Let's Take a Moment To Appreciate Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's Timeless Appeal

Let's Take a Moment To Appreciate Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's Timeless Appeal

How Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's star power has gone from strength to strength over the years
Let's Take a Moment To Appreciate Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's Timeless Appeal
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Read more about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Earlier this year for a Hindi movie titled Sarbjit, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan shed her Cannes high glamour to slip into the real-life character of a gritty Sikh woman so un-ostentatiously dressed that she could pass off as a cook in a middle-class Indian family. Dishevelled hair and glasses, perched precariously over her porcelain nose, Dalbir Kaur was a far cry from the ‘most beautiful woman alive’ tag that routinely preceded Mrs. Bachchan’s name in her prime. What is telling perhaps is that the film didn’t even revolve around her. Wasn’t it supposed to be about the titular Sarbjit (played by Randeep Hooda), an innocent Punjabi farmer who, it was alleged, mistakenly crossed the Indo-Pak border and was taken for a terrorist in Pakistan? Yet, Sarbjit was powered by the timeless appeal of Aishwarya. So was Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa, the previous year, whose only raison d’être was to provide the Bachchan bahu a firm platform to spring a comeback post-motherhood. 

In an age of Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Sonam Kapoor, why is everyone still so interested in ARB? She’s a wife, mother, daughter-in-law of one of the most prominent families in Bollywood and at 43, well beyond the certified age of a Bollywood heroine. Yet, here she is, gleefully romancing the much- younger Ranbir Kapoor in her latest release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. It hardly matters that RK was just another bumbling teenager during the shooting of his father Rishi Kapoor’s Aa Ab Laut Chalen while, as the film’s female lead, Ash was already Miss World 1994 and on the cusp of taking Hindi cinema by storm. Don’t we all know that Bollywood quickly discards actresses who embrace the dreaded ‘M’ words – marriage and motherhood? But the star seems to have found a magical formula to prevail over that notion.  

It says something about Ash that in a film that’s directed by Karan Johar and was billed as Ranbir Kapoor’s big comeback after a string of embarrassing flops and Anushka Sharma’s lucky streak continuum, she is the big talking point. For starters, she was back on the cover of Indian film glossies. Twitter turned into a bigger war zone than the Indo-Pak border for Ash fans versus her haters (well, even someone as splendidly diplomatic as Ash has haters and trollers). Screaming Hindi TV news channels devoted a good chunk of their airtime to Ranbir Kapoor and Ash’s sizzling chemistry in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.  And then there was the PR machinery of the film that kept feeding the online fanzines, jaw-dropping new stills of Ash to satiate the public curiosity about the Bachchan daughter-in-law. All this pointed to only one thing: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan can still have you eating out of her hand. This, despite the fact that the film hasn’t got rave reviews, was in all sorts of trouble and, as we go to press, don’t know how it will ultimately fare at the box office. But some stars are beyond numbers, aren’t they?

The Second Comeback

Mrs Bachchan is no ordinary star. That should explain why there’s a big question mark over what some are calling the ‘second’ comeback – which is what KJo’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is. To know how crucial the new release is for her, it’s important to see it in the light of her two previous films. When Sridevi returned with English Vinglish in 2012, she did so with aplomb. The breezy comedy was a massive hit for the 53-year-old fading star. Unfortunately, Ash who is 11 years junior to Sridevi, hasn’t been that lucky. (One wishes there was an English Vinglish or Piku on Ash’s CV). Jazbaa, despite her breathing-fire turn as a lawyer out to defend a criminal after her daughter is kidnapped, met with a lukewarm response. 

Next came Sarbjit. Director Omung Kumar remembers narrating her what wasn’t even a proper script. Contrary to popular perception, Ash is not fussy about the films she signs. Apparently, she came on board in a matter of minutes. “Why didn’t she question one bit in 15 minutes if she’s saying yes to a film? Because she can deliver,” Omung told a website. He described her as a director’s actor. “She can be moulded any way you want. She’s beautiful – that’s the other thing about her. But her beauty’s not a hindrance.” 

Let’s go back to Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Ash admitted recently that Karan Johar wanted her to be bolder and sexier. And the Bachchan bahu was game despite her image. “She really needs a hit,” hissed a film producer who has worked with her, but wouldn’t like to be named. “That’s why she agreed to steamy scenes and photo shoots with Ranbir. She’s never crossed the line  if you see her films. But whether she kisses or not, wears a bikini or not, people want to see her as a glam goddess.” 

