This month, January 2007, marks 10 years of Aishwarya Rai's career in the Indian film industry. Her debut movie, Iruvar, was released on January 14th, 1997. It was directed by one of the most popular Indian directors of modern times, Mani Ratnam. Interestingly, Guru, also a Mani Ratnam movie, was released on January 14th, 2007, exactly 10 years after her debut movie.
Artificiality of Aishwarya
By the time Aishwarya entered the world of Indian movies, she was already an internationally famous super model. By then, many people already had an overdose of Aishwarya and they had begun to dislike her 'plastic' or 'artificial' looks, smile, expressions, on-screen personality. Her critics have always maintained that she is not a good actress and that she is no better than a decorative lifeless plastic model in her movie roles. Her performances in 10 years' worth of movies have only served to increase the volume - both in numbers and decibels - of the allegations of "artificiality".
When a person is trained to be a model from the time she is little more than a girl, when her day job and evening job and all public appearances require her to flash false smiles, and when the whole world is familiar with little more than the false-smile public persona, it is inevitable that she would seem artificial in everything she does. This is especially true when she has the super model looks and gets crowned as the Miss World. I wonder how a person can keep a firm grip on her own true inner self after going through a career which requires them to maintain superficial looks and smiles during the most important formative years - teens and early adulthood. It would be so easy to lose the sense of who she truly is...
But hey, this post is not an analysis of Aishwarya's personality nor an apology for her on-screen performance. Aishwarya Rai might not be the best Indian actress there ever was, but looking at 10 years of her filmography (here and here - you have to check both links as neither one of them is complete in itself), I must say that she is the luckiest Indian actress to date.
Speciality of Aishwarya
She had a dream debut in the Tamil movie, Iruvar, directed by Mani Ratnam, starring opposite the great Mohan Lal. The movie was not a big commercial success, and is little known outside of Tamil circles. But, Mani Ratnam and Mohan Lal are considered great masters in their chosen fields, and her role - rather roles - in the movie was something special and different (more about this later). From the kind of debut that very few actresses can boast of, Aishwarya went on to act with almost every major director in contemporary India. She has also starred opposite most of the popular actors of her times. Interestingly, two of the best and most popular actors, Kamal Haasan and Aamir Khan, are conspicuously absent from her filmography (although she has a guest appearance in Aamir's Mela).
However, the speciality of Aishwarya's movie career is neither her directors nor her co-stars. It is the fact that she has had the widest variety of roles compared to any other actress in the history of Indian cinema! This is an industry which is notorious for type-casting, where even such great and popular actresses as Nargis, Madhubala, Smitha Patil, Madhuri Dixit and Kajol could not truly escape being type-cast into certain kinds of roles. Even actors such as Kamal Haasan and Aamir Khan have to work really hard not to end up in meaningless, type-cast roles, and they do not always succeed. So, it is no small matter that Aishwarya has had such varied roles.
Aishwarya's career is a true example of the old adage - luck is when preparation meets opportunity. She waited until she had completed the best years of her modelling career, before switching over to the movie industry. The switch happened at a time when the previous No. 1 actress of Hindi movies, Madhuri Dixit, had most definitely gone off the limelight. Kajol shone briefly after Madhuri, but then she ended an excellent acting career after she got married. After Kajol, the field was pretty much open for Aishwarya Rai to rule. Neither Rani Mukherjee nor Kareena Kapoor nor any other new actress could match the sheer popularity of Aishwarya. Fortunately for Aishwarya, this was also the time when movie makers in India were eager to fudge the mythical and mystical line between 'art movies' and 'commercial movies'. In addition to all this, Aishwarya was already very popular and established as a celebrity. Her modelling career had ensured that she did not lack for money or fame. So, she could afford to pick and choose the kind of roles she wanted, without being compelled into anything she did not truly want.
Roles of Aishwarya
The wide variety of roles Aishwarya has played have made her movie career the stuff that actresses across the world can only dream of. She has donned every role from single 'item' numbers to bimbo eye-candy in dumbo masala movies to strong central protagonist roles around whom the whole storyline revolves to substantial female-oriented roles. As a sampler, just look at the kind of movie roles she has lined up in 2007:
- Guru - as the wife, main champion and supporter of Guru, the character based on the prominent industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani.
