(2007) Ash Straddles 2 Indias

Celebrity news calls for banal parallels. So it’s not surprising that more than a few papers described Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan as ‘the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of India’ while reporting their engagement.

There is no denying that the world today is increasingly driven by celebritydom. Granta, in an issue titled ‘Celebrity’, explained: “Celebrities are often seen as fictions, the argument being that they are media inventions, with various amplified, distorted or invented parts of their lives assembled for our benefit and made familiar to us through the media.”

In the process, despite the banality of the procedure or perhaps because of it, some celebrities become symbols of a culture in a flux. Take Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Pitt made it to Newsweek’s cover of ’15 people who make America great’ last June, with not a few generous mentions of Jolie thrown in. The reason? “He lured the paparazzi to Africa, where people really needed the attention”. Brangelia – the United Colors of Benetton babies by their side – have become symbols of a badly shaken, insecure, post 9/11 America, one that has been forced to look beyond its own nose and reach out to the rest of the world, including some ‘godforsaken place’ called Namibia.

A comparison between Brangelina and ‘Abhwariya’ coming from a celebrity hack may have more to it than may initially seem the case. Like Pitt and Jolie, Aishwarya and Abhishek are not representatives of the best of their respective cinema. Both have had, for the best part, mediocre careers, despite flashes of promise and the odd hit.

Yet, like P-J, the A-A pair is much sought after by the media, their romance making it to national headlines. Like Pitt, who has come to represent America, through a process of ‘amplification’ and ‘distortion’, if not in part ‘invention’, Aishwarya Rai, 33, has become symbolic of India Now. Their careers are only peripheral to their fame. This is by no means a lesser sort of celebritydom. Talent is remembered, but to be anointed the face of a nation is not an honour that any public figure would sneeze at.

In a country in the midst of change so rapid that it seeks its popular figures to be living representations of it, a comparison was recently made between the dons of Hindi cinema. While Amitabh Bachchan was seen as representing the angry young man of the ’70s, Shah Rukh Khan – the don of post-liberalised India – symbolised the aspirations of a suddenly booming middle class.

But if Shah Rukh Khan has become the male icon of a changing India, Aishwarya Rai can be said to be the female version of it. Like Shah Rukh, the former Miss World has become the most visible face of a globalised India – her list of endorsements from Coke to L’Oreal and her public appearances at festivals like Cannes testify to this – she is also relevant for another reason.

If Shah Rukh’s yuppie brand of movies represent the economic choices of middle class, multiplex India, Aishwarya, as a ‘Global Goddess’, embodies the contradictions of a Global India. The public unfolding of Aishwarya’s professional and personal life represents a country in a state of flux, in both cultural and gender terms.

Aishwarya’s move up the global ladder has been in tandem with India’s: now 33, she rose to national prominence as a Miss India runner-up in 1994, only a couple of years after the country liberalised its economy. In an industry driven by patronage, she made it to the top without any godfather. Often criticised as a ‘plastic beauty’, she showed her human side during her turbulent relationship with Salman Khan. Reports of violence were followed by her public appearance with a broken arm. She was later to say, during the making of Provoked based on the landmark Kiran Ahluwalia case in the UK, that domestic violence was an issue she was familiar with. This was the closest she came to admitting being a victim of it.

In the early days, much like her country’s new economy, Aishwarya was unsure of her place. She reportedly broke down during the making of the Pepsi ad because she couldn’t be ‘sexy’. Yet, barely 10 years later, she could infuse the item number, ‘Kajra Re’ with so much sexuality that the song will go down as one of Bollywood’s sexiest moments. She followed this up with an on-screen kiss in Dhoom 2, charting new territory in a country where actresses are known to reveal their bodies early in their careers and cover up when they are at the top. Like India, over the decade, Aishwarya had become more assured and freer from inhibitions and self-doubt. But just when you believed she has moved with the times, came her trips to temples across the country allegedly to ward off a ‘manglik dosh’. With the news of the engagement, there is speculation about whether she plans to bid goodbye to her career.

Aishwarya Rai, in her new avatar, continues to grip the national imagination. She is important today, not because of her box-office hits, but because of what she represents. She straddles two Indias: India Forward and India Rewind.

– Indian Express

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