Karan has been in awe of her beauty for “like forever”, say insiders. Ash plays an Urdu poet in the film. (A sly nod to pa-in-law Amitabh Bachchan’s melancholic bard of Kabhi Kabhie?). Echoing Omung Kumar, Karan told Rediff.com in August, “Aishwarya has never, ever played a part like this.” He added, “She plays a poet who isn’t a very good poet, so she is aware that she isn’t as respected among her peers. This is partly because she is too beautiful to be taken seriously.” That statement mirrors the dilemma of Ash’s two-decade long Bollywood career. Her talent is often under-appreciated because her Cleopatra-esque beauty outstrips everything else that is good about her.

The Gradual Change

Ash’s life post motherhood has undergone a complete transformation. She’s playing roles that suit her age and is looking stronger than ever. Many argue that her competition is not with the likes of the younger lot like Deepika, Sonakshi or Alia but with herself. Ask any industry veteran and they will chorus, “She’s in a league of her own.” To question her relevance by pitting her against an Alia or Deepika is somewhat akin to comparing Julia Roberts to Jennifer Lawrence. Both have their markets. It’s no surprise that Ash is still popular with the family audiences. She speaks to people of all ages and though she may not exactly be on a roll right now, she’s a star with a pan-India appeal.       

Ash knows her branding and pitch well. She once told film critic Rajeev Masand, “There was this perception that she is a model with light eyes and fair skin and she is going to come in and do more western molded roles. But I was thankful to my directors who knew my desire to play characters intrinsically Indian.”

By her own definition, Ash is a “giggler” and an upbeat person. Observe her in TV interviews – she talks good about everyone, respects seniors, laughs easily, is empathetic and shows concern wherever necessary, giving further evidence of a ‘homely Indian girl’ persona. Hollywood tried to make her look sexy but all it got was India’s sweetheart who has seemingly promised the people back home that she won’t bring bad name or disrepute to them. And she didn’t. Some called it practised diplomacy, others found it boring. But with her, what you see is what you get. Her quintessential Indian appeal far outweighs anything else. No wonder, she became India’s cultural ambassador in the West long before anyone did, charming everyone from French Presidents to Hollywood hotshots like Will Smith. 

The Various Roles In Her Life

Ash takes all her roles seriously. She’s a great daughter-in-law, the worthy heir to look after the esteemed Bachchan surname. When she married Abhishek, it was assumed that she would perhaps quit films, as the Bachchans are known to be conservative when it comes to the women in the family. But Ash was too huge a brand to be kept at home. Just like in films and public life, she has fulfilled all her off-screen roles with elan. Her good wife image is a plus in a still-conservative Indian society. Taking maternity leave, she quietly retreated from the public eye to be there for daughter Aradhya. The little girl, who is now an internet obsession and whose every move is catalogued just like her famous mother’s, was born in 2011, immediately after Ash finished Bhansali’s Guzaarish. Is she in danger of getting stuck with the mummy image? Even if she is, she couldn’t care less. 

As Prahlad Kakkar, family friend and renowned ad guru, explained in a recent interview with a website, “She’s a motivated, single-minded professional. She stayed away from the glitz at the peak of her career after having a child, because she wanted to be a hands-on mother. It takes a lot to do this.” Those like Kakkar who know her, confess she’s moving with the times. Brand Ash sees no contradiction in flaunting shocking purple lipsticks for L’Oreal promotions at Cannes and selling a pressure cooker on TV with hubby on the other. It’s all part of being Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

Today, the Queen ‘B’ of Bollywood turns 43. From the tentative beginnings of Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya and inadvertent Oscar entry like Jeans to blockbusters like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Guru, Dhoom 2 and Enthiran, the Kajra Re girl has come a long way. Trade experts say that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil may or may not be a major turning point for her, but its performance will give us a hint of the shape of things to come. Her next film, with Ajay Devgn titled Baadshaho is already making headlines. She’s also rumoured to be playing Maharani Gayatri Devi, one of the most beautiful queens in the world.

It’s fitting that the makers cast Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Gayatri Devi. Who else could they have thought of?

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