Verve’s undisputed power cover girl, India’s highest paid, most in-demand actor; international face of the country; recipient of a myriad film awards and the big daddy of them all, a Padma Shri, reminds me of a little girl on a Ferris wheel – spinning ever upwards, almost out of control in the frenzy of her life. Today, she is closeted in her vanity van at N. D. Studio in Karjat with make-up artist, Ojas. She is busy putting on a face, which to me seems so unnecessary! Earlier, fresh countenanced, tired-eyed but oh so beautiful, she had made flash decisions on gowns (no saris); colours (out with that dull mauve) and silhouettes. The world’s most beautiful woman (so says Julia Roberts!) standing there in black tights and silver-and-white tee, could have slipped into anything and looked like a million bucks. She is small, slim and grave-eyed and I remember reading that these, her most outstanding feature, have been donated already to science. She was not in the best of moods, struggling to control diva-esque tendencies – probably triggered by yet another unnecessary controversy, this time at Cannes, hanging over her head like a cloud of bad hair. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is ready to shoot but only on her own terms. And, no, she has too much on her mind today to commit to a chat.
The wind blows dry and hot on director Vipul Shah’s set of Action Replayy, featuring a re-creation of South Bombay in the hip 1970s. Being India’s foremost leading lady is hard work. Juggling schedules, make-up, costumes, cover shoot, camera roll – and they haven’t even started yet; the shoot scheduled to finish at 5 a.m. and lead Akshay Kumar, nowhere in sight. (And, did I mention, there’s no time here for an interview!) I realise later, when she does manage to squeeze in a conversation, that the country’s most glamorous celebrity works her trim butt off – and she truly believes in what she is doing. And this could be key to understanding Aishwarya and her reality. She is an idea, a dream that somehow fits into society’s fantasies about itself. But it is hard to overestimate her significance in the reels of Bollywood culture. She is famous and not just in this country, of all women perhaps only less so than Sonia Gandhi herself and daughter Priyanka.
Interviewing Aishwarya is like prying open a floodgate. Pinned down another day, she is ready to give it her all, while firmly guarding her privacy. “Each year I am thinking it (her schedule) will ease up. It is the choices I make and the film-makers I work with who are extremely passionate about their craft, demanding, in a positive way, in terms of detailing, in terms of preparation, plans and discussions prior to going ahead with filming…that involves a lot of participation which I enjoy the most…along with the companies I am involved with in terms of endorsements….” By all accounts, the former model and Miss World (1994) today commands a price of Rs 6 crore a film, the highest paid to any female actor in Bollywood and takes home around Rs 1 billion from advertising assignments annually. Certainly makes it ‘worth it’.
There is a collective intake of breath as she makes an entry in a clinging red Shahab Durazi gown with large shoulder bow, looking for all the world like a girl on her prom night out, all wrapped up and ready to go. I notice a photographer’s assistant roll his eyes, blown away by her raw appeal. She is electric before the camera, her obvious fatigue dispelled by the lens. She trips, she turns, she pouts and through it all she chatters with celebrity cameraman, Atul Kasbekar. From Marathi jokes to football scores and cricket, she is game for it all. And as the mood gets intense, she is like an animal, each muscle and nerve twitching, contorting into herself, radiating energy so that every man and woman there can feel goose pimples rise – like a contortionist thrilling her audience. And then, with that famous giggle which really is not a giggle at all but a stomach-turning sound, she is gone with a wave of her hand with the ring that she never takes off (there is a bangle too), and the heightened energy waves immediately ebb.
“I don’t think it would be fair to bring it down to numbers because it would sound very presumptuous of me to sit here and tell you this is the salary that I command, though I must confess it feels wonderful, like with any professional who commits to a job, to take home a good salary. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. One thought that after marriage things might change a bit and I am not solely responsible for the fact that this is not so. It is definitely the kind of work I have behind me and the kind of film-makers I have been working with, that they are forward thinking enough to transcend and rise above this mindset that existed earlier and perceive me as an actor, a professional passionate about my job. And then, everyone gets married, everyone goes on maternity leave….” What is different about her perception of herself is that she sees herself as destiny’s child. God’s chosen one, his out and out favourite.
Director Vipul Shah, prowling his sets, cell phone in hand, even as we wind down our shoot with the setting sun, ticks off the reasons he counts that make Aishwarya one of the most powerful personages in Bollywood. “She is the first actress who has actually done Hollywood films; internationally she is the face of Indian cinema and she is the most beautiful, fantastic dancer. She gives more than 100 per cent to whatever she does and we get tired, almost, of her perfectionist attitude.” Why, I ask him, is she a star when there have been so many beauties, so many sensuous dancers, so many convincing actors? “In spite of her being so exquisitely beautiful, she has a girl next door quality – that combination is extraordinary.” The appeal of a Waheeda Rehman, a Meena Kumari or a Saira Banu – an appeal almost from another age? Aishwarya paradoxically taps into the fantasy of accessibility while keeping the distance. And then, there is that masterstroke of innovation or fate, whichever way you see it. “And, of course, being the Bachchan bahu multiplies the situation.” Husband and scion of Indian cinema’s first family, Abhishek Bachchan and she have become akin to romance royalty, a couple in love, walking the red carpet hand in hand, imparting freshness and normalcy to the film industry.
