She’s done it again. Chalk up one more first for Aishwarya Rai—she is the only Indian star after Amitabh Bachchan and the first Indian woman after Indira Gandhi to have her likeness exhibited at Madame Tussauds in London. Bully for you, Ash.
With Gurinder Chaddha’s Bride and Prejudice she is poised to brave a new frontier and Hollywood beckons. But it’s not going to be easy, she admits. So what makes her abandon the comfort and her most-adored status in her own country in search of Hollywood fame? Is it going to be desh vs. videsh? Is she jeopardizing her career here? Ash smiles. I want to belong to cinema in its entirety, she says.
So we’re soon going to see you in Madame Tussauds.
(smiles) Yeah. They sent me a letter saying they’d conducted a survey and my name elicited the maximum response. They want to unveil the wax figurine along with the release of Bride and Prejudice. I’m very excited about the fact that it’s going to be a corner for us Indians. I’m happy to be part of this continuing movement of Rah Rah India. Hail India!
Do you see being voted the most beautiful woman in the world by Hello magazine as part of that movement?
Come on, it’s a laugh. I know there are several women more beautiful than me. This poll is not a validation of my being the most beautiful woman in the world but of the strength of my well-wishers. And that’s more touching than the apparent title.
Tell us about Bride and Prejudice and what it was like working with Gurinder Chadha.
Gurinder is a wonderful director, a fabulous person, a great friend. She’s very, very focused as a director, extremely encouraging and lots of fun as a person. After Bend it Like Beckham, she could easily have jumped on the bandwagon and made any Hollywood movie. But she chose to do this. She thoroughly enjoys Bollywood and Bride and Prejudice is her homage to it. She wanted to make this one ode.
From the audience in general, there’s been a positive response, which is a good thing. With the media it goes both ways. You never can tell with them.
Will Bride and Prejudice be your stepping-stone to Hollywood?
When I worked with Mani Ratnam in Iruvar, it wasn’t my stepping-stone into the Tamil film industry. I was simply happy to work with Mani and belong to that kind of cinema where the story is told in its entirety instead of focusing on I, me, myself.
Chokher Bali wasn’t my stepping-stone into Bengali cinema. It was made by a director whose work I liked, it was a film I absolutely believed in. I thought Rituparno Ghosh, Tagore, and Binodini were a perfect combination for my first Bengali film. Why should Bride and Prejudice be viewed as any different? It’s another film I believed in. That’s it.
But you are looking seriously at Hollywood. What kind of roles are you being offered?
They believe my looks could easily be Hispanic, French, or Italian. But I always stress that I be cast as an Indian because that’s who I am. If I have global looks I can be the Indian identity in the script. The Hispanics have made their mark in Hollywood and so have the East Asians, African-Americans, and South Africans. I want to strengthen the Indian identity on the international platform.
When you’re such a big star here, what makes you want to struggle like a newcomer out there? It can’t be easy.
You bet. Yes, there’s no apparent need for me to do so. By the grace of God, success came very early to me and I’ve never really known what it is to be a newcomer here. Like others, I could be safe and content in the cocoon of success and the luxury of recognition here.
That’s why you’ll find a lot of people giving quotable quotes like, why be a slave there when you can be an empress here.
Yeah, exactly, because that is the easy way out! Believe me, it’s really tough to step out there. You have to shed all traces of ego, narcissism and megalomania and just be an artiste in the pure sense.
We’ve heard of Chaos; any more Hollywood movies in the pipeline?
Look, it’s a bit tricky for me. While I believe I’m a newcomer in that industry, I am backed by the strength of Indians all over the world.
Whatever choice I make will have to validate the pride my people have in me. So I can’t choose the kind of roles that Hollywood artistes might when they enter the industry. They will do the smallest of cameos just to make inroads into the industry. I can’t do that. Because then, our people, our media, and our industry will wonder, why did she go and do that now! Arre, isse to behtar woh yahan thi, they’ll say.
Ever since the news about Chaos was floated, there’s been a lot of talk. Mind you, I haven’t said anything. The media has been doing all the talking. Then it turns around and says, but where’s the film? But you don’t know how many films I have said no to. Nor do you know how often I’ve said no in our industry. You think I don’t hear scripts every day? It’s just that a small group of us actors has decided to go slow, to be selective.