- Rani Laxmibai - as the historical warrior queen, who played a pivotal role in the First War of Indian Independence.
- Provoked - the role of a docile immigrant wife, who is a victim of domestic violence, falsely accused of murder and jailed, before she fights back for justice.
- Jodhaa Akbar - the role of a Hindu princess who is forced to be part of a political marriage with the great Mughal Emperor Akbar.
- The Last Legion - the role of a female warrior in a saga set in ancient Rome.
In addition to these, she is also acting in a few masala movies. Which Indian (or foreign actress) could boast of such a wide variety of roles in one year, in both national and international productions?
I have watched very few of Aishwarya Rai's movies. I have not even heard of the titles of many of her movies. But from the few movies I have watched, I can say that the allegations of lifelessness in her on-screen personality is not entirely true. She is certainly better than the majority of actresses to appear on the Indian screen, including such popular people as Hema Malini and Rakhi, who were not much more than bad hams.
The following are noteworthy roles played by Aishwarya Rai in movies I have watched. Be warned that all of what follows contains spoilers for the respective movies.
- Iruvar - This is her debut movie. She plays dual roles in this movie, as a demure housewife in a village and as a fiesty actress who has an affair with the chief minister of the state. Both the characters are doomed in the storyline. It is in this movie that I first got a glimpse of the sexy dark mole on her upper arm. The mole is usually hidden in most of her movies and modelling assignments.
- Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam - This role of Aishwarya is my most favorite. Through the course of the movie, she transforms from a lively, innocent girl to a girl caught in the thrills of first love to a person who loses the love and is driven to attempt suicide to an unhappily married woman who desperately tries to find her lover to a woman who has a change of heart and embraces her status as a married woman. I think she did a great job in every aspect of the role. After watching this movie, the title song was stuck in my head for almost two whole years!
- Kandukonden Kandukonden - Another movie in which Aishwarya plays the role of the fiesty, independent, opinionated girl. I like her in such roles. The movie is an excellent adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility. Among all her movies that I have watched, this is the one in which she looks her best.
- Choker Bali - The movie is based on Rabindranath Tagore's novel 'Binodini', and Aishwarya has the title role. She plays the role of a widow in early 1900s India, being tormented by her personal needs and desires, and her attraction to a married man. Although the screenplay of the movie lacked and did not do full justice to the novel, the title role was pretty challenging and important. It is a role that any actress would be flattered to be chosen for.
- Khakee - This is a very entertaining movie, and Aishwarya plays the role of a stylish and trickster vamp. It was an interesting move on her part to accept the role of a villain in a movie.
- Rain Coat - A touching movie based on an O Henry story. Aishwarya plays the role of a poor housewife who has to keep up an appearance of being rich and comfortable in front of her old flame. Another movie in which she has given an commendable performance.
- Bunty Aur Babli - Ooh, she sizzles in this movie! She has nothing more than an 'item number' in the movie - the Kajra Re song (that's a link to the video!). 'Item number' in the context of Indian movies refers to a song sequence, which has little or nothing to do with the actual story line of the movie, is often sleazy and put in the movie for the sole purpose of drawing in the crowds. Aishwarya plays a bar singer/dancer in the song, and she looks really hot. It was over a decade before this movie, when she was just a new model, that I had noticed that she was hot. However, the more popular she became, the less hot she seemed to me. This movie made me sit up and notice her hotness factor all over again! And, it did so for the rest of the world too. No bar-dancer or prostitute or kothewali looked so hot in the history of Indian cinema!
No. 1 Position of Aishwarya
Now, the much-asked (and answered!) question is: does Aishwarya do proper justice to all these great roles? There are some people who are convinced - and are quite vocal about it - that she does not. They think that her acting skills are not worthy of all the popularity and success she enjoys. Then there are a few who think that she is a good actress. But the vast majority simply don't care as long as they can see her beautiful form onscreen. After all, if not Aishwarya, who can take on all these roles? Perhaps, different people might suit the different roles. But as things stand today, I cannot think of a single celebrity actress who can handle all these roles. So perhaps, it is only right and proper that Aishwarya should be enjoying so much success and be the undoubted No. 1 Indian actress at this point of time.