As the star of Endhiran, India's most expensive movie and her latest, Aishwarya Rai talks to Kevin Maher about bridging the cultural gap between Bollywood and Hollywood, and how her high-profile celebrity marriage is no publicity stunt.
Like some glittering celestial orb, frozen in the firmament, Aishwarya Rai is caught between the powerful pull of two worlds. In one, she is the Bollywood Queen, daughter of a nation, a former Miss World turned movie icon and now married to India's golden son, Abhishek Bachchan. When she kisses on screen she ignites a national controversy (more on that later). And her every move is tracked by a ravenous and sometimes savage media (fake reports of her death in a car crash caused countrywide consternation in 2006).
In the other world, she is the glamorous crossover star, utterly at home on the covers of western magazines such as Time, GQ and Rolling Stone. She is the spokeswoman for L'Oréal cosmetics, the toast of the Cannes Film Festival and one of the "100 Most Influential People In the World" (again, Time). She is someone who is as comfortable on the sofa opposite David Letterman ("B from Bombay, 'ollywood from Hollywood," she drawled, in 2007, as Letterman played dumb about Indian cinema) as she is fielding compliments from her peers in Hollywood - Julia Roberts famously called her, "the most beautiful woman on the planet".
And yet the inherent pressure of being Aishwarya Rai is that these two worlds simply do not mix. They tug the star from different directions and they can often leave the woman herself in the middle, somehow stranded. Not that you can tell, initially, from a close encounter with Rai. Here in a swish, central London hotel suite her only crisis seems to be that she hasn't eaten breakfast and it's already three in the afternoon.
The 36-year-old megastar, dressed in a soft salmon-pink suit that wildly highlights the jade green of her huge saucer eyes, is forthright in conversation. Yet she is occasionally prone to drift into polite prolixity when any subject threatens to become difficult or to fall from the dreamy Rai-Bachchan hymn sheet. Of her seemingly idyllic relationship with Bachchan, for instance, she will consistently reaffirm: "We're just a couple. We're just a guy and a girl who love each other and who are fortunate to have the blessings of our families. So it's just a wonderful happy relationship."
The Rai story at the moment, of course, is all about Endhiran, released next week. The most expensive Bollywood movie ever made, costing R150 crore (almost Dh132 million), the film has Rai playing Sana, the one woman in India who manages to awaken passionate emotions in a previous unfeeling humanoid robot called Chitthi (played, under a layer of heavy make-up, by 60-year-old superstar Rajnikanth). The film is littered with high-octane action sequences that would seem quite at home in a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, while the set-piece special effects sequences have been supervised by the same team that handled Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. It is, in some ways, the emblematic modern movie project for Rai, and typically hints at her crossover status and the long-held idea that she represents a bridge between the two industries.
And so, naturally, our conversation inevitably drifts towards the subject of Hollywood. Here Rai announces that she has a long list of high-profile Tinseltown offers that she has rejected. "I never like mentioning them, because you get ridiculously slotted as a name dropper," she says, sighing. "But yes, Brett Ratner [director of X-Men 3] had asked me to do Rush Hour, twice over. And then with [the Brad Pitt action epic] Troy, there was a huge possibility that I would play Helen. And Michael Douglas, too, he came to India and did a press conference where he admitted that he had brought a script my way. And Will Smith was generous enough to be persistent twice over, with Hancock and Seven Pounds. But they all understood the fact that it wasn't some attitude I had about working overseas that stopped me doing those films."
Well then, what did? For while she was happily turning down all these A-list projects, Rai was simultaneously popping up in half-baked western fare such as The Pink Panther 2, Mistress Of Spices and The Last Legion. It is, she says flatly, all about scheduling. "Schedules are a huge deciding factor in terms of accepting work outside India. When you're doing well in India, you can be easily booked up for the next two years, whereas outside India you can go from film to film and can schedule in certain types of work. Yes, the opportunities have come my way, but my schedule didn't allow for them. So I don't think it's fair to pass judgment on the roles in English cinema that I've done, simply because these are the only films I could accept because of my schedule."
And yet, as with every good actress, there's more to this than meets the eye. The transition from Bollywood star to fully-fledged Hollywood actress was never going to be easy, as the strict and occasionally censorious codes and the traditions of the former cinema can be huge barriers against success in the latter. Take kissing, for example. After winning Miss World in 1994, Rai made the transition to the big screen and rose to prominence in the late nineties and early 2000s playing a series of women who were trapped or wounded by forbidden love but eventually romantically reconciled, in films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Taal and Josh. The lavish epic of unrequited love Devdas brought her to global attention in 2003 (when it played at the Cannes Film Festival) as did the Jane Austen revamp Bride & Prejudice in 2004. And so, finally, in 2006, while playing a master thief in the Bollywood action movie Dhoom 2, she shared her first screen kiss (with co-star Hrithik Roshan). For traditional Indian audiences, used to witnessing all erotic desire sublimated into a song and dance routine, it was a step too far.
"It made headlines," she gasps, still seemingly exasperated today. "It made front page news. It was such a huge topic that it's hard for me to believe now. There had been kisses in Indian films before this, but with me it made front page news. In some parts of India there were people lodging cases against the production company. So, it was kind of fascinating to see such an event made out of one cinematic moment. Since then, I haven't found myself encountering the kiss on screen and I haven't really missed it."
