(2000) Rediff Interview

Drop-dead gorgeous Aishwarya Rai is irrefutably the busiest heroine in Bollywood today. She shoots at breakneck speed. Nights merge into days and days into nights, but Rai is undeterred, steeled in her determined to make it to the top and remain there for a long while.

Even her recent accident failed to daunt her; after a short recuperative leave, she was back under the arclights. No wonder then, she is part of some of the most coveted projects, opposite some of the hottest heroes and most sought after directors in the industry today.

Kanchana Suggu met Rai on the sets of Raj Kanwar’s Dhai Akshar Prem Ke. Simply dressed in a milk-white salwar kurta and dupatta, she looked almost angel-like. “I’ve been continuously shooting nights and days, so I need to sleep a little,” she explained with a sweet smile. “But I promise I’ll give you a proper interview after some time.”

Later, as the shooting progressed, so did our wait. Meanwhile, Rai kept flashing apologetic glances in our direction. Finally, we do get 20 minutes, but with a caveat, “I have to rush for rehearsals. Before that, I have a small meeting on the way. So I can only give you 20 minutes.”

Let’s begin with your next film.
I always find this a very tough question to answer. Honestly, contrary to public opinion, while I work in an organised manner and am very professional and sincere to what I do, the media seems to believe everything is calculated and sort of charted out. But that’s not the way it is with me. I never plan on which film would make the best impact. The film that is completed first is the one you’ll see released first.

I’ve always worked on more than one film at a time. Aur Pyar Ho Gaya, Iruvar, Jeans were all happening around the same time. So were Aa Ab Laut Chale, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Josh and Taal.

I’m assuming Josh will be my next release because we are working fast towards completing the film. Then there’s Albela, which I’m doing with Govinda. I started that film when I joined the industry, but let me assure you that, even today, it does not look dated. At the moment, I’m completing work on these films. Whatever gets completed first will be released first.

And your new films?
The only other films I started work on this year are Satish Kaushik’s Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai with Anil (Kapoor), Raj Kanwar’s Dhai Akshar Prem Ke with Abhishek (Bachchan) and Adi Chopra’s Mohabbatein.

I’m assuming all these films will be completed by August/September. Mohabbatein is definitely releasing in October. If everything goes okay with the directorial and the production sides, then these movies should be out before Mohabbatein.

I’ve signed many more films. People assume this is a ‘now’ syndrome because of the latest hits or whatever. But that’s not so. By the grace of God, every director I’ve worked with has always spoken to me about their consecutive films except, probably, Mani Ratnam. He definitely wanted a small-eyed girl in Dil Se.. She had to have that kind of physical features as she was supposed to be from Assam.

But Shankar asked me to do his next film, Mudalavan, which I couldn’t. Rahul Rawail had talked to me about Arjun Pandit, which I couldn’t do. Subhashji (Ghai) had asked me for his next film, which I’m doing. Indu (Indra Kumar) had asked me for Mann, which I couldn’t do. I’m doing his next, Rishtey. Sanjay (Leela Bansali) had asked me for Devdas.

From the beginning, Yashji had asked me for Mohabbatein, which I’m doing. This film did not require much time from me, so I could accommodate the dates. He’s also asked me for his next directorial venture which I should be doing.

Rajkumar Santoshi had signed me right from year one. But, then, he had to make Doli Sajake Rakhna and China-Gate. So, later this year or early next year, we should be starting it. Right now, he wants to start Lajja which I cannot do. Since all these films are starting later this year, it suits me just fine.

Weren’t you doing Rahul Gupta’s Hum Panchi Ek Daal Ke?
Yeah. There are a lot of backlog films I really want to complete, like Hum Panchi Ek Daal Ke which is a kids’ films. Rahul Gupta went through some trouble with this film. He had a fallout with Shashilal Nair, who was the original director. Gulzarsaab had originally written the script. All of us want to help Rahul because the kids are growing up and stuff like that. We really want to complete it soon.

A big deal is being made about you playing Shah Rukh Khan’s sister in Josh. Does that affect you?

See, I’m an actress. That was my primary concern when I joined the industry. I was not looking at casting coups, ratings, the number game or even the box office success rate… I guess all these things are probably of some value within the industry.

But, on my agenda, these are all peripherals. They are not my focal points. I was not coming here looking for name, fame and glamour because, by the grace of God, I have already had my share of it on the world stage and on the catwalk. I’m saying this at the risk of sounding conceited. But this is not pomposity, I’m just being honest.

I made acting a definite professional choice as opposed to continuing my studies in architecture. I wanted to carve my niche here too and be recognised as an actress and, preferably, as someone who is versatile at what she’s doing. I don’t want to be typecast. I will be a heroine in terms of the label given to the female lead in our movies, but within those parameters and within what our industry is willing to offer the female lead, I’d like to be versatile.

