(2007) The Star Of India

When it was announced recently that Abhishek Bachchan (tall, dark, ludicrously handsome) had proposed to Aishwarya Rai (slender, dark, ludicrously beautiful) there was a collective swoon among the population of India. He is nicknamed Baby B and comes from India’s premier acting dynasty (his father, Amitabh, is like Sir Ian McKellen and Sean Connery rolled into one, his late grandfather one of India’s leading poets), and Aishwarya is India’s sweetheart, sex symbol and number one box-office draw: Keira Knightley meets Catherine Zeta-Jones with added Kate Winslet. In the past year, they’ve made three films together ­ they were lovers on screen and now they will be bride and groom for real. It’s Brad and Angelina without the baggage.

Speculation about the Big Day is now a national pastime. According to some reports, there are astrologers working out the best possible date; there will be elephants to ferry the couple through the throng in Mumbai, orchestras, feasting, fireworks and a celebrity guestlist that reads like a Who’s Who in India, including cricketers, politicians and musicians. It could make Liz and Arun’s nuptials look like a sideshow. For these two are huge stars in a land where films, and actors, are an obsession.

“I’m like everybody else,” says the bride-to-be. “I believe in love, in being with the right person. I’m a normal girl, but I want a special day, just like any woman and, God willing, a family of my own.” Don’t ask for details of the wedding, though, because that would spoil the fun. One thing is certain: the bride, known as Ash to her friends, will be gorgeous. And it’s been a long time since she’s lived what might be called a “normal” life.

Aishwarya Rai is one of the most beautiful women in the world. Who says so? Well, the judges of Miss World (she held the title in 1994), Harpers & Queen, Hello! and Julia Roberts, who after watching her in the lavish potboiler Devdas, declared that she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen.

“That was embarrassing; at first I didn’t believe she said that,” says the recipient of this compliment. “I thought it was a rumour started by a journalist. But it’s sweet. She’s an incredible actor and she seems like a wonderful person, so all you can do is say, ŒThank you.'”

Today, in a London hotel suite used as the backdrop for this photo-shoot, she’s dressed in a rather conservative tailored black suit. When nature was handing out its birthday presents, she got lucky ­ big, almond-shaped blue-green eyes, lips to rival Jolie’s in the bee-stung stakes, honeyed skin and a figure to die for.

“It’s interesting when I’m given a position on these beauty lists,” she says. “To me, it’s not a statement that I’m truly the most beautiful woman in the world or among the top 100, but it’s a validation of the strength of support I have, because it’s my fans who are putting votes in. I’m lucky, because I do have a lot of support.”

She does indeed. It is said that there are no fewer than 17,000 websites devoted to her, the number growing each year. When she has a new movie out, her fan mail arrives by the lorry load. Shilpa Shetty may have made a big splash with her stint in the Big Brother house, but Rai is the real deal in India. She’s the traffic-stopping beauty who gets the pick of the Bollywood roles and, increasingly, some of the best Western ones.

Her name can get a film greenlit. When she decided to play the lead in Provoked ­ which is based on the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who, after an arranged marriage, suffered horrific abuse at the hands of the British husband whom she was later convicted of killing ­ it was all systems go. “I was doing The Mistress of Spices in the UK when they approached me. I thought it was a story that needed to be told,” she says. “But the pressure was on because I had a five-week gap in May, and if they couldn’t do it then I was booked up for two years. Fortunately, they were ready to roll when I was.”

They certainly were. With Aishwarya Rai’s name above the title, it’s virtually guaranteed a huge audience on the sub-continent. She knows this. “The advantage of me doing this film is, God willing, it does get incredible attention.” At times, she’s gloriously Miss Worldy. “I’m blessed; I thank the Lord that I’ve been in the right place at the right time. With films like Provoked, hopefully I’m able to contribute.”

But outside India, her fan base, and her reputation, is growing. Robert De Niro requested a meeting to discuss projects. “That was bizarre. People used to ask me my favourite actors and I always used to say De Niro and Meryl Streep.” The latter she will work with on a film called Chaos ­ playing an abused prostitute befriended by a middle-class woman (Streep) against the wishes of her husband. And in 2003, she was the first Indian actress to be invited to sit on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. “An incredible honour, really,” she says. Then L’Oréal signed her up as part of its “Dream Team”, joining Catherine Deneuve and Andie MacDowell.

She has already worked on several Western films ­ Gurinder (Bend It Like Beckham) Chadha cast her as Lalita, the Lizzie Bennet role, in a glorious version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (renamed Bride & Prejudice) for her first English-language role, and later this year we’ll see her opposite Sir Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth in The Last Legion, an epic set in a crumbling Roman empire.

“It’s not about greener pastures or having stardust in my eyes,” Rai says. “But it’s the fact that these opportunities are coming my way. I didn’t go seeking it, but if it’s coming, then I’d like to contribute to India’s presence on the international platform. Other actors have done it. I’ve been doing things that people might not have expected coming from my background ­ modelling, Miss World. But I like breaking out of these compartments.”

