(1998) Unveiling Ash

She seems to remind you of a fairy-tale world of crystal dreams, good witches and wondrous magic. Her spaciness suggests that she sometimes lives in that world herself. She draws intense fans and astounded critics who look at the layers of chiffon and the overwrought romanticism of Aishwarya Rai’s world and ask, is she for real? She knows they ask and she figures she’s answered them by now.

Even on this day, shooting for the climax scene of Aur Pyar Ho Gaya at a Bandra bungalow, she’s assaiied by thronging fans and inquisitive journos -giving long, rambling, surprisingly self aware and occasionally mystical answers to almost anything that’s asked. She’s supposed to be the person that spreads a little fairy dust here and there, floating above the ordinary mortals in ozone somewhere. Her large eyes and the sort of born-to-it beauty hardly prepare you for someone so down- to-earth.

Intially her exotic looks confused producers also; she did not fit into the girl-next-door image that was the order of the day. But in her case, in time,exotic became acceptable and she was offered Mani Rathnam’s Anandam (now titled Iruvar). And now that her talent is on display it can be said that she’s more deserving than most. No wonder she’s on top of everyone’s list despite the dismal showing of this much awaited film. Apparently, something to gloat over. Although Aishwarya corroborates that she felt smug over the appreciation of her work, yet she would have felt happier had the film fared well. “Let’s face it, a hit film definitely adds lustre to your name. But if the film doesn’t fare well, you feel as if there’s something missing despite the accolades. Frankly, I was quite upset at the outcome of Iruvar. After all, it was my first release.”

Was the film done in because of the hype? The expectations of the audience must have been sky-high. “Not from me so much as from Mohanlal, Prakash Raj and Mani Rathnam. I was just a part of the film in which I did well.”

Could her undoing be her choice of a Tamil film as her debut vehicle, which projected her as a simple village girl, a role diametrically different than the savvy, sophisticated Miss World? Not quite agreeing to it, she says, “Who wants to get trapped in an image? The challenge lies in doing something different. I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t have done this film. Moreover, I’ve always been a die-hard fan of Mani Rathnam. So I didn’t want to let this opportunity go by. It’s been quite an enriching experience working with him. In fact, I’d love to do another film with him.”

Did he prove to be a hard taskmaster? “No, not at all. In fact, he was so relaxed that he almost took it for granted that I’d deliver the goods without prodding. I remember having given a reasonably good shot on the first day of the shoot itself and looking at Mani for his reaction. I guess I needed a bit of reassurance. But I was surprised to see him get busy for the next shot in a nonchalant manner. His wife Suhasini who was present on the sets made him look up when she yelled ‘React to the girl, Mani! She’s given a perfect shot and there’s no word, of encouragement from you.”

If Mani Rathnam in his own way recognised her talent and gave her the credit for it, Rahul Rawail, the director of her first Hindi film, Aur Pyar Ho Gaya, seems to have ticked her off for not being up to the mark. Her candid confession, “I believe in having a student- teacher relationship with the film’s director. So if he does admonish me for something ever, I don’t take it personally. Rahul is a perfectionist who doesn’t settle for anything less than the best. If he said anything to me in the interest of the film, it needn’t have been blown out of proportion and treated as a showdown between him and me. Any piece of news can be distorted at will here. The rumour mills went to the extent of blaming 42 retakes in a dance sequence on me. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Saroj Khan, the choreographer of the song, can verify the facts, if need be.”

A Rahul Rawail film, extensively shot abroad with the hotshot Bobby Deol as her hero could have been a dream debut. Did the inordinate delay to the project upset her plans? In retrospect, Aur Pyar Ho Gaya was meant to be released before Iruvar. Because we had started working on that, much earlier. Somewhere along the way its progress was hampered, hence the release plans were reversed. But it didn’t affect me in any way because looking at the way things work here, I was mentally prepared for such eventualities. I can’t work myself into a frenzy dwelling on these matters. It’s better to leave all that to the filmmaker. In any case, this is going to be my first Hindi film, as it is, so I’m quite excited about it. A sensitive love story set in picturesque locales abroad will definitely go down well with the audiences.”

Is this role more akin to her real self than the one in Iruvar? “I guess a part of your real self reflects in every role. Because you can’t totally dissociate yourself from the persona and reinvent a totally different personality.”

Does she think that dancing is an important feature of acting? She nods in agreement and says, “If dancing comes naturally to you, you definitely feel more confident and less awkward. Although there isn’t much use of Bharat Natyam in our films, but if you have mastered it, you will definitely do much better as an actress for it lends suppleness to your body. I enjoy dancing per se and have also learnt a bit of Bharat Natyam and that makes my job so much the easier.”