Today, movies are evolving. There are many new film-makers who do not necessarily tread the completely out and out commercial track nor the completely out and out track of what people refer to as offbeat or parallel cinema. They are treading on somewhat of a middle path.

As an artist and a professional in this industry, I recognise this. As a responsible professional, I do recognise that there are a lot of things that a movie depends on and a lot of things that depend on the way a movie does at the box office.

As far as Josh and me playing Shah Rukh’s sister is concerned, I believe that a director of the repute of Mansoor Khan and a production house like Venus have definitely thought about what they were doing when they were going about making this movie and casting for it. I am convinced about what they are doing. So if they are okay with how they have gone about creating and casting for Josh, then who are we really to even hiccup for that matter?

As an artist, I’ll give my best to Shirley, the character I’m playing. As will Shah Rukh to Max and Chandrachur to Rahul and so on. I think when you’re that clearheaded, work becomes fun and you can concentrate on why you are here and your function as an artist.

Why did you choose acting over so many other career options?
My decisions have never been impulsive, even if they were quick. There was thought in my choices. Like I thought I’d go in for medicine because I always loved zoology. Even today, most of my friends happen to be from medical school. It’s amazing but, when I interact with them, even they keep saying they feel I’m one of them because I’m genuinely interested in that field.

But, towards the end of 12th grade, while I was studying for my PCB which is the imperative requisite for medicine, there was a sudden change of heart. I don’t know if God was putting this into my head, I felt the fact that I loved my subjects was not reason enough to make this kind of career choice.

I can be tangential sometimes. Tomorrow, I might love literature. In fact, I love English literature, but I definitely do not want to be a professor. I loved zoology. I loved the idea of service, of curing and doing something of some value to someone’s life, the entire emotional train… everything. Strange as this may sound, I loved the aura within a hospital.

But, then, I went through this sudden change of heart. I thought I’m not sure if I want to do it as a career because, if I cannot be that dedicated, I would always be between the horns of dilemma through my life. I would like to be that dedicated. I think it’s an amazingly sacrificing life to opt for. I’m not saying I was completely selfish or selfless in my decision.

It was then that I decided to go for a career that was a blend of art and science, since I’ve always been inclined towards the arts as well. I gave the entrance exam only in two colleges– Rachna and J J. Anyone who wanted to get into architecture would have given exams all over India, but I gave it only in these two places. I wanted to get into Rachna and I did. That’s how architecture happened.

Weren’t you modelling even as a student?
A professor asked me to do a photoshoot for her and I agreed. She was a photojournalist. Then, all through my 12th, I refused offers. I never really got my portfolio done. But the film industry and the modelling world took well to me. I started getting offers from everywhere and, as a typical science student, I said, ‘No way. What’s going on? I’m supposed to be studying.’ I shunned everything. But, post HSC, you get three months off. It was during this time that I did modelling for a lark.

Everybody knows what happened after that. It just went on and on and on. The industry took well to me and I caught the media’s attention or rather I grabbed attention or whatever. It was symbiotic and there was attention.

It’s amazing how, even as a model, I was around only for around a year-and-a-half before my titles happened. But, within that year, I had done most of the prestigious campaigns and there was this star aura that was attached to my name.

I was not a film star or a ramp queen although they would refer to me like that sometimes. I was not there in every designer’s catalogue, I was not doing every show. I was doing only select shows since I was a student. You can probably count the campaigns I did. Just four-five major brands.

But there was this star aura around me because of which, even at that time, I started getting very good offers from films. When I rejected them, a lot of directors smiled and said, ‘Yeah. We’d like to see you become an architect’.

Shekhar (Kapur) had met me while he was making Bandit Queen and he said, ‘Look, even I have a degree in accountancy, but I’m making movies. Probably five years down the line you will become an architect, but I know you’re meant to be here.’

Even Yashji laughed and said, ‘All right, come and deny my offers.’ They’re all seniors in the industry and I guess they always knew. I was neither starry-eyed nor condescending towards the film industry. I just said I was not ready for films. Nobody in my family belonged here. I was a good student and I could not dream of dropping my studies. So I said no.

In a way, I’m glad I took the decision because, if I had joined the industry then, I wouldn’t have joined the pageant and the titles would never have happened.

Are you enjoying being a part of the industry?
As far as I am concerned, movies today are not just dialogue kya hai, costume kya hai, make-up kya hai and go and act. I enjoy discussing things, I love this whole idea of creating things. It’s the creative aspect that I enjoy the most, the entire aura, the ambience. That excites me. It’s the whole concept of something coming out of nothing.

