India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Cover Story
March 31, 2011

The World According to Ash

Text by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh. Photographed by Mike Ruiz. Styling by Tanya Ghavri and Nazneen Harianawala.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s natural precociousness springs up at every twist in the traveller’s tale. Verve watches the ex-Miss World-turned-moviestar-and-homemaker switch from child to Inca queen, Bollywood dramatist to casual honeymooner, lost tourist to Disneyworld explorer, through loud giggles, flashing smiles, dramatic enunciations and passionate inflections, exploring a few of her many memorable journeys

  • Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Bollywood
  • Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Bollywood
  • Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Bollywood
  • Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Bollywood

A little girl sets sail for the world in an “enormous ship”. The romantic notion of travel becomes a kaleidoscopic reality, possibly even a way of life, with her “shippie” dad and family. It is the mid ’80s when Japan is “very disciplined” and China is yet to come into its own. Around a decade later, winning the Miss World pageant makes her “a cultural ambassador of India” in places unpronounceable. And through it all, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has felt the power of being Indian, of coming from “a world within the world”.

Since then, there have been movie shoots in exotic locales: from a desert full of water bodies in Latin America to remote towns in India, brand endorsements in cobble-stoned Europe, and the world becoming a stage, literally, with performances like the Unforgettable World Tour. “I will go out and experience a place, I won’t live in an ivory tower, while gauging it and being responsible. Ever since Miss World, people have given me a lot of love – whether you call it recognition or adulation, they have always been expressive in their connectivity with me. When they saw me on the streets, it wasn’t like ‘Ay, Aishwarya!’ – women would come forward blessing and embracing me.”

Always politically correct, her carefully polished voice modulating with occasional bursts of enthusiasm, the intrepid traveller sits easy, knowing that the subject of the day is one she can be naturally passionate about. She points out that while the world advanced technologically, becoming a “smaller place”, her life mirrored the advancement: “Everything became from a 14-hour or 18-hour flight to ‘just an overnighter’, because you started doing it so often. Abhishek (Bachchan) and I love flights – we’re psychotic that way.” And, as she inevitably spends an exorbitant amount of time in transit, the covert people watcher admits “feeling a lot for elderly Indian passengers who walk around staring at monitors. Airports can be overwhelming – with the distances, pace, people and security checks; and while they have become second nature to me, I can still relate to how the experience can be for the uninitiated.”

South Africa: “I had a funny feeling inside me – looking outside the airplane window – a sense of going away.”
There are three times that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan recalls feeling this way, with a distinct sense of poignancy. It began with the flight to South Africa as she left to compete for, and win, the Miss World pageant title in 1994. “I suddenly felt that I would be away from everyone and alone for a month. And the thought of being with a whole lot of people foreign to you; but when you get there, you just fit in. I don’t know if it was a premonition or not, but I sensed that life was changing.”

London: “When you land there in winter, you barely wake up from the jetlag and feel that it is dark, like night again.”
In London, where she was to spend a year as the reigning Miss World, she had the option to have her own apartment or to live with a family in their house. “And I, being the responsible one, chose to stay in a house with a very sweet elderly couple rather than alone in an apartment, knowing my family would feel more secure. It’s a very Indian thing.” It was the first time she was living on her own: “For further studies I never went outside of Mumbai, because my father was a marine engineer, and it was just my brother, mum and I living together; I would feel for my mother and didn’t want to leave her and go away.”

Shanghai: “Suddenly Shanghai was an absolutely different city, and the world was beginning to talk about the change in China.”
It was a very different China during her repeat journey in 1994, when she went as a model with Hemant Trevedi. “Shanghai was a symbol of that change – the modernisation and globalisation, like the US on this side of the world. This was a new culture, very much in keeping with the times or ahead of the time. Very interested in India and Indian fashion and it was almost a privilege to be there with our fashion and our designers.”

China: “This time I was shooting a song on the Great Wall doing a little jig!”
In 1994, she had walked up to the fifth gate of the Great Wall, with a “more grown-up taking away, recognising the passion of generations working on building this incredible wonder that we live with on our planet”. She was back on the Great Wall as an actor, shooting the song Poovukkul, which showcased the Seven Wonders of the World, for Shankar’s Jeans. “You never know when you are going to revisit a certain part of the world. As a kid, when I was there in the ’80s, they took us to a uniquely Chinese opera, and sang some of our Hindi songs, with all the Chinese in the audience looking at us because we were the one Indian family sitting there. You’ve heard of people in China and Russia listening to our music, our film songs, and then to think, on my third visit there, I was shooting a song, with a live audience of people fascinated by our cinema and the song culture of our movies.”

