With Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, often described as the most beautiful woman in the world, not much has changed. She still dazzles everyone with her beauty as she walks in, her hair shorter and coloured a fiery red. The actor greets everyone warmly and her enthusiasm is infectious. However, over the years many other descriptions accompany her name – a caring wife and a doting mother being among them. I would be repeating a cliché here but those who have observed the actor go through the phases in her career, would agree that she has done so with an unexpected panache.
From being a leading female actor, India’s beauteous rep on red carpet at Cannes (as the brand ambassador for L’Oreal), to the poster girl for being comfortable in one’s natural body shape and size, Rai Bachchan’s has been a reassuring and reaffirming evolution. She is among the beauty queens who has indeed walked the talk.
She assures me that juggling all of it has been anything but effortless. “The trick is in it seeming effortless. It is all hard work as it would be for every working woman or every working mother, but choices are what we make. So within that, we have to find the pleasure in the work area. When it comes to Aaradhya, it is all pleasure and there is so much love in that space that giving is natural. So, that’s not an effort at all and everything else, it is about just planning.”
Her recent appearance in Fanney Khan, in which she took up a smaller part of a pop star Baby Singh who Lata, an overweight singer constantly body-shamed, aspires to be like suggest that she is eager and willing to experiment with roles that go beyond the function of upping the glamour quotient of the project. The actor admits she is happy being a part of films for the larger story. It’s certainly a story that would find resonance with several women in India. A few years ago, Rai Bachchan gracefully walked the red carpet at Cannes to the cacophony of shrill criticism for her post-delivery maternal weight. However, she shattered several stereotypes and myths about beauty and women, one dainty step at a time.
“Even in various phases of life, there has been a negativity which is a good balance to offset the immense amount of positivity I have received at various phases of my life and whether it’s in your school life, student life, college life or joining the movies. I think I have very early in life developed the ability to focus on the positives. When you do that, and you recognized that there is just so much more, it is really easier to wash away the natural pain that every human being experiences, even with the slightest negativity. We are all human. We all go through the sting, but the truth is that only we can develop the ability for ourselves to try and withstand that or negate it or brush it aside or take it on your chin. It is really about your perspective and your outlook and I know that it is easier said than done for many and immensely tough for many and that’s why I probably keep like a mantra going on that we have to be our own best friend. By that I mean, brutally honest with yourself and in doing so, we can self-help. We can self-heal and we can face and hold on to our own sense of self,” she explains.
The positivity certainly has worked its wonders for her because the actor is back to being her svelte self, giving young female actors a run for their money. This, despite the fact that she seldom exercises and yet remains fit and in shape. Rai Bachchan puts it down to her healthy approach to life and those rarest of rare phenomena–a consistently high MBR (metabolic rate) “I exercise my right (laughs). Honestly, I am grateful for the metabolism so far. I am active. I am not lazy. I am a worker so if in that sense (if) something burns off. So far I have been fortunate but I think I should do a little bit of yoga,” she replies with a smile.
Interestingly, Rai Bachchan when I pose the question about cosmetic surgery to her, does not dismiss it as humbug. According to her, it’s a reality of modern times and people if they choose to opt for it, should make informed choices. “We can’t sit on a high horse and give any kind of advice like ‘you don’t need to do this.’ Many people have the best bodies, but they are taking supplements. And then there is a whole debate on supplements – should they or shouldn’t they? Just make informed choices. There are medical practitioners, take their advice. You should know the science before making any choices.”
Besides beauty and body image, now with a host of gender-related issues like pay parity among others being tabled, it would be fair to mention that Rai Bachchan was among the early female actors to expect a remuneration that was in accordance with her status as an international celebrity in the early 2000s what with her foray into Hollywood—Gurinder Chadha’s Bride & Prejudice toplined by the actress had released in 2004. At that time it was considered rather audacious of her to expect fee equaling her male peers and she did find herself out of a few big-ticket projects.
She is rather candid talking about that phase.
“I will say to you I did walk away from a lot of work. If people were like, ‘It is tough to set up the project with you and these big male leads because it just throws up the budget of the entire film’ and I am like, ‘all right, then you decide. If that’s replaceable then that’s cool.’
“For me, when I hear of it currently, I am like all right. It is great if it’s all been discussed aloud now but this has kind of been happening in my career for the longest. And if this has narrowed down my choices then within this pool, I will make choices that genuinely make me enjoy my work.”
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan with her quiet strength and determination has been the pioneer on several other fronts too. For those who came in late, at the turn of the millennium, Rai Bachchan was poised to make the crossover to mainstream Hollywood. She featured in a few reputed films like Pink Panther (2) and Bride & Prejudice but dropped out of others like Troy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, never quite breaking away from the Hindi mainstream despite the West’s eagerness to cast her. I quiz her about why she didn’t sign up for the big projects that were coming her way.
She puts it down to professionalism – fulfilling commitments to both old and new – a feature that always ranked high in her scheme of things.
“It was a time for me when things were changing in my career because at one point I was doing a whole load of movies with certain colleagues and suddenly that got cleaned out. At the same phase, coincidentally there was interest because of Devdas and Cannes which was very high octane. I said all right because schedule-wise this is seemingly open. And then interestingly work was opening up here again while I was going and having those meets. Somewhere deep down I have loved our cinema. And in that (phase) two were already committed to and I am righteous about films I am committed to and that can’t move around. In the west when they meet you, and all these terms were then new to me, and they say greenlit and ready to roll like in two months and then they lock you off for a little bit of time. In the way that entire film scheduled, you are locked off which was very new for us who was working full throttle here where schedules are interlaced. Even when Troy was spoken about, forget on the script level, they were saying at least six to nine months to lock off because it was a huge film–first schedule in Malta, this that and the other… Of course, you understand the largesse of that piece of cinema but to block off that kind of time and when you have all the movies here, which I was committed to. I just couldn’t get myself to kick that to the kerb.”
We circle back to her life and career – things eventually worked out well for her with several successful movies back home. It could well be the modern-day fairy tale – her triumphs, and tribulations all falling into place as they are meant to in happily-ever-after stories.
On her part, she accepts this popular perception with some amusement. Admittedly some of the blame for this allusion to her perfect life rests with her – she seldom allows the chinks in the armour to show up. Unravelling the knots rather than wallowing in self-pity is more her style.
“I don’t make much ado about stuff. I think people would have by now, thanks to all of you, you guys are kind of like my voices perpetrating to my larger audience out there, so you know people listening or even interested in knowing about me have kind of gotten a bit of an insight into me over all these years. At the same time, I feel that I can see why perceivably life seems easier and especially to those for whom life has been exceedingly challenging and difficult. So it is all, relative. Within your own story, you know that everything may not necessarily be hunky dory. It’s taken a lot of commitment, a lot of hard work and a lot of struggles within your own dynamic. It’s hard work. Nothing comes easy,” she admits.
Somehow, that makes sense. After all, even the happiest of fairy tales are incomplete without the drudgery of struggle.
Priyanka Sinha Jha is a senior journalist, author and digital media specialist.