I’m an emotional person, so the emotions I delve into while acting give me an insight into life. For me, acting is like getting to live the lives of so many different people in so many different environments. It just makes life so exciting. At the same time, I find myself discovering so many facets of myself. There’s a lot of me in my characters and there is also somebody else into whose skin I’m getting.

On the flip side, you are doing so many things that you didn’t know you could do or you knew you probably could do but wouldn’t do. It’s a very very exciting world. By the grace of God, from the onset, I’ve got the opportunity to do so many things.

Despite being a newcomer, you had the opportunity of working with some great directors.
My directors have been wonderful. They have never treated me like a newcomer. With Mani Ratnam, I started with the best school. I’ve always admired Mani and, when he called me, I was not sure if I wanted to let it pass. I think that was sort of the crux. He signed me on without even taking a test. So, I thought if all these makers are asking me, then it’s probably meant to be.

What you’re seeing in the last year did not happen overnight. They all happened before or during Aur Pyar Ho Gaya. It’s not the question of a hit or a flop that made them decide. I decided that if I don’t enjoy the medium, I always had the option to get up and leave. But if I let it pass, maybe the thought would linger.

I don’t like to regret anything and I had taken my time to decide. It was not as if I jumped when the offers came in. I had taken two years — a year of Miss India and a year of Miss World. This was enough time for me to interact with people, to talk to people. I found myself discussing stories which I eventually did not do. But then, I was discussing them, I was enjoying this whole creative world.

Today, I’m really glad I made this choice. I have no regrets whatsoever. I thank God for the kind of experience I’ve had. People look at it as fairy tale like, I guess, because of the kind of directors I’ve got to work with from the onset. But there are two sides of the coin. It’s been very hard work and that’s what I’ve enjoyed the most. If it was a cake walk, I would have probably found it boring.

Didn’t it hurt your ego when your films flopped, considering you had tasted success at the world level?
It depends on what you are focusing on. I’ve learnt my lesson very early in life, in my tenth grade. Like I said, I’ve always been a good student. I’ve always got a first rank except for my seventh grade mid-term when I stood second. I was head girl and was good at co-curricular activities.

There was this ‘good girl,’ this ‘achiever’ kind of aura around me. I’m not saying I was egoistic, but there was a certain level of confidence in me. My parents never pushed me, but it was taken for granted because I always came first. It never was a big issue for me to get the first rank.

When I came to the 10th grade, my seniors, my juniors, everybody thought I’d top the ICSE board exams. But I came seventh or eighth in class and that was a huge ego blow. That’s when it hurt. It really hurt because I had not valued my first rank until then.

I realised it was an ego thing. I got into Jai Hind and I did my 12th grade in Ruparel eventually. My percentage was not poor, but it was only a trivial ego thing. Although I came eighth, there was only a 0.5 percent difference between the girls. It was then that I realised I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations and not my own. I’d never set any goals for myself.

That was the only time in my life that I really cried. Thankfully, I had my parents and friends who kind of put things in perspective for me. Then came the 12th and I got 90 per cent in my PCB, which was not that great. I would not get into Bombay’s medical colleges, although, for architecture, it was a very good percentage. But I took it better this time.

I’ve always had this middle path perspective since the 12th. I never got swept away by success or bogged down by what people perceived as failure. By the grace of God, I’ve really not tasted failure from my perspective, in the sense that I’m learning constantly. There is a broadening of perspective and a better insight into life. I feel I’m more in touch with me as a person, with the reality of life around me. That itself is a very positive energy.

When I stood second in Miss India, my modelling graph was getting better despite of the so-called ‘fall.’ People thought I did not become number one. But what would the contest do? It would take me to an international pageant and I was still doing that. I went for Miss World as opposed to Universe. No big deal.

So what people perceived as failure didn’t really affect my life. I got better assignments and better business deals and I went for the international pageant. The icing, thank God, was the Miss World title.

Suppose that didn’t happen and I had decided to join films, I had plum projects even then. It just got delayed by a year and I had this great experience of Miss World. I guess it’s just the ‘right place, right time’ syndrome.

I had the best of the makers. Mani was making a different film like Iruvar. It was not a box office hit, but I got critical acclaim. People said I’ve got what it takes. If you look at it from a clearer perspective, that was just what I needed. I needed critics to say that I could act. I didn’t need a hit because a hit would get me films with good makers which I was already had, a good price, which I was already getting, more covers, which I already had whatever be the headline.

Aur Pyar Ho Gaya was not a box office hit. But the whole industry said it was a typical Hindi film, showcasing a typical film heroine. It’s just that, because people interacted with you through your interviews, they expected a little more intensity. They suddenly expected a little more from Aishwarya Rai.

A typical launch Hindi film showcases everything a Hindi film heroine needs to do — laugh, cry, dance, sing, do all emotional scenes, be outrageously garrulous. Aur Pyar Ho Gaya had all of that. Although the film was not a box office hit, the industry told me I’ve got what it takes.

