Indians love Aishwarya Rai Bachchan – the Brand. A creation of marketing machinery, Aishwarya is still the most saleable product we have. Brand managers and filmmakers wax lyrical about her timeless appeal. In public and media perception, she is Bollywood royalty. Partly, because of her long run as a star but mostly, for being a Bachchan family member. Bollywood isn’t known to be too kind to heroines who have crossed 40. But it has made an exception for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who turns 43 today, a precarious age when most heroines are long sent home packing to play the role of soccer mom while the male actors with their second marriages and ever-growing broods are allowed a freer run.
Aishwarya who plays an Urdu poetess in Karan Johar’s recent candyfloss Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has made at least three comeback attempts in the last two years. It is yet another shot by Ash, as the media fondly calls her, at staying relevant in a constantly changing movie-land now flushed with younger stars like Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt and countless others.
Is it an attempt to get back on top? Is it the case of ‘once an actor, always an actor’? Or is it simply an instance of a professional resuming work post-motherhood (her daughter Aaradhya Bachchan will turn five later this month) when all your homely duties are over and you want to rush back to the one thing that gave you your identity – acting? In Ash’s case, one would like to believe the last scenario holds true.
She may be one of the leading protagonists of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, a mixed-bag critically but could well end up being a box-office hit but Ash is by no means the film’s biggest star. The much-younger Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar, and even Fawad Khan, enjoy more box-office clout than does Mrs Bachchan.
Somehow, her star power has rarely translated into ticket conversions. Ask any trade pundit and they will admit in private that casting Ash in a film is no guarantee of its box-office success. She has more duds than hits in her filmography. Consider her last two films: Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa, in which she made a comeback as a single mom who is forced to defend a criminal as a lawyer. This was a meaty role. But the audience was left wanting for more. Earlier this year, she attempted a second comeback, with the true-life Sarabjit. This time, the critics were scathing. Many were of the opinion that while Ash had the benefit of an author-backed role, she frittered the golden chance away. If you go strictly by the film’s reviews, her on-screen brother Randeep Hooda stole her thunder.
This is not to say that she’s a sloppy actor. Call her a victim of opportunities, if you may. The trouble is that mainstream Hindi directors cannot seem to invent challenging roles for the middle-aged woman. Bollywood is all about the young and peppy. Good scripts come easily to an Alia Bhatt or Deepika Padukone because directors want to write a character keeping them in mind. Could it be that Ash’s larger-than-life beauty deters directors from imagining her in a variety of roles?
You can’t blame those who feel she’s too beautiful to be taken seriously! The hazel-eyed actress was once described to the great film critic Roger Ebert by another critic as, “Not only the first but also the second most beautiful woman in the world.”
Yet, every time a director with refined sensibility has denuded her of her beauty, Ash has been remarkable. It is in so-called small regional cinema or offbeat films and not Bollywood or Hollywood, where she’s delivered some of her better performances.
Whether it was the powerful double role in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (plain cotton saris and gajras), as the coy wife in the same director’s Guru (a role widely believed to be modelled on Kokilaben Ambani) or the young widow in Rituparno Ghosh’s Tagorean Chokher Bali, Ash has always stood out not when she’s glorified for her beauty but for her simplicity.
Filmmakers like Mani Ratnam saw the commercial and critical possibilities in the actress and exploited it well. Seen in this light, her Ae Dil Hai Mushkil act appears to be what many are privately tut-tutting as, “trying too hard.” It’s a shame that audiences still want to see Ash as a glam diva. If instead of ADHM, she had opted for a smaller film with a soulful heart and strong script we might have been in for a treat. The only heartening thing is that post-motherhood she’s sticking to age-appropriate roles.
While her glory days might be behind her the future is not all bleak. She is just 43 and far from being the ‘grande dame’ that the media is so eager to label her. A lot of Aishwarya Rai, The Actor is still unexplored. It would be amazing to have a director find a way to marry her personal image with intelligent storytelling. Ash could take cue from Hollywood’s Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts or closer home, someone like Sridevi. If she has to appeal to the younger moviegoers, she may have to drop her carefully-cultivated aura, get out of her comfort zone and take some risks. Be ready to work with Bollywood’s new-age filmmakers brimming with fresh ideas and concepts. One wonders if Deepika Padukone can carry off the slice-of-life Piku and Sridevi can pull off the charming English Vinglish (both films are fine examples of middle-of-the-road cinema sensibility), why not Aishwarya Rai Bachchan?
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)