For instance, when I was in the U.S. in March [last] year, I was approached for a film that was to begin in the last week of May. I thought it was a joke. But they were serious. They asked me, “Are you free? We need six weeks from you.” (They talk in terms of weeks there.) I said no because my brother was getting married and his wedding was of the utmost importance to me. I said I’d pass on the film. That’s the language they speak there—you either accept or pass on the film.
What has happened to Chaos? Wasn’t it supposed to start this October?
Chaos has been pushed to next year. As of now, the schedule hasn’t been set in place. But it wouldn’t be fair for the media to speculate that it’s not happening any more. We have to see how and when they can coordinate everyone’s time. The director is very well known in France and is doing several things. Meryl Streep was busy with The Manchurian Candidate, which has now been released and she’s currently attached to something else. So I told them, if you’re not starting [in two
months] I’d like to attach myself to other work in India. I can’t keep people waiting out here. As it is, our industry started speculating about whether I was working here or not because I didn’t give the go-ahead to a lot of our directors.
Is it true you’ve talked with Michael Douglas for a film to be produced by Sahara?
(laughs) You guys get to know everything. Yes, I was given the script and I liked the character. When I was in the U.S., I had a meeting with Michael Douglas over lunch. It was a good meeting. We left it at that. See, I have never made any announcements at any point in time. Because I believe it’s the director’s and the producer’s prerogative to do so. I would prefer it if the announcement came from them.
Okay, coming to apna movies, you must have been disappointed with the fate of Kyun! Ho Gaya Na …
No, not really. I did it because it was a light and frothy role, a welcome change after the intensity of Paro [in Devdas] and Binodini [in Chokher Bali]. I knew I was working with a new director. When you’re working on a movie, you know its relative strengths and weaknesses. But I don’t believe in shrugging off the team just because you can sometimes foresee or not foresee the success ratio of a film.
The biggest inspiration for me in this matter has been Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, who supports every film of his in its entirety. He’s not iconic for nothing. I truly respect him for the professional he is, the actor he is, and the student he is. It’s truly humbling to watch him be a student with the newest of new directors. I have seen so many of my contemporaries who have an opinion to share on acting, on direction. But not Amitji. I’m not saying I’ve consciously followed his path; I did so on my own. But when I see someone of his seniority working in this manner, I know I have the right approach.
You weren’t irked by the bad reviews either?
I can identify the difference between constructive criticism and negative biases. We all know why some critics write what they do. It would be ridiculous for us to fashion our state of mind on the basis of their words. It would hurt in the beginning. But only because you didn’t know who was behind those words. You keep thinking, my God, millions of people will read it and create an impression of you. I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt today. I haven’t managed to develop a rhino hide. But when you know the journalist behind the words and when you know where the criticism stems from, it becomes easier to deal with it.
You think the media has been particularly harsh on you?
(laughs) What do you think? It’s very interesting that the media has been asking me this question. It looks like it’s making note of it. Though it’s not necessarily doing anything about it. See, all popularity polls reinstate the love that people have for me, the faith they repose in me. I guess a certain faction of the industry, which doesn’t like me, has realized that my strength comes not necessarily from the number of hits I have given, but from the love and support of the audience. They want to attack this strength. They want to spread negativity, change people’s impressions of me. I recognize that. But what do I do?
I can’t construct my personal happiness around what others say. I have been very conscious from the time I became a public persona that I’m going to enjoy the whole celebrity thing but I’m not going to completely believe in it.
I can’t be a parasite living off my celebrity. If I do that, I’ll lose sight of the harsh reality that all this is transient. It will come and go. I can’t let my inner peace be governed by that.
You were also seen in Khakee. How come you agreed to do a role in which you really didn’t have much to do?
I did Khakee for Rajji [Rajkumar Santoshi], as a friend. We’ve been trying to work together for the last six years. But my schedules wouldn’t permit it. For Khakee Rajji told me he wanted only 20 days. It was a wonderful experience working with the guys. Many people thought, how could someone of Aishwarya’s stature essay such a role? Some dubbed it different, some called it negative, some called it insignificant. But I say I had the guts to do it. If you look at it as an actor, it’s not easy to essay that role. Because you can never let your eyes give away the fact that you’re pretending. It’s such a fine line. It was an exercise every single day for me to do that.
You’ve paired up with Sanjay Dutt once again in Shabd. Tell us something about that.
The character excited me because it’s something I haven’t done before. Sanju and I have a couple of very intense scenes together, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. After doing those scenes we’d embrace each other and Sanju would exclaim, “Man, this is the way to work. We rock.” And I’d say, “Yeah, we do.” In a way, we discovered each other. We had worked together in David Dhawan’s Hum Kissi Se Kam Nahin, but that was hardly like work. All I had to do was bat my eyelashes.
