(2005) The Inimitable Ash

Fun Fearless Female: The Inimitable Ash

by: Prahlad Kakkar, Cosmopolitan India (October, 2005)

She’s the face of India, Bollywood’s darling and her success story is every girl’s dream. Here, the man who launched her in her first ad tells us what Aishwarya Rai is really like…

Aishwarya always sits on her feet around me. That’s because I have a gift for reading people’s feet. The first time I saw her, I saw the tremendous focus and drive, individualism, a fierce need for privacy, and huge contradictions and conflicts – within herself and with her loved ones.

This was just after Pepsi’s “Sanju” had taken the country by storm. Ash was only 19, and the future was yet to happen. Today, she is Bollywood’s biggest success story, yet conflicts continue to dog her. So, who is the real Aishwarya Rai? Is she an amazingly sensual woman who is loyal, intelligent, warm-hearted, and vulnerable? Or is she an ice maiden, an inaccessible bimbo or female tarantula who devours her lovers? Here’s what I think. You take a call!

THE LOVE GAME

It’s not easy being Aishwarya Rai’s love. Think of the impossibility of spending quality time together, conducting a relationship across continents, playing second fiddle to her work, living under media and public scrutiny every minute. It takes a very special guy to do all this.

Salman Khan was clearly not that guy. He is not inherently evil, he’s just a 40-yar-old man who refuses to grow up, and Ash’s biggest mistake was in thinking she could change him. She paid a heavy price for that, both emotionally and professionally. Directors dropped her because they were terrified of the havoc he would create on their sets. In his destructive and immature need for attention, Salman was willing to destroy both of them. And her succumbing to his emotional blackmail stemmed from a need to put a lid on public exposure.

We were shooting for Fuji that time. On the first day Salman was out of town. Ash was relaxed, laughing, joking, and we all had a ball. But the next day he landed up unannounced, and we saw a completely different Ash. She was tense, uptight, and nervous. We were stunned – if this is what his presence did to her, why were they even together? It’s not that Salman didn’t love Ash. It was a highly passionate, yet inherently destructive relationship. When it was good, it was great. But when it turned sour, it became a living hell. His pursuit of her was constantly laced with insecurity, and her well-being, dignity, and privacy were the first casualties. For once, Salman was with a woman who was better looking, as successful, and wasn’t doing the chasing! He could not come to terms with that, and it brought out the worst in him.

Today, Ash needs a man who will stand by her and not try to own or possess her. Someone who will give her the support and freedom to continue her pursuit of excellence. Ash is not bowled over by regular rituals of romance. She is a sucker for someone who makes her laugh. It took a lot of guts for Vivek Oberoi to publicly stand up to Salman, but he did it to protect his lady. And that really mattered to Ash. Will this bond go the distance? I don’t know, but I have faith in her judgement.

SCANDAL SHEET

While the leaking of the Salman tapes hardly created a ripple in Salman’s world, it did violate Aishwarya’s privacy and damaged her psyche. She felt completely let down and alienated by the industry and media. Post the episode, she cut herself off from everybody except her immediate family. We met only fleetingly at her house and all she said was: “I think it’s unfair. What fault is it of mine?” In public, she was dignified, but the events shattered her.

It also destroyed the little faith she had in the industry and the media. Now she knows that she can’t depend on them. While it’s sad, even this pain has made her strong, and they’ve lost the power to hurt her, as she simply has no expectations left.

PRIVACY PLEASE

In my view, Ash’s only perceived mistake is that she is fiercely protective of her privacy. She has never allowed colleagues or the media any access to the inner sanctum. Of course, she is not the first in doing so – Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan have done the same, but they would open out their homes in a token gesture at least a couple of times a year. And they had great secretaries and PR firms. Ash won’t even do that.

And this infuriates people who want to be on the inside with the huge phenomenon. This is an industry that revels in gossip, on scoops, on juicy sound bites – and Ash doesn’t give them any. She will never cry in public, never whine, never crib, never enter a mud-slinging match. Everyone keeps trying to provoke her into a reaction, but it’s very important to her to say the right thing diplomatically. So she has been termed an ice maiden. And because they have no real insights, they are now reduced to writing rubbish.