Times Square and historic sites: “I am an actor – it means you have to do everything!”
Dancing atop the Great Wall – did it feel ridiculous at all? “Interestingly enough, never,” Aishwarya answers decisively. “From the beginning, I never felt odd. When shooting for Aur Pyar Ho Gaya, I remember Bobby (Deol), even though he belongs to an actor-family, feeling a bit odd when we had to do ridiculous things in public arenas, like jump on a car, or run on the street with a toothbrush in our hand and toothpaste on our face.” Or the time when she was in New York City shooting for Aa Ab Laut Chalein in Times Square wearing a fuschia pink gown with a bow, big earrings and a flower in her hair. “I had no inhibitions. You’ve grown up watching it, song and dance is so much a part of our cinema that you don’t feel silly doing it.”

Disneyland: “We both were like excited kids – free, happy and wonderfully reliving our childhood.”
A youthful exuberance springs up as she recalls memories of the past. “That family trip (’80s) that started with Japan ended with Disneyland, and Abhishek and I ended our honeymoon – after Bora Bora’s ‘drop in the ocean’ experience – in Disneyland. It wasn’t planned, but worked out beautifully into a great circle.”

Tunisia: “In my interviews, when I say ‘Every day I feel like a newcomer, or every day is like the first time’ there are those special moments when I actually feel that, very, very strongly.”
The third time she felt “the pit of the stomach feeling” was when she took off to shoot for “one of the best film experiences”, The Last Legion in Tunisia and Slovakia. “Not only did I have no one from my nationality on the crew, it was a guy flick – everybody was a dude! I was going to be a warrior, this action character. I was feeling it again: going away for a very long period, and I had to step away from very interesting work that was happening here. I had gone through that predicament too many times in my life and career: ‘Heck, all good things happening, do I have to choose?’” Without any idea of the geography of Tunisia, she was bowled over by the spectacular beauty of the country. She arrived three days before the shoot, without rehearsal. “Everyone was in panic mode, but my dancing helped me, I embraced action instantly. Beautiful Mediterranean water, very hot and warm…a bit much in the costumes, with all that armour! The places were so quaint and simple that we all became that much closer as a group.”

Slovakia: “These guys are HUGE. When you sit on these buggers, you don’t walk straight for two days after.”
Slovakia was familiar because she had been to Prague. She found the “cold (weather) and green” country replete with beautiful castles. “We were all like kids. We had so much fun working together, and such incredible discipline – whether it was Colin (Firth) or Sir Ben (Kingsley) – we were like children in a giant videogame.” And the most remarkable experience was spending time on horseback. She emits a loud, expressive laugh: “The horses in Tunisia are one size and then you get to Slovakia and you realise that the horses there are different. These guys are HUGE. When you sit on these buggers, you don’t walk straight for two days after!”

Budapest: “Ajay kept telling Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) that the two things he dreaded the most, dancing and singing, were what Sanjay made him do in the film.”
Budapest was special because Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was shot there, for which she got her first Best Actress award. She recalls with a smile, the dance sequence with a rather nervous Ajay Devgn. “It was exceptional because it was an insight into their culture – the music and dance sequence was local to the place. So you actually experienced something unique, apart from the magnificence of being by the river and bridge. Also, we saw very few children in the country, and then we realised that they were encouraging people to have more children because of the mortality rate. Apart from the cuisines, it is always interesting to come away with an insight into the place. For me, it is not about hitting the shops; it is about getting to know a place.”