Industry talk is that you don’t have too many films on hand because you’ve outpriced yourself.
Firstly, I’ve always worked selectively. And now, I’m consciously choosing one film at a time. Some wonderful filmmakers have come to me with exciting roles—Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta (yes, he too), Rajkumar Santoshi, Rituparno Ghosh, Gurinder Chadha. There are so many scripts at home. Kalpana Lajmi has spoken to me, so have Suneil Darshan, Anil Sharma, Indra Kumar, David Dhawan, and Prakash Jha. God, this feels strange but I’m listing these names for the first time to put all questions and doubts to rest. The trade, I’m sure, knows about it, but strangely, some people choose to portray a different picture.
Maybe because some don’t like the strength of a woman. Not so long ago a superstar turned his back on me and traditionally it should have wiped me out. But by the grace of God and the support of certain directors and my audience, I managed to grow as an actor. I guess that’s something my detractors don’t like. So they are trying to find every which way to wipe me out, end my time here.
You have conducted surveys that show I do have a certain degree of strength in the market. What’s interesting is that a section of the industry/media doesn’t question male actors, their price, and the worth they are accorded.
Your relationship with Vivek Oberoi has been the subject of much speculation. Why don’t you talk about it?
I’m here by virtue of my work. So I always speak of my professional life. I think we’ll leave my personal life for the autobiography. People have made me out to be someone who wants to hide her personal life but I have never worked at concealing anything. There are no pretences whatsoever. But I choose not to talk about it.
Only once did I make a written statement, which was given to the press at large. I was compelled to do so to ensure that the people in my life didn’t fall victims to the Chinese whisper syndrome. That’s precisely why I didn’t give interviews at that time. Because you can be made to sound different in your interviews. When you are talking about the people in your life—be it your family, your friends, or the person close to your heart and his extended family—it’s a very sensitive issue. So words have to be carefully chosen. That’s why I decided to issue a written statement to the entire media.
The general feeling is that there’s no on-screen chemistry between Vivek and you. What do you think?
I’ve often said that all talk about chemistry, mathematics, and literature is best left to the critics to speculate about and the audience to react to.
I must be the only actress today who doesn’t have a steady screen pairing. It makes me feel good that the audience has enjoyed my various pairings. Besides the romantic lead in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, they loved my pairing with Ajay Devgan. They liked my pairing with Shah Rukh Khan in Josh, (where we play siblings), Mohabbatein, and Devdas. While shooting for Shabd with Sanju, everyone kept saying the chemistry between us was electric.
As far as I know, everyone liked Vivek and me. They liked Akshaye and me in Taal. Overseas people still talk of Taal as the most romantic film. Surveys say that my pairing with Abhishek Bachchan is the best. And this despite not having a hit to our credit. I guess that covers all my co-stars. So if people feel there’s chemistry all around, it’s a job well done.
Would you say you are happy on the personal as well as the professional front today?
Yes. And also it’s as much about the way you feel as about the way you decide to feel. I have decided to be positive. There are times when the negativity around you can be draining. It can make you spiral inwards. That’s when you have to decide to be positive. And you discover strength within you that you never knew existed. I’ve been through some trying times in the last few years. I have been witness to how people have the time and energy to break down another person as opposed to constructing their own path. There was a phase last year when such things were happening to me almost every month. But I just altered my outlook. Each time someone did something negative personally or certain films were taken away from me, I said, “God, you have cleansed negativity, and all that wasn’t meant for me. Whatever you do is best for me.” When you alter your approach, you find peace and happiness.
That altered approach helped me on the professional front too. I have done the kind of cinema I enjoy doing. When I joined the industry, Mani [Ratnam] and Santosh [Sivan] used to encourage me, telling me I could do all kinds of cinema. When I did Taal, Subhash Ghai once told me, you can do what Shabana and Smita can do and you can do what Rekha, Madhuri, and Hemaji have done. When he said that I just smiled and thought nothing of it. But today I’m actually trying to do exactly that.
So, if at this point, it seems like there’s a set of directors not working with me, it has opened up opportunities in another kind of cinema for which maybe I wouldn’t otherwise have had the time. So it all works out for the best. I am happy to belong to cinema in its broadest spectrum—Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, English, parallel, art, commercial—just belong to cinema in its entirety.