Just take three prime examples. Age could never diminish the beauty of the maharani of Jaipur’s Gayatri Devi, Paris’ Catherine Deneuve and Hollywood’s Elizabeth Taylor.
For sure add to that league the drop-dead gorgeous Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who turns a fabulous 44 today (1 November). After motherhood, in the course of the last two years she has returned to the B-bay fold with Jazbaa , Sarbjit and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The jury may still be out on her acting abilities, endemic perhaps for artistes whose good looks, ironically enough, come in the way of their unconditional acceptance as powerhouse performers.
Here’s an element which has challenged global male actors as well. Think Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. Or Leonardo DiCaprio who finally copped an Oscar for Revenant, the snow-bound adventure saga which downplayed the Adonis aspect of his personality.
Am I straying off the point? No way. If Bradicaprio have been poster-boys, Aishwarya’s face continues to cast a hypnotic gaze from blow-ups at sari-shop windows, truck backs and beauty parlour signboards across the nation. Indeed it was in the midst of a car ride to Kovalam that the whiz cinematographer, Santosh Sivan, sighted a truck imprinted with a vibgyor painting of Ash, as he and many call her. He had shot Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film Iruvar (1997), marking the debut film of Miss World, 1994. “Why don’t we approach her for your film,” he said, adding helpfully, “I will speak to her.”
The film was Tehzeeb (2003), admittedly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, for which Shabana Azmi had been pencilled in to play Rukhsana Begum. When she heard that I was to meet Aishwarya to enact her daughter’s part, she yowled, “Are you serious? Have you seen me and have you seen her? No one in the audience will believe that I can have such a stunning daughter.” Point noted.
Blame it on my momentary lapse of reason but there I was chez the Rai’s, a meticulously appointed apartment in Bandra. A script narration was on. I didn’t dare to make eye contact with La Rai. In the afternoon light her eyes were changing from a luminous aquamarine to a calming grey, her tinted auburn hair cascaded like a waterfall over her straight-blade shoulders.
The narration was a disaster, I was gulping away like a goldfish in a bowl. Politely she said, “We’ll be in touch. I’ll call you.” She didn’t. Understandable. To this day. I turn tomato red with embarrassment. What was I thinking of? On the sets it would have been the classic case of a beauty being directed by a beatific beast.
To return to the ticklish point: Does her beauty, perfected for the camera by cosmetic accessories, overshadow her acting, however hard she tries? I’m afraid, yes it does. Her dialogue pitch lacks variation often sounding much too strident (so apparent in the piercing screams of Jazbaa), her body lingo has a certain familiar ramp-walk quality (check out her sashaying in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil through European streets), and glamour dominates gravitas (not that she doesn’t try to be ‘real’ as in Sarbjit).
That lamented there have been sparks of excellence under the supervision of directors aware of her strengths and weaknesses. Under the direction of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, she slammed out surprisingly effective performances in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Devdas (2002). In Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), she was sufficiently nuanced. Ditto Rajiv Menon’s Tamil film Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000). In Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008) she was wow, exuding hauteur, dramatic and yet controlled. And before that in Sanjay Ghadvi’s Dhoom 2 (2006) , she gave Hrithik Roshan a run for the bucks, be it in the dancing or in the emotive departments. By the way when she dances, she’s a dream.
Unarguably she’s to the Bollywood manner born. Even while she was at school at Khar’s Arya Vidya Mandir. A teacher there, the late Veenapani Chawla who went on to become a major force in experimental theatre, had told me, “There’s this stunning girl in my class. I bet you’ll be interviewing her some day. She’s a star.”
Formal interviews with Aishwarya, I didn’t get there. She didn’t seem comfortable, the Ash beat was assigned to younger reporters. At photo-sessions for Filmfare, I would drop by for a dekko: her favourite clicksmen appeared to be Farokh Chotia, Gautam Rajadhyaksha and Suresh Natarajan. An Aishwarya Rai cover ensured brisk sales.
Decades have elapsed since those photo-shoots. And if I’m ‘senti’ about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, it’s because of an unerasable memory dating back to the Miss India pageant in Goa. The audience favourite (and mine) was crowned first runner-up to Sushmita Sen. At the pageant’s after-event dinner, Aishwarya in a fire-engine red ensemble – an update to Zeenat Aman’s fashion statement in Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973) - hung on to her mother, she didn’t let her disappointment show.“Not fair! The jury must be suffering from cataract vision or they must be dumb,” I huffed for all to hear. Aishwarya responded with a barely audible, “Thank you”.
Sushmita became ‘Miss Universe’, Aishwarya ‘Miss World’. Today, the ‘Miss World’ is still very much on the scene, professional and poised. ‘Miss Universe’, rather sadly, has chosen to be reclusive and temperamental, factors which amount to committing harakiri in show business.
Aishwarya made her big splash with a cola ad. She was the first choice for Raja Hindustani (1996) but I’m told its director Dharmesh Darshan felt she looked much too ‘westernised’. Her first Hindi language film, Rahul Rawail’s Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya (1997) was utterly expendable. She soldiered on though in a business where angels fear to tread. Her private life would frequently hit turbulent weather (er..remember the acrimonious face-off between Salman Khan and Viveik Oberoi?). To her infinite credit, against all odds, she survived unblemished.
I don’t know what’s on her plate after Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. It would be facile to suggest a re-invention at this point. But something tells me there’s a whole new Miss World out there in her fabulous 40s.
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s birth anniversary.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)