THE REAL AISHWARYA

But somewhere behind that ice maiden, beneath that impregnable attitude, is an Ash who is super-sensitive and very easily hurt. There is a sensual woman who is extremely interesting, complex, and contradictory. She loves lazing around the house, chatting with her mother, fooling around with her brother. Some of her closest friends are from her school days, as they continue to treat her like a normal person, which is important to her. And she’s amazingly stubborn. When Aishwarya Rai comes to a decision on anything – men, clothes, how she will handle a crisis – there is nothing anybody can do about it. Before she makes up her mind, she is open to advice, but is never influenced by anyone.

Have you noticed her crazy giggling fits? That’s Ash’s reflex reaction to nervousness or stress. I’ve seen her giggling right before her first ramp show, her first ad shoot, her first beauty pageant, her first film premiere!

The one thing that you’ll never find Ash doing is reading a book voluntarily, and that’s my biggest problem with her. She will lose books halfway because they simply don’t matter to her. This flaw will keep her from being accepted in any intellectual company. And that’s not her only loss. She is missing out on the confidence being well-read gives people to hold their own among people of diverse cultures, backgrounds, histories, and professions. It enables them to be good conversationalists and have valid opinions.

At the same time, Ash has tremendous business savvy. Since the age of 19, she has made all professional decisions entirely by herself, and has invariably go them right. She got so much flak for not doing The Rising, but after seeing the movie, can you imagine Ash playing Amisha Patel’s role?

GOING GLOBAL

The Last Legion, the movie she is filming with Sir Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth, has the potential to propel her into a different league altogether. She is now on the brink of becoming a great actress, and there’ll be roles written for her – worldwide.

There is a depth to Ash that has yet to be tapped. There is a rawness, a savagery borne out of her own pain and alienation. She needs a director who will not be intimidated by her classic beauty, her distance, and her professionalism. She is a director’s actress, and she needs someone who can push her, who believes in her, and doesn’t accept mediocrity. The person who’s comes closest is Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

But I have always believed that she is capable of doing a really savage role, a wild and demented role. And that will be her pinnacle. Hollywood loves Ash because she is so exotic, and because she could be from anywhere – Brazil, Eurasia, Spain, Iran – she fits in easily. There are few people who can be so truly international.

But to Ash, home will always be India. She was even miserable when away from India for one year as Miss World. Unlike Sushmita Sen, whose sensibilities are very western, Ash still remains very Indian middle class, and will always come home.

END GAME

Seeing her today, it’s hard to believe that this is the girl who broke down on the sets of the Pepsi ad because she couldn’t understand how to be provocative. It took her endless retakes and lots of tears to learn how to seduce a man. It was an alien concept!

It takes me further back to the first time I ever saw her – as a modeling novice, wearing jeans and chappals, carrying a jhola, waiting to audition for Prudent mouthwash. Nobody gave her a second look. Not till she walked down the stairs, dressed in a fuchsia salwar kameez, prepped for the camera with full makeup and blow-dried hair, and stopped all of us dead in our tracks. She had transformed into a stunner. I remember my mouth falling open, and forgetting to even say ‘cut’!

Even at 19, with no experience and no Miss World title, Aishwarya was a star. She had a natural ability to mesmerize people.

Today, a decade later, that quality has refined further. As Giorgio Armani recently put it, “Aishwarya mixes elegance and sophistication with charm and wit to create her own unique style.” She has lived life on her own terms. Whether as Sanju in Pepsi, Paro in Devdas, or Mira in the Last Legion, Ash is, and will always be a star, a mystery, and a woman who is constantly evolving – onscreen and off it as well.

SHINING SUPERNOVA

Ash’s latest international caper The Last Legion has won her many admirers. Read on…

“The list of requirements for the major female role was long. We needed an actress of rare beauty, with screen presence to hold her own against Colin Firth and Sir Ben Kingsley. Aishwarya was the obvious choice.” – director Doug Lefler

“Because of her dance history, she moves well and remembers choreography easily. We put a sword in her hand and she just flowed, the next thing was to get her aggression up to make it look like she would kill somebody. I believe her to be a natural born action hero.” – stunt coordinator Steve Griffin (Charlie’s Angels, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Titanic)

“Aishwarya is faster than any other actress I’ve ever taught; very smart and intelligent. If she does action films, she will become a true superhero.” – fight choreographer Dion Lam (Spiderman 2, The Matrix 1, 2 & 3)

“She’s put lots of physical energy and mental training. I believe she has all the star quality that other beauties are often short of. She faces everything with a heart full of humility which makes her even more special.” – costume designer Paolo Scalabrino (Gangs of New York, Troy, Seven Years in Tibet)

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