Film

‘I Am Manjula!’ In Praise Of The Ultimate Indian Diva

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Manjula graces a friend’s Facebook page, chin in hand, eyes in kohl, “bored but fantastic,” as my friend says of the glamorous Sixties screen villain. Last week I met Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian actress who played Manjula all those years ago, in her East Village apartment. Shakespeare Wallah, the film to which we owe both female icons, airs in high definition this month in select U.S. theaters. The 1965 Merchant Ivory production marked a time of hope for its key players, who’d all go on to major careers. “I wanted to be Marlon Brando,” Jaffrey told me, sitting upright on a couch. Born in 1933 in Delhi, she’d made her way to America by her twenties, led by a love of acting and of a man. Her first husband, Saeed Jaffrey, won a Fulbright to study drama that ultimately landed the couple in Manhattan in 1958; Madhur herself had already graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Madhur’s birth and departure from India bookended the fall of the British Raj, and in the world of British theater, she found herself drawn to others linked to the subcontinent, a sort of Anglo-Indian Brat Pack, led by director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This “three-headed monster,” as Merchant once called the trio, would make Shakespeare Wallah and two dozen more films, including A Room With a View, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day.

Shakespeare Wallah tracks a love triangle, between Lizzie Buckingham, played by British actress Felicity Kendal; Sanju, by the Indian actor Shashi Kapoor; and Manjula, by Jaffrey. It was shot in the Himalayan foothills on a tight budget with proceeds from The Householder, the first ever Merchant Ivory film — now a genre of its own, suggesting period drama, elaborate dress, English accents, a bit of stuffiness, maybe, but quality — scripted also by Jhabvala. To save money, the team shot Shakespeare Wallah in black and white, using homemade costumes. At the time, Jaffrey lived with her first husband on 26th Street in Manhattan, in a small apartment on the top floor. She showed up in India after years away, nauseous for her first shoot (getting to the hills is even today no joke — I puked en route as recently as 2008), a look she felt set doubt in the crew as to her rightness for Manjula. Jhabvala, Jaffrey told me, seemed to question the casting even before shooting. The women knew each other from All India Radio; Jhabvala, a Brit who moved to Delhi from England, translated Sanskrit plays; Jaffrey voiced some roles. “I was skinny,” she explained, as to why she seemed wrong for Manjula. “My nickname at school was ‘bookworm.’ ”

Manjula is a diva, a film star with many fans. “I am Manjula!” she snaps at one point, when Sanju upsets her. She wears flowy dresses and makeup to bed. In a famous scene, she serves Lizzie Buckingham tea while dressed in all white and gold jewelry, her hair in a chignon. The idea is to intimidate her competition. Lizzie, wearing stripes and a cardigan, belongs to a troupe of roving actors run by her parents. Throughout the film, the Buckinghams traverse hill stations performing Shakespeare for Indian crowds who seem to bore by the minute. One show ends badly when Manjula swishes in late, diverting the attention of young male fans in the audience. Later, Sanju scolds her with the cadence of a brother. With Lizzie, he’s romantic. She tells him of sleeping in bus stations, living the life of an artist. He repeats the word to Manjula, telling her one afternoon, as she asks for advice on which photograph to send to a magazine, that she’s anyway not a “real artist,” like Lizzie.

Jaffrey’s own acting career tracked more Lizzie than Manjula. In mid-century New York, she worked nothing parts making $10 a week “off-off Broadway,” repped by an agent with clients “like me,” she said, meaning non-white and desperate: Middle Easterners, Indonesians. Aware of their low ceiling, the Jaffreys thought of starting a theater troupe. When Saeed shared the plan with Ivory — a Californian with whom he’d worked on a documentary — the director, high off The Householder, had another idea. “What a great idea for a screenplay,” Jaffrey remembers him saying.

Indian women old and young love Jaffrey, as my friend’s Facebook page attests. The actress’s Imdb page feels “Indian” too, with its bit roles, Law & Order stints, and British productions. “Indian” can go both ways to a casting agent, Jaffrey pointed out: too Indian, or “not enough,” a phrase as infuriating as it is mysterious.

