What is it about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan that has made her an unforgettable staple in both spectacular period dramas and films of intimate period settings? Some of her most popular hits are those that rewind to the past. Plenty of examples spring to mind. Guru, Devdas, Chokher Bali and Iruvar, to name a few. One good reason could be her classic appeal that belongs to another era. Filmmakers try to take her back to the earlier times where her legendary beauty and grace can be contained and justified. They encase her in period costumes or sometimes just plain Kanjeevaram sari with flowers on her hair or in a Bengali drape and all Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has to do is casually show up on screen and turn on her charm. Today, she’s married and a mother of one, but we, the media and moviegoers, still gravitate to her hoping that she will do more films or make more appearances — not as Bachchan bahu but as a movie star in her own right with looks that kill. Bachchan or no Bachchan, she remains a major draw.
In 2016, when she staged her big comeback with Ae Dil Hai Mushkil — Karan Johar’s ode to Karan Johar, as many critics had tsk-tsked — she proved that she was very much Bollywood’s Queen Bee. In a film packed with attractive bodies, seductive voices and ample glamour, Rai, simply Ash to her friends and fans, outshone everyone else with her surreal beauty and aura. One writer, in his review, couldn’t resist pointing out that she looked “like an Urdu couplet herself.” There’s no doubt of her being a Bollywood original, part of a pantheon whose members include Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman, Rekha, Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. No offence to Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt and Co, but they have an imposing legacy to bear — a legacy that’s more than just being an actress. Rai’s age, her marriage and motherhood, hasn’t faded her glitter. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and the more recent Fanney Khan confirm her status as a much sought-after leading star, one whom filmmakers of all stripes chase no end, but it is she who reserves the final word.
How many female stars can claim that kind of power? Fewer still enjoy her level of crossover appeal. The light-eyed lady owes much of her success to her mesmerising beauty that has made her a muse to filmmakers as varied as Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mani Ratnam and Rituparno Ghosh. And it is with these very gifted filmmakers that Rai has delivered her best. As the Fanney Khan star turns 45 today, a toast to some of her winning partnerships with these auteurs that combine her classical screen presence and a knack for periodicals, both expansive and intimate.
Mani Ratnam in Iruvar (1997) and Guru (2007)
Nearly twenty years ago, Mani Ratnam saw something in Aishwarya Rai that others had yet to see. Ratnam bet on the Miss World (an unheralded entrant at acting then) in Iruvar, a powerful political drama, opposite Mohanlal who plays a version of the great MGR. Clad in a Kanjeevaram sari with gajra in her hair, Ratnam captures her in tender moments with Mohanlal, scenes that are revisited in Guru — although notice how Ash looks as stunning as ever, in the two films that are twenty years apart. In the very next scene, Ratnam cuts to a very modish Ash, in body hugging gown, dancing with Mohanlal to a popular tune against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal. These are the two Aishwarya Rais the moviegoers know. One is Western and the other, traditional. In Guru, set in ’50s Gujarat (the action later shifts to Bombay), Rai stands out for her simplicity and provincial innocence, proving once again that the simpler she is on screen, the more beautiful she appears. Unlike Bhansali who plays on Rai’s larger-than-life aura, Ratnam aims for the opposite. The maestro from Madras knows, just as we do, that to reach Aishwarya Rai’s inner beauty it is imperative to strip her off the outer beauty and all the attendant Bollywood excesses. It’s no coincidence that she looks completely natural and at ease with herself in a Ratnam periodical.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Devdas (2002) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)
“What do you pride yourself on, Dev? Roop? Daulat?” Paro spitfires at her childhood love Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) in a conformational scene on the eve of her wedding. She’s had enough of Devdas, decadent heir of the neighbouring zamindar family, who has taken her love for granted. As she marries into a wealthy family, Paro is in a position to remind Devdas that she has “character, beauty and now, the riches.” That shall put the two of them at equal social status now. This is one of the most haunting scenes from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. The other high point being the chartbuster musical jugalbandis that bring Ash and Madhuri Dixit face to face for the first time. In Devdas, Rai displays her emotional range to the fullest. Bhansali imagines his muse in a grand vision of a period life. To recall, in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, he presents her in a glamorous but desi avatar. The Bhansali Gujarati girl is not the same as the plains-clothed Gujarati housewife of Guru who likes to be in the background. Notice how Bhansali imagines her as a Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam meets a Guru Dutt heroine whereas Mani Ratnam’s Aishwarya Rai belongs to Bimal Roy’s Sujata/Nutan space.
Rituparno Ghosh in Raincoat (2004) and Chokher Bali (2003)
If you need any further proof of Ash’s ability to turn an ordinary Bengali boudi into an extraordinarily prepossessing woman who’s unaware of her special everydayness, watch Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat. Rai plays a housewife who, to her surprise, is visited by her ex-flame. In a throwback to Bergman-esque chamber drama, a style that Ghosh made his own over a series of women-oriented Bengali cinema, the director sticks to indoors. Rain pelts outside as Ghosh unravels the complexities of the life of these two people who, in another film, would have ended up together. Set in 1902, based on a Tagore novel, Chokher Bali depicts the actress as a young widow. She “dominates the film,” read a Variety review, “with her delicately sensual presence and physical grace.” Ghosh’s Aishwarya Rai is a vision of interiority but just as emotionally explosive and independent-minded as she was in Guru and Devdas. Reportedly, Ghosh had ruled out Nandita Das, the original choice for Chokher Bali’s Binodini, in favour of Ash. You can see how his growing ambitions of rising from native Bengal to a global stage could not have been possible without Aishwarya Rai’s celebrity. She’s big — at least big enough to uplift auteurs and audiences alike.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)