"Let's go beyond Aishwarya Rai's beauty": Shobhaa De

I have consistently felt Rai’s prowess as a competent actor has been under-utilised

Less than a month from now, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan will turn 49. I watched her in Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan: 1, and was mesmerised by her luminous beauty once again. Rai plays queen Nandini in this historical, which has generated a great opening weekend collection… but left me cold. I waited only for Rai to reappear on screen and enthral me—that happened rarely, which to me, is a lost opportunity. Perhaps, Ratnam is saving Rai for the next instalment where she is likely to have a meatier role with more dialogue. The thing is—Aishwarya can act—her beauty invariably gets in the way. But being an avid Rai-watcher from the time she made her debut in Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) to her latest cinematic outing, I have consistently felt Rai’s prowess as a competent actor has been under-utilised, so bewitched are we by the appearance.

I revisited her earlier promotional clips from Devdas, where Rai is the much younger, trusting and innocent Paro to Madhuri Dixit’s older enchantress Chandramukhi. Reversal of roles! Here, she is, in PS-1, playing a seasoned seductress Nandini, to the fresh faced Trisha in the role of Chola princess Kundavai. Trisha is dressed even more elaborately than the heavily bejewelled Rai. Yes, the age difference is evident. But it is Rai who remains ravishing and riveting, as she seamlessly steals the scenes of them together.

Aishwarya Rai in Ponniyin Selvan: 1 Aishwarya Rai in Ponniyin Selvan: 1

Rai should retain her lofty image. Showbiz is full of terribly thirsty stars craving publicity. Rai, sensibly, stays away from most high-profile parties, and her public appearances are restricted to family outings and obligatory endorsement events. Despite being trashed for some of her bizarre red carpet appearances at Cannes, Rai, as a global L’Óreal ambassador, is there on the Croisette, year after year, still loved by international paparazzi. That’s called staying power.

Having known Rai as a model, practically from the time she moved to Mumbai, I feel an enormous amount of motherly affection (combined with pride) for her. I have given her prestigious awards at glam events and been present during a few important moments in her life. Each time, I have noted her essentially well-mannered conduct while interacting with her team and others. Yes—her giggle! Perhaps, it is a nervous giggle, during which she buys a little time before responding to trick questions. About the strange accent she puts on during international promotional activity, I guess that’s an occupational hazard.

At the Bachchan’s Diwali parties, I have seen Rai’s involvement with the smallest organisational detail, as she makes sure each and every guest is well looked after, while her in-laws stand at one spot and receive everyone. Good upbringing shows!

The Big F (fifty) is upon one of our most admired stars. It works differently for men in showbiz. In PS-1, Rai’s partner is an ageing traitor (R. Sarath Kumar) who she refers to as “old gold”. Rai plays the role of being the old man’s fancy, with a touch of irony and a great deal of cunning. Nandini’s negative shades are a welcome departure from the usual candyfloss representation of lovely ladies on screen.

With 46 films in five languages, a Padma Shri and countless accolades, it is about time, we as an audience, got over Rai’s beauty and looked beyond it, in all fairness to her. But then again, beauty of such iridescence, is rare and precious. Just as the world cannot get over the brilliance of the Kohinoor, for now, Rai will have to wait for another decade before we stop gawking. May her beauty never diminish….