Brazil: “I was reliving my college days, being vicariously part of a gang of childhood friends.”
After Columbia during her Miss World reign, she was back in South America much later, when shooting for Dhoom 2. “The genre of the film we were working on made us relive our college days. I was privy to a close unit of kids (Abhishek, ‘Duggu’ Hrithik Roshan and Uday Chopra) who are childhood friends, and felt that I was vicariously part of the gang. Brazil offers that kind of spirit, the film gave that kind of energy.” Her eyes take on a faraway look as she recalls a surreal moment towards the end of the Dhoom 2 shooting schedule. They lay sprawled below the “magnificent” Christo, in the wee hours of the morning, before Hrithik Roshan was returning to his son being born. “We were in that woozy state of mind, because we had stayed awake the previous day and night and were watching the sun rise. It was a very quiet time, the early morning hour before the tourists arrived. We had had such a noisy schedule, all of us buzzing throughout, that it was the best silence we all shared. As we lay on the ground, we felt that Christ was looking at us from the skies. You hear terms like, ‘listening to the sound of silence’, but we experienced it then.”

Machu Picchu: “In my little bling feathered costume, I looked like one of the Inca queens.”
Shankar’s Robot took her once again to “the other side of the world”. She had taken a break from her career for the first time in her life. “I was facing the camera after an unexpected eight months all the way in Machu Picchu (Peru).” It was the longest journey they had made – counting the kind of flights, number of flights and locations. Upon reaching the place, a tiny township, after a train journey, they all walked from the railway station dragging their bags on the road. “As we trekked along, we suddenly passed a marketplace. My staff was exhausted, but I was thinking, ‘What an adventure!’ I love walking, because we don’t do that enough, and you actually get to feel the pulse of the place, get in contact with the people and culture, otherwise it could well be structure to car, car to airport, airport to plane, plane to car, car to hotel.”

Mexico City airport: “I was the pride of India and all that – and I didn’t have my passport. This was the worst moment for me.”
With her valet in tow, and running a fever, Aishwarya was connecting via Mexico City en route to Melbourne, Australia, representing India in a performance at the Commonwealth Games. Special Services, who had come to help them with the language barrier, disappeared with their passports. “It was bizarre. People there would smile a lot and look blank, because they didn’t speak the language.” She was taken to a private room that was empty save for two people who could be guards eating a home-cooked meal. “It was like the movies – being in a prison cell and these guys going at their meat sauce and bread. They would say something to each other and keep smiling at me. My valet has piercing eyes, so I would keep telling him to smile and keep his face easy. I suddenly felt I had to be protective and get us out of here. I had never felt that before. I wasn’t getting through on the phone to anyone and at one point I felt myself go a bit cold. I had wanted to visit Mexico, but this was not the adventure I was looking for!” After an encounter with a man who spoke perfectly-accented English and suddenly refused to speak any, to a bunch of “strong-looking women” who used the word “off-loaded”, Aishwarya nearly gave up. And then suddenly, in the crowd she spied the person who had disappeared with their passports and chased him down. “He was carrying our passports in his hand, and till date I have no idea why.”

Los Angeles: “With time, travel, age and experiences, you begin to like the easier, more social pace of LA.”
After boarding the flight from an eventful Mexico City, she was transiting through LA to catch her Melbourne connection, hoping to make it in time to perform. “I reached LA and suddenly life was beyond fabulous. It was the one time I cherished being who I am, in terms of the celebrity life. Suddenly, it was beyond comfort, think all superlatives. I always say that once in a while, if it gets too comfortable, God just does a little schickt (demonstrates a click with her fingers like playing carom). He’s watching his own little rom-com, thinking, ‘I want to have fun with you’. So I think, ‘Enjoy it, and turn it when you want to.’”

New Zealand: “The life that we lead, we are like gypsies, nomads, and I’m very quick to feel at home in any place in the world.”
She’s spoken a marathon, and yet looks like she can go on. I’m right; this would make a coffee-table book. “We don’t realise how quickly time flies and because a part of our life gets captured on celluloid forever, I feel as actors we live lifetimes within our lifetime.” She is off to join Abhishek in time for his birthday, in New Zealand where he is shooting, in a place she has never been before. Some people are meant to be children of the world, explorers in their own right. “And yet, when one travels so much, there will always be something unique to being home. It is your family that makes home what it is – it’s not the physical structure even if you say bed and all of that. I live a very homely life in the places that I go to. Besides, as Abhishek rightly puts it, one in six is an Indian: you can go to the farthest of places and we (Indians) will be there, saying, ‘Hello, you want home-cooked food?’ That’s the best part about Indians – they are there to feed you. You are at home anywhere in the world.”

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