At that point, I had already signed Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Aa Ab Laut Chale, Albela… I had eight films already. What the media saw as was, in actual terms, just one film at the box office.

For that matter, take the newcomer’s award. Only Screen gave it to me. At other award functions, I didn’t get Best Newcomer. It’s a very good feeling to get awards or even a box office hit but, despite not getting those so-called awards on the mantelpiece or box-office hits for some time, I still had what I wanted — working with great directors and good scripts. That’s the best award for me.

A newcomer’s award is only supposed to have the industry welcome you and accord you with those opportunities. But I already had those. So I think it’s all about what you focus on. That’s why I’ve always been very, very positive.

Last year when I had those two hits, people said, “Finally, after all this wait, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Taal. But I haven’t been here that long. Jeans was a hit in Tamil, however much you would want to deny that. Jurassic Park didn’t run in Hindi, but you did n’t run down Spielberg. So why run Shankar or me down when it was a hit in the original language?

Aur Pyar Ho Gaya was the only Hindi film that did not do too well at the box office. And then I had Aa Ab Laut Chale, Hum Dil… and Taal. That means my third and fourth release were hits. Aa Ab… also did reasonably well at the box office. It was not a flop. By the grace of God, it’s not been that bad at all. Since I’m aware of the truth, I’ve never had a negative perspective.

But box office success must be important as well…
It’s a good feeling, no doubt, the so-called box office success. During Aa Ab…, the media had said stuff like, ‘Why is Aishwarya so much in the background?’ and ‘Suman takes the cake!’

When this happened, I thought it was Chintuji’s (Rishi Kapoor) and my victory, because Pooja is meant to be in the background. She’s not supposed to grab Rohan’s (Akshaye Khanna) attention at all. Akshaye is supposed to look through her and find Suman so attractive. He was not supposed to look at her as the girl he could fall in love with.

If the audience felt that about me, it’s a success because that’s what the hero is supposed to think. That’s why I worked on keeping my mannerisms so plain. I kept my make-up slightly poor. That’s the way I work on my character. I don’t have to be Aishwarya Rai. My costumes were like really silly, simple, run down almost Plain Jane because that’s how I wanted it to be, of course with a slight confidence in the second half because she was a working girl.

Right from the time I heard the script of Hum Dil…, I knew people would atleast sit up and notice me as an actress, whether or not the film was a box office hit. Of course, I didn’t expect this amount of success. The appreciation feels very nice because this was what I was looking for. I wanted to be recognised as an actress, which is what this film did for me.

Taal’s timing was great since it came soon after Hum Dil… It was like the icing on a cake. Being a Subhash Ghai film, it had a star aura to it. I guess that completes the picture. It’s been a good year and that feels really nice.

I’m really grateful to the audience because, like Miss World, my well wishers have been writing all along and they’ve always said, ‘We know.’ This latent confidence, this dormant anxiety, this encouragement was always there. What increases your personal pleasure is your audience’s pleasure. When people turn around and say they were praying and I justified their faith, it feels very great. When I went on my world tour after these two hits, the audience’s response was really nice.

You seem to be an introspective person.
I don’t know if I’m consciously doing that but, subconsciously, I guess yes. It just happens through life that, when you’re growing so fast and experiencing so much in so little time, you get closer in touch with yourself. That’s what makes life interesting.

My life does not circle around I-me-myself. I’m not egocentric or narcissistic or a megalomaniac. At the same time, I am introspective to a certain extent. Positively, so as far as I can help it. I don’t mean I’ll always admit to the nicer sides to me, but I mean a kind of looking into the mirror.

Does it make a difference in this industry if you don’t have a filmi background?
I have never felt completely alien. I don’t know if alien is the right word, but this was definitely a new world for me. Thankfully, I was welcomed here. I was beckoned here, I didn’t come searching. And I thank God for that and also the industry.

I don’t know if my story would be the broader perspective for the world at large, but for me, I’ve never felt out of place. For that matter, I’ve worked with most of the starsons as you may call them, but I’ve never felt any different. We used to tease and things like that, but I’ve never been treated differently. It’s just as new as any other world or office or college would be to you. It’s the way you look at it and the vibes you give out as far as you can help it.

I’m sorry if some people have had sad experiences. They might turn around and say that I’ve been lucky and they have not seen such a nice side to it, but that goes for most professionals and in many industries too. Some people might have had a great experience working with some company and some people might think completely otherwise. It’s probably good fortune and God’s blessings.

To some extent, it’s the vibes you give out and how clear you make your objectives to people without making a hue and cry about it. I guess that’s where upbringing and conduct come in to an extent. The rest, I guess, is good fortune.

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