Rai explains further that the kissing had been on her mind some time before this, and that as far back as 2003, after Devdas, "there was this huge possibility of me working overseas [ie in Hollywood], and I recognised that the kiss in overseas cultures is as normal as a song in ours." And yet, when the moment came, and the time for her Hollywood kiss arrived, she flinched. "Apart from scheduling, there was another huge reason why I declined Troy," she says, finally getting down to the nitty gritty. "There were explicit love-making scenes in the script and lots of kisses shared. I was like, 'Oh my. I'm not sure.' I just couldn't imagine being comfortable with it."
I ask her, thus, whether she is torn between the desire to go Hollywood and the need to stay true to her Indian roots. Her answer, at first, is verbose and so obtuse that she gets through three sentences before I realise that I don't understand a word she's saying. "In terms of having had the opportunity to be a first, frankly, personally that's a wonderful feeling. My audiences the world over, my fraternity, have made it special for me. I go out there on the front line and I'll happily take the bullets, if there be any."
Perhaps sensing my confusion, she quickly clarifies, and says that she is simply "thankful to God for my career. So, no, there isn't really conflict. I'm at peace with the way my creative life is. In terms of me working outside India, is there conflict? No. Is there interest? Yes. But I'm fairly realistic too. Plus, since getting married, my life has got exceedingly busy." Rai's off-screen life, particularly her married one, is another universe altogether. Brangelina, Tom-Kat and Posh'n'Becks could not begin to imagine the level of celebrity insanity that surrounds Rai and Bachchan wherever they go. When the couple were married in 2007, for example, 300 policemen had to be posted around their Mumbai home just to keep the peace. And still, deranged fans made their mark, with one breaking into the wedding house disguised as a journalist, while another, a young girl claiming to be Abhishek's former girlfriend, slit her wrists in the street outside. Rai says that, at the time, she was protected from a lot of the madness by those around her, but still it filtered through. "People would surround me and say, 'Take no notice of the madness.' And I'd say, 'Take no notice of what? I have no idea what's going on out there. And then I discovered that we had a couple of really bizarre episodes - an imposter of Abhishek came to the house, and there was this girl slashing her wrists outside our home. But, fortunately, no serious harm done."
Rai approaches her personal life with the same overriding enthusiasm and grateful optimism that she applies to her profession. Thus, the girl from Mangalore who was brought up in Mumbai with her mother, father (a marine engineer) and elder brother Aditya, describes a childhood that was "traditional and very close-knit" and one in which she was a "dreamer," a lover of pop music, studious and mature before her time.
Aditya has recalled that his sister always had a gift for posing for photographs, and so, eventually, an early architecture degree was abandoned in favour of modelling (at the suggestion of one of her tutors). Commercials for Pepsi and Palmolive followed, as did the Miss India beauty pageant, and eventually Miss World. Along the way there were cracks in the Rai legend of perpetual happiness and harmony. An early relationship with Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan was tempestuous. There were rumours that he had been violent with Rai, and after their relationship ended she was quoted as saying, "At times he got physical with me, but thankfully he left no marks."
When she gave what is one of her most intense performances, playing a battered wife in the dramatic movie Provoked, in 2006, it was seen by many as a project that came directly from personal experience. When I ask her if she can clarify whether or not it refers to her relationship with Khan, she says: "I've never been inclined to give these clarifications. I intend it not to be clarified, because I don't need to shed light on unpleasantness. But then again, when I do subjects like Provoked it's not just about one individual, but many silent women out there who do not have the opportunity for this type of catharsis. But, at the same time, for me, all such horrors do get personal."
Her subsequent relationship with Bachchan, as she clearly explains, and as indicated from a brief moment of flirtation I witness, is a far more balanced affair. At home, they're in love. And in public, they are adored. "When we travel, a lot of male fans say to us, 'Abhishek, if you don't mind, we just want a picture with Aishwarya alone.' And girls will come screaming and say it the other way. But that's cool. We're actors and we know the turf. There's no question of feeling insecure or threatened by each other."
I tell her that, with all this attention around the ultimate movie couple, a cynic might see their marriage as the ultimate in brand management. Unflustered and forthright, she says: "I'd be lying if I said that doesn't strike us too, because we're reminded of it on a daily basis by the media. But this really wasn't some sort of alliance. It was just two people coming together. There's nothing professional about it. We are just, personally, a couple."
And what about the future for them? What about babies? "When it's meant to be it will be," she says, smiling calmly. "Babies are a gift from God, and that's exactly the way Abhishek and I look upon the possibility. And we look forward to it as and when it's meant to be." If the tug of Bollywood proves too strong, as it seems to be at the moment, and if she abandons any long-term crossover plans, how will she fare in a homegrown industry that has little to offer actresses pushing 40 and struggle with the role of the blushing bride? When will she have to resort to Botox and surgery?
"I'm glad you said 'When'," she chuckles. "Because that is the truth. I haven't had it, as yet. But people now go, 'Oooh, you're turning 37. Don't you want to fudge the years up?' But, if people say I'm looking good at 36 it's a compliment. I'm getting good work from directors, and that's it. If there comes a time where I have to start playing the proverbial older woman, then, cool." We finish once more, on the conflict between the two worlds of Aishwarya Rai. Or rather, we finish with Rai reassuring me that there really is no conflict. Instead, she says, she is simply happy for what she has, and is not looking to far horizons, not envying, and not wishing it all away.
"Audiences have embraced me openly from the beginning," she says. "If there is a so-called stardom attached to doing what I do, it has been consistent from the beginning. So, ultimately, I am very grateful to my reality as it has been, and as it still is." And with that she smiles once more, stands up, turns on her heels, and marches off to search, at four in the afternoon, for some breakfast.