“They don’t know that there are all kinds of us,” she surmises. For her part, she “felt more in common with artists than Indians” in those early Manhattan years. She happily talked “Indian shop” with the few who lived stateside, but her ethnic “herd instinct” wasn’t as strong as her artist one. She and Saeed split in her twenties, three kids between them. By the 1970s, she had a new husband and career, as a food writer. She wrote for small magazines, a job that paid fine in those days. (“Writing doesn’t make sense anymore,” she said, piercing my heart.) She moved into books, most laced with recipes from her childhood in Delhi. Her list of James Beard Foundation Awards for food writing bears none of the caveats of her Imdb page; it’d be impressive for a white dude.

In Shakespeare Wallah, Sanju and Manjula bear neither surnames nor family; Lizzie Buckingham has both. When the movie played at the Berlin Film Festival in the summer of 1965, Jaffrey upset expectations by winning a Silver Bear prize for best actress. Ivory supposedly hoped Kendal would be awarded the prize, a bit of gossip affirmed onstage by Jaffrey during a Q&A last week. (“There was some amount of awkwardness there,” she said, coyly, of tensions in the team after her win. “But I think we got over it as best we could.”) One understands Ivory’s dilemma: Lizzie’s who we’re meant to love. First and last name. A full person. Not to mention, sweet. White, not brown. Civilized, not savage. She smiles, never pouts, is kind to Manjula, despite the harassment.

Watching Shakespeare Wallah as an Indian or second-gen woman can produce a dissonance. We are meant to root for Lizzie, but then she can’t compete with Manjula. The presumption of Lizzie as a universal taste betrays the movie’s creative origins — it was written, after all, by a Westerner in India, a woman who also loved against type. Like Lizzie, Jhabvala fell for an Indian man, a Parsi architect, whom she married. A German-Jewish exile to England, she became a prolific writer of fiction after shifting to India in 1951, at 24, the start of her adult life. Householder was first a novel, which Ivory approached her to adapt. “An alien place,” she would call India, after leaving, decades later, somewhat broken, according to reports, by the heat and poverty. One story, Aphrodisiac, speaks to the loneliness of the Indian wife, in the context of mother-son love — a mother dotes so much that the son’s marriage falls apart. (A Portnoy’s Complaint for the Indian man could really write itself.) In Jhabvala’s best-known novel, Heat and Dust, an Indian man falls for a white woman.

If writing reveals biases of the heart, so does reading and watching. My favorite of Jaffrey’s books exposes mine. It may be her least known: Seasons of Splendour, a slim volume of myths she first heard at her aunts’ feet, as creepy as any Jhabvala story collection. I paged through it again after meeting its author. In my Brooklyn apartment, I felt drawn back to my childhood bed in Dallas. To the bedsheet bought on Commercial Street in my mom’s hometown of Bangalore. To the sound of my parents frying dosas, of India somehow in our house, the veins of the country brought to us. One story goes a step beyond even Aphrodisiac’s oedipal psychodrama: A mother-in-law tries to kill her son’s wife. Watching Shakespeare Wallah, I felt my biases stirring — the sight of an Indian woman lounging in silk, convinced of her power, drew me in. The sweet British ingenue as her counterpoint? Not so much. Even in what is meant to be Manjula’s grossest moment, I saw triumph. When she distracts the Indian men from watching Lizzie, and, thus, Shakespeare, I saw the story of India wresting power for itself, taking control of its methods of art and distraction. In that moment, I saw the fall of the Raj. I welcomed it.

The movie closes on Lizzie too, as if to bring home to whom our loyalties belong. She looks sad as she floats on a boat back to England, having told Sanju she loves him, to no avail. In a frustrating scene, she says she’ll do what it takes, shift her life from the artist’s one she adores to a pace fit for coupling. Nothing draws a response, not this practical invitation to love, nor the one when her voice catches on the actual word. “He sucks,” my Manjula-stan friend and I agree. Some hero and heroine: the former unaware of his selfishness, the latter of her foolishness. Both claiming connection but in the end buttoned up against the other, drifting apart, while Manjula forces intimacy with each, over tea or in bed. (Hatred is a form of intimacy.) It’s Manjula, a villain selfish and foolish and lonely and sad, but never claiming to be otherwise. She lives in the heart. Exposes our bias. She is the one we love.

 

“Shakespeare Wallah” runs today until November 14, at Quad Cinema, in Manhattan. Tonight’s screening includes a Q&A with Madhur Jaffrey and James Ivory.

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