Representing India ­ being seen as the face of an increasingly confident, outward-looking country ­ is important to her. “I’m aware of the responsibility. But I’ve chosen to enjoy it. I want to be professional in whatever I take on; if people see me as representing modern India in some way, then I’m flattered.”

Provoked is a good example of her refusal to be pigeon-holed, and desire to prove there’s more to her than a pretty face. “I’ve played complex characters, women who have a lot of layers, but I think this is the most emotionally draining role I’ve done.”

Kiranjit Ahluwalia left the Punjab to marry a London-born Asian, Deepak (played by Naveen Andrews of Lost fame), and at first was happy raising her two sons. Then the abuse started. “There is no doubt that she suffered terribly,” says Rai. “Although it’s not graphic, we had to show some of that in the film and as a woman, it takes you to that place.”

Eventually, a bruised and emotionally unstable Ahluwalia set fire to the bedroom where her husband was sleeping. She was convicted of murder. Ironically, in prison, she found more freedom than on the outside ­ learning to speak English, making friends. Outside, her cause was taken up by women’s groups. One inmate, Ronnie (played by Miranda Richardson) enlisted the help of her brother-in-law (Robbie Coltrane), a barrister, who got her conviction quashed on appeal. The landmark ruling, Regina v Aluhwalia, redefined the word “provocation” in the case of battered women.

Rai clearly feels it’s an important story. I ask if she could relate to it on a personal level. After all, she used to go out with actor Salman Kahn, the bad boy of Indian cinema. Though there is no suggestion that Khan was in the Deepak mould, he was arrested for poaching protected wild animals, was involved in a car crash in which a man died, and there were reports that the relationship with Rai was tempestuous. Once, when she suffered a black eye, she was forced to deny that he had caused it. “No one wants to believe me [when I say] that I fell down the stairs,” she said at the time.

When I ask if she’s ever suffered abuse at the hands of a man, she says, “I have a public life and a private life. In terms of whether I have experienced any kind of pressures or intimidation, personally, yes, I have. Do I feel the need to talk about it at this point in time? No, I don’t. Do I feel socially responsible? Extremely. Given the opportunity to contribute a voice on a public platform, I’m readily there, available and passionately participating, and that’s a strong reason why I made this movie.”

Rai grew up in Mumbai with her elder brother and parents, Vrinda and Krishnaraj, a marine engineer. “Was it a traditional upbringing? That’s tough to define. I’m very rooted and connected with tradition and culture, but at the same time, I’m very today. And yes, religious. Religion to me is a way of life. I was born into Hinduism and that’s what I know best, but I’m open. I believe all religions speak the same message ­ and that’s not just a diplomatic Miss World answer. Religion is a way of life, it’s what defines who you are.”

At school she was academic, and as a teenager fended off offers of modelling work. “To be honest, I could have done without the extra attention. I was having my fair share of attention with boys calling home. My father was away a lot working and it was my Mum and my brother, so it would be like, ŒWe don’t need this.'”

At 18, she relented and did a fashion spread as a favour for a teacher who doubled as a journalist and photographer. Even then, she had every intention of studying architecture. “But the modelling work started coming in and it kind of never stopped.”

After coming second in Miss India she entered, and won, Miss World. “One day I was a student and the next I was Miss World and no, you are not able to change the world and no, you are not able to build an orphanage overnight, but that year was the opportunity for me to discover society. And I did get in touch with myself, too, because suddenly you are asked your opinion on everything. It was wonderful. I only have positive memories of Miss World. I wasn’t about to go to the Olympics, but I felt this was a good opportunity to represent my country, to represent Indian women internationally.”

Did she ever get to build the orphanage? “That responsibility goes on and on. I have been doing things on the quiet and not making a song and dance about it ­ making a difference to one life, to one individual, whether it’s somebody who has needed surgery or a disabled person needing a limb or a marriage somewhere.”

Inevitably, Bollywood came knocking. She made her first film, Iruvar, in 1997 and in the decade since then has made more than 40 more ­ an incredible number, especially when you consider that she was the leading actress in most of them. Celebrity has changed her life although, refreshingly, she refuses to whine about it, and until the wedding, has continued to live at the family home.

“I try to lead a normal life. It gets a bit more restricting and you have to have a guard. But within my own head, I’m normal. I’ll eat what I want, dress the way I want. I’ll get the ŒOh God, she’s perfect and beautiful,’ and ŒOh God, she dresses so badly!’ The media does both and that’s fine. I have a fantastic family; I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. I never thought I would be here. But I’ve embraced it and it’s the way my course has been charted.

“At the same time, you feel part of this huge family wherever you go. It’s a fantastic feeling when someone comes up to you and says, ŒYou don’t know the difference you have made,’ and you are like, ŒOh my God, I’m just doing a job I love to do.’ How lucky is that?” Very lucky indeed. Miss World, Bollywood star and beyond: Aishwarya Rai has done the lot. Now get ready for Ash and Abhi.

Provoked is released on Friday April 6, 2007.

-Times UK

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