Miss World, actress and mother – Aishwarya Rai Bachchan wears all her titles with equal pride

Be it cinema or having a career after motherhood, her single motto is to break stereotypes

It’s quarter past three in the afternoon and we are asking for directions to New India Co-op Housing Society, in Juhu. Damn it, Google Maps can’t pinpoint the exact location. We ask a couple of pedestrians who seem clueless. We approach a security guard outside a building, but he has no idea either. Out of sheer desperation, my editor gets off the car and displays the SMS to the guard, who nearly admonishes us – “Yeh toh Janak likha hai… Amitabh Bachchan ka bangla dhoond rahen hain aap?

As both of us burst out laughing for the next few minutes at our stupidity of going around a landmark in circles, our car stops and we stare at a large majestic wooden door that every Bollywood fan in the country would dream of being allowed past. A security guard pops the oft-repeated ‘Kisko milna hai?’ question. Eventually, he opens the door and leads us through a brightly lit, opulent verandah.

Adorned with tall, colourful cutouts, posters and pictures of Amitabh Bachchan in his feisty roles as the angry, young man in Deewar to Sholay to Agneepath, the Janak bungalow seems to revel in a distinct aura of its own. One just can’t miss the row of statuettes, right from Filmfare to Stardust to IIFA, neatly lined up on the top shelves of the waiting room.

We are not here to meet the Big B, but to catch up with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, our Outstanding Celebrity Woman for this year. But how did she make the cut? No, it’s not her angelic beauty – for the world has already acknowledged that; neither is it for her super successes — she has had dollops of it in her 19-year strong career spanning 45 movies. It is because of the elegant comeback she is making after experiencing the bliss of motherhood. Aishwarya is a modern contemporary woman – equally rooted to traditional ideologies — who has ended up creating an identity that’s distinctly her own in an industry where fame and fortune are fair-weather friends.

Even though we aren’t done counting the statuettes, we are ushered into an adjoining meeting hall. And within a few minutes, our silence is broken as the lady popularly known as Ash to Bollywood, ‘mum’ to her daughter, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to the world, enters the room. Unlike the horror stories one often hears about celebrities making people wait for hours, Aishwarya makes it to the interview on time.

Dressed in jeans and a black jacket, a tinge of make-up with her light-blue eyes highlighted in blackish tone – Aishwarya is simply stunning. The girlish-looking Aishwarya, first greets us with a firm handshake and then a warm hug that lasts a few seconds. She spends the next minute persuading us to have something to eat or drink – “Tea? Coffee? Green tea? Rose water with a little nimbu?” We politely refuse…we would rather feast on the conversation to follow.

Tough Call

As a student of science at Mumbai’s Jai Hind College, quitting education mid-way to pursue a career in modeling never crossed Aishwarya’s mind. But then destiny had something else in store for the bubbly teenager, who was already trending at inter-collegiate events and competitions. With her stunning looks and poise, Aishwarya was soon being hounded by modeling agents scouting for fresh talent. “Initially, I turned down the offers. I still remember the expression I gave them: ‘How can you even think of asking me that question!’ because I was definitely not headed in that direction,” she recalls, as nobody from her immediate family or kin were associated with the world of glamour. But upon the request of her then English professor, who was also a newspaper fashion editor, she decided to take the leap.

However, it was after completing high school that she found time to contemplate her decision to model, while her heart was still in medicine. She took up her first modeling assignment – an ad shoot with Mickey Contractor – in 1993. It was a decision that she deliberated on for the longest time. “I still remember the feeling that I wanted to do this, but something was also telling me that this was not a flash in the pan. I did not want to do one or two ads just to look starry-eyed on TV. If you want to do it, ace it,” recalls Aishwarya. The rest, as they say, is history. She aced it all, one after the other.

Eclectic mix: Aishwarya in her first film Iruvar

Singing her song

Winning the Miss World pageant proved to be a stepping-stone for Aishwarya into celluloid. Aishwarya chose to work with Mani Ratnam, a director she really looked up to and wanted to learn from. Then, she chose to take the unconventional path by selectively signing films with different directors simultaneously rather than doing it one at a time as newcomers would often do. Along with Iruvar, she made her debut in Hindi films with Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya, but was discerning about the roles she would play.

She refused to play the rich-girl falling-for-a-poor-boy in Raja Hindustani, which eventually went on to be a blockbuster. “I did not limit myself by following the conventional newcomer’s script. Usually, newcomers wait to see the result of their first film, gauge the response of viewers, critics and the industry before taking the next step,” says Aishwarya.

In fact, even as she dabbled in mainstream Hindi cinema, Aishwarya consciously chose to work in regional cinema as well. This was not just to experience a versatile, mixed bag of work; but also to challenge conventional stereotypes in the industry. “I could have easily fit into the leading lady track that existed. But I wanted to break the notion that you work in regional cinema because you don’t have any work in Bollywood,” she affirms.

Eclectic mix: A quirky Aishwarya in Bride and Prejudice

Aishwarya’s independent streak also broke some traditional rules. At a time when actors signed films without a script, Aishwarya would demand narratives of the script, even if they were the shorter versions, before signing contracts. That also meant she did not want the industry or the viewer to stereotype her as a model-who-also-became-an-actor. “I was clear right from the beginning that I did not want to do a typical swimsuit scene because it would have been so predictable.” So much so that even in the movie Josh, she insisted on a sarong, at a time when swimsuit shots were par for the course in the industry.

But with time, she took on roles that made sense for her. In Dhoom 2, she shed her image of a choti-bindi actress decisively playing a hip role. Aishwarya has earned a reputation of being bold and speaking her mind on the sets, whether it is with her co-stars or directors.

Even during her testing phase, which was more personal and very early in her career, Aishwarya didn’t get bogged down by circumstances. In 2003, she had to quit Chalte Chalte half-way, only to pave the way for Rani Mukherjee to take on her role. It was then that a whole bunch of movies got erased from her calendar as the actress was coming to terms with an emotional upheaval in her personal life. Meanwhile, she was getting offers from the west.

That was another decision over which she spent maximum time, but making that decision simpler was Gurinder Chadha who offered her a role in Bride and Prejudice. “I was always surrounded by thoughts like “Why am I giving all this up?” and “what am I trying to prove?” But I just knew that this was my own little point, and I