afraid she herself is causing this murder. Madhur Jaffrey, the poet of karma, has given her Bollywood actress a greater destiny than she was prepared for by her insipid musical roles and her anguished narcissism—Jaffrey’s pop-idol movie star is inadvertently forced by the circumstances of her life to play a classic.


By contrast, the exiled Rajput princess Jaffrey incarnates in the second of her great roles receives a destiny less grand than her birth promised her; her life will not let her live the story she was born to live. In the remarkable Autobiography of a Princess, an ingeniously structured movie whose story unfolds as a conversation between only two characters, Jaffrey’s work is a study of aristocracy, the core of childishness at the heart of privilege, as she and James Mason, a former family tutor, wrestle over their reminiscences of life in the palace, a past they lived simultaneously, although their memories differ profoundly. The princess now lives in a London flat dominated by a portrait of her idolized maharajah father, whose murder of his British mistress’s husband ended his reign over his princely state.

In contrast to Jaffrey’s aristocrat, Mason’s character, like E.M. Forster, himself once a tutor to a princely household, is writing a book on India. He too is a witness of privilege, but from the ambiguous perspective of an employee, by turns a family member and an outsider, according to the maharajah’s grace, need, or whim. A homosexual who realized his love for the young maharajah could only be reciprocated through an unfulfilling momentary caprice, Mason’s is an elegiac portrait of a lover who has denied himself his beloved, an Adam who has left Eden by his own choice, adoring his God, yet knowing Him too well to trust Him. The film brilliantly uses a series of screens as its metaphor, representing both the power and limitations of images, as screens both reveal images and conceal them. Rembrandt or Caravaggio or La Tour would have envied the rich chiaroscuro effect as Jaffrey and Mason watch old newsreels and home movies of palace life, their faces lit by the shadows and lights of the films they are watching.

Jaffrey, with intricate artistry, makes herself into a kind of screen, filtering out the events that might contaminate her idealized past, displaying the glamorized memories she prefers to her life; she performs with a furious fanatical lyricism that equals Ophelia’s and masks any blame or anger toward her father. She is trapped in the wrong world, in a flat too small and mundane to contain her habit of command. Every gesture she makes is wrong for this environment, as, wearing a kingfisher-blue sari and a magnificent diamond and sapphire necklace, she plugs in an electric kettle to boil water for her visitor’s tea. Her anachronistic Bertie Wooster style of English is a tour de force, as her adjectives, “spiffing” and “simply tops,” both imitate and satirize aristocratic British English, and her slang expresses her mastery of a world she holds in contempt. Even the quality of her touch on Mason is wrong, the calculated yielding of a woman one generation away from purdah, for whom seduction and pleading are the means of expression of effective will. She steers the donnish Mason with caresses, completely indifferent to his responses, as if he were a boat provided to take her where she wants to go, into a world where she has access to power so absolute that there is no division between her wishes and thoughts, and her beliefs and the truth. They are one and the same.

At the end of their afternoon commemorating her late father’s birthday, their delicate war over the realities of the past, the princess shows Mason footage of an old court musician singing a classical song, her arthritic hands shaping the accompanying coquettish gestures to the music, a girlish voice issuing from a mouth whose broken teeth seem to totter like columns of an archaeological ruin. As Jaffrey, young and beautiful but hermetically sealed in her illusory world, looks with bewildered admiration at the old musician singing her joyful song on the brink of death, she shifts our idea of time, suggesting that a life does not necessarily follow a conventional chronology. The women seem to trade ages as their images are juxtaposed. It is the young princess who is old, whose life is over, while the old woman seems a girl. Like a film, a life can happen in reverse.

This Issue

October 7, 1999