In retrospect, how much did this high-profile alliance grow her already powerful stature? “This marriage has not been about names coming together or creating a force to reckon with for a perfect alliance. Very honestly, this is a boy and a girl who fell in love and got married with their parents’ blessings…that’s really our story – Abhishek and Aishwarya love each other. We have, very consciously in the first two years of our marriage, not commercially exploited our alliance in terms of doing endorsements together. We did not sell the rights of our photographs to magazines and try and make money, even though there were all those offers. Our alliance has been accepted in a loving manner and this was proved particularly on our (Unforgettable) world tour. We were like bride and groom to the whole world. ”
Says Subhash Ghai who directed her in Taal, where she metamorphosed from curly-haired pahadi belle to MTV superstar: “I would like to believe that Aishwarya Rai is undiminished power in the world of cinema and glamour, not because she is a perfect beauty but because of her impeccable intelligence, strong inner spiritual power and sense of commitment to whatever she does. I am yet to notice a low-level remark from her side even about her enemies. She carries herself, her crises and her success with equal dignity. She is my favourite as a person and actress….”
Days later, I am waiting in the offices of father-in-law and superstar, Amitabh Bachchan’s company, A B Corp Limited, in Mumbai’s Juhu district, feeling rather small amongst the somehow discreet line-up of the dozens of awards, statuettes, citations that the Bachchans seem to have amassed. There must be a special person just to clean and polish these! Abhishek in track pants, walks in and out again. I am waiting still. If Aishwarya views herself as the modern professional at the top of her career, then her double-edged position of power has cocooned her in her own reality which has little bearing on the world around and such mundane things as passing time. She has been in a meeting all morning. She fusses typically about her father-in-law’s lunch (it is almost time for tea) even as she leads me to a well-appointed room with a large TV screen and stacks of DVDs piled up. A painting of Abhishek, in abstract colours, takes pride of place on the wall. This is a room that has the feel of conversations and obsessive film viewing. It’s where I finally settle for a chat with Bollywood’s reigning queen…who ponders a lot, talks a lot and so we have here Aishwarya unfiltered….
“You just know when you are home!”
Abhishek and I have been close throughout our careers. Within a year of our being together, he proposed to me and it was an immediate yes. In Toronto, we had the premiere of Guru and there was a screening and a press interaction in New York and we were supposed to take the flight back, when he proposed. And he said he had a reason for that, he said he used to be in New York at that very spot thinking about the possibility of us being together. It was not about the frills but about the personal emotion deep within.”
“My marriage was a glorious, fabulous, wonderful, superlative personal experience.”
And having said that, the circumstances were unimaginable. I never thought I would get married in the middle of a film. You imagine you would complete your work, indulge yourself. In movies, they show this entire preparation time and the irony was that I was doing that in Jodhaa Akbar. Ashu (director Ashutosh Gowariker) would keep saying that your craft, your kala, is preparing you for this wonderful real life moment. So, I was the bride in my work and it’s wonderful how my life has made me smile so many times and made me wonder at incidents where something is going on in your life and there is an interesting parallel on your work front.
“Abhishek and I have the ability to keep things real.”
Which is great and keeps our relationship what it is – an incredible friendship…we are brutally frank with each other, we are brutally frank about our life, we both have an incredible sense of humour and we have the ability to laugh with each other, at ourselves and with life and I think that is special.
“It starts with, I as an actor should want to do what I am doing, otherwise I will be cheating my work.”
If I am not comfortable doing what I am doing, the camera picks up every little thing, you cannot lie to the camera. I have been fairly radical throughout my career in terms of trying to break out of the predictable journey of a leading lady. Early on, I took up mature roles and started working in regional cinema. It was recognised that I had a dancing prowess and I could have been the next dancing superstar but I chose subjects where the directors wanted to create a slightly different character.
“The truth is, I did not go seeking to make an inroad into Hollywood or move there.”
The entire international interest in me started when Devdas went to Cannes. Coincidentally, Gurinder (Chadha) was meeting me with two script ideas at the same time. So naturally she became my first choice. It was suddenly perceived that Aishwarya has made this decision to go to Hollywood. I said that I am open to cinema, just as I was when I did Iruvar, Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. When I joined films finally, it was after Miss World and films were already coming my way. I have virtually been invited here and to date scripts come my way and by the grace of God, I am spoilt for choice. That is the same way I choose my English films. I am sure people have wondered why I have said no to biggies like Will Smith, Michael Douglas, Rush Hour 3 or Troy. But, I had committed my time to Indian films.
“A day off is totally husband time and family time.”
When we were in Chennai shooting for Guru, we went with Abhishek’s friends from college time, to the theatre and we watched movies back to back, just that one evening we went from one theatre to the next in this multiplex. The wonderful thing about people is that you can actually request them, just say ‘hey guys, we would like to hang too, do what you do’. And people will smile and let you be.
Abhishek and I love music and I have an incredibly full iPod now thanks to him. I have never been pseudo enough to say I like only English music and popular tracks of the time but also old classics and Hindi music of earlier times. We also genuinely love watching movies. But most of all, we just love spending time together. Both of us are very talkative and we have to give each other time to speak before piping in.
“The most precious thing that happened this year has been my father’s recovery from cancer.”
The whole family has been very strong and I will give equal credit to my mother. I wanted to become a doctor before I wanted to become an architect and so I have always been called the ‘frustrated quack’. If there is any kind of even small medical crises, I am there with all the facts. Even Abhishek recognises this. He used to call me Florence Nightingale.
“Professionally what was wonderful was being bestowed with the Padma Shri.”
People from the fraternity said you are the youngest from the industry to have received it thus far. I owe it to my parents and I devote it to them. It was very special when my in-laws said we welcome the fifth Padma Shri into the family. And I am blessed with the best husband in the world because it reflects on his strength that he can stand by his woman on a public platform at every given opportunity and applaud her.
With a tight film schedule ahead, the actor will face the year with the cylinders that drive her, on full blast. While her achievements have been large, one wonders, what next? With fresh faces bombarding the movie going public’s sensibility, will Aishwarya now appeal to a more mature audience? Not an older audience mind you, just a more mature one…. While the choices she makes today may be more critical than ever before, destiny’s child is not worrying any.
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