Even while she ruled the roost as a model and took the ‘world’ by storm winning the coveted title, her trek to stardom was a foregone conclusion. ‘I’ve always been into Hindi films in a big way, watching the old black and white classics, freaking out on Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rehman films, being glued to Amitabh-Rekha movies and listening to the soulful melodies of S.D. Burman, O.P. Nayyar and R. D. Burman.”

So in a way the ground was prepared for an inevitable tryst with films. But was she prepared for the downside of the industry as well? Murky studios, uncertainties, even downright unprofessionalism, et al. She laughs and makes light of it. “I guess I was prepared for all this as well because I wasn’t totally alien to the ways of the industry. But that didn’t act as a deterrent at all.”

But it must be a tough task keeping the industry men at bay for who can resist her ethereal beauty and irresistible charm? She smiles her enchanting smile and says, “I’m quite adept at warding off people when I want to. Sometimes my reputation of being ‘distant and aloof’ comes to my rescue. But more often than not, it’s the aura of respectability which makes people relate to you differently. So you could safely say that I haven’t encountered any wolves in the industry.”

Despite her clean image she’s had to bear the brunt of featuring in gossip columns. Like being linked with Akshay Kumar. “Normally I don’t pay any heed to the stuff churned out by rumour mills. Who has the time and energy to spend on mindless gossip? But if somebody crosses the limit and turns malicious, I go all out to have the offenders brought to book. I won’t allow anyone to sully my name for their personal benefit, like boosting the sales of a magazine at my expense.”

After having been crowned Miss World and literally having the world swooning over her, she was handed out a film career on a platter. No mean achievement, this. Anybody else in her place would have let it all go to her head. How does she behave so normally despite the frenzy, the hype and the hoopla around her? All thanks to my parents for having brought me up to be like this. I have felt proud of my achievements but at no point of time have I felt giddyheaded. It doesn’t help behaving in an unnatural fashion when you have to deal with the real world.”

Maybe, having seen it all in such a short time has brought about this serenity. Where celebrityhood spells name, fame and money, it also brings in its wake numerous pressures. If the expectations from you are sky-high, living up to those is helluva task. She concurs, “Yes, you’re right. The more you achieve in life, the more susceptible you are to the vagaries of life. But the challenge lies in not letting it all affect you. If you allow the pressures to pull you down, you won’t be able to forge ahead in life. When you’re in the public eye, you must learn to accept the bouquets as well as the brickbats. In a profession like this, you can’t afford to be highstrung. You’ve got to take the highs and lows in your stride. Anyway, from the look of it, I don’t see any reason to complain about. I have the plum offers with the best of directors coming my way. And I’m determined to work my way up on the dint of my diligence and do hope to live up to people’s expectations.”

Is that the reason why she’s being very selective in her choice of films? ” Yes”, says she firmly. “How can I be expected to be the best if the set-up of a film is below par? I’ve got to be choosy to see that my career is on the right track. If the script of the film doesn’t satisfy me or my role is not well- defined or the director is not capable enough, all my efforts are going to be in vain. So I take all those aspects in consideration while signing a film. If I’m not convinced I immediately turn down the offer however good it may appear on the surface.”

No wonder she has all the plum assignments with the choicest of filmmakers under her belt like Mukesh Bhatt, Mansoor Khan and Raj Kumar Santoshi. Except Yash Chopra who actually wanted to launch her. What went wrong?” I don’t know really. Because Yashji (Yash Chopra) did evince a lot of interest in me initially. And I was supposed to do a film with him. But that was much before the Miss World contest. Anyway, we did keep in touch but somehow nothing took shape.l do have a keen desire to work with him because I don’t think one’s resume is complete without working with a director of his calibre.”

An ambitious young lady, she has her eyes affixed on a goal that she firmly believes is within grasp, given the neccesary push. Making all the right moves, Forging ahead with determination, giving her all to the job in hand, she’s well on her way ..But she has no plans of sacrificing everything else at altar of this dream run. Floating through the complex maze of her existence, she would like to retain her own identity. Catching a glimpse of her real image in life’s mirror. That’s another matter that what she sees there is also a goddess like self, difficult for her innate humility to accept. But she can’t deny it, hide from it or flee from it. The reality stares her in the face. Even minus the shenanigans and trappings of showbiz, she can’t be denuded of the aura around her. For she’s not a normal pilgrim on life’s path. The crown may have been passed on but the halo of the Miss World title remains aglow.

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