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INDIAN CINEMA

Personalities

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Aishwarya Rai: A spell of charm

Aishwarya Rai is an enigma. Perhaps much like Greta Garbo or Vivien Leigh.

Rai's latest rosebud on her iconic status is the "Time" (April 26 2004) list of 100 most powerful and influential people. She figures in this along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Kofi Annan and Bill Gates.

Rai's journey to this hall of fame began in 1994, when she was crowned Miss World. I do not think much happened to her for the next eight years, although there was at least one absolutely distasteful event that shook Rai, and, of course, Bollywood. Her affair with actor Salmaan Khan turned ugly. Some say, even violent.

Aishwarya Rai in "Choker Bali"
However, when the Cannes International Film Festival invited Aishwarya-starrer "Devdas" as an official entry in 2002, Rai was quick to capitalise on a splendid opportunity. While most critics panned the film and its director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the little city on the French Riviera was mesmerised by Rai's almost ethereal beauty highlighted by her olive green eyes.

The following year, Rai was on the international jury at Cannes. Did the festival organisers think that she was jury material? Hardly, I would think so. But, Cannes is one festival where glamour matters as well, and the jury has to have a touch of this. Well, we have had Sharon Stone on it, we have had Winona Ryder.

Last year, Rai became the darling of Cannes photographers, who sought her with all the excitement and passion of teenage love.And with Gurinder Chadha -- who was then directing Rai in "Bride and Prejudice" -- in tow, the Bollywood star ravished the Mediterranean city.

Chadha's movie, which is now in its final stages, is a modern Bollywood version of Jane Austin's classic, where the Bennetts of Pemberley turn into Bakshis of Amritsar. Austin's England with its often uncomfortable etiquette and social norms give way to Chadha's celluloid extravaganza of songs and dances, tempered with emotional mood swings.

This was precisely one important point of resentment that many had about "Devdas", where Bhansali had completely destroyed the atmosphere and ambiance of early 20th century Bengal. Will Chadha's work come under similar fire ?It may be easy for Rai to pass the buck -- on the failure of a film -- to her director. However, this still does not answer a question: if Rai is indeed talented, though one is yet to hear this, why is it that she still sticks to roles that merely bring the best of her physique.

Even where she has to strip herself of allure, Rai makes little attempt to do so. Take, for instance, "Choker Bali" (2003),in Bengali by Rituparno Ghosh, where she plays an early 20th century young widow. The pain and pathos of losing a husband months after the marriage were absent in Rai's portrayal of the character. And there was hardly a scene where she had the boldness to look a widow or convey anguish and suffering; I felt she was afraid to be anything else but Aishwarya Rai. Ghosh too forgot the miserable plight of especially childless widows of the time, and what could have been a significant study of the social millieu turned out to be a photo tribute to a pretty woman.

Rai should now pause and ponder: does she want to be just a star or work herself into being a great actress ?There are some movies lined up for her. There is "The Rising" (with Aamir Khan), an epic based on the 1857 Indian rebellion. Her agents have also confirmed that the former    model -- she was the eL'Oreal face last summer(2003) -- will star opposite Meryl Streep in "Chaos". French director Coline Serreau is helming an acclaimed drama about a housewife who adopts a battered prostitute. Rai will be the fallen woman in a performance that some believe will mark a departure for her. All one can hope fornow, is that Serreau is not a Ghosh.

And "Chaos" might just about be a great moment for Rai to break a rather unflattering impression about her, that she is only a star, not an actress.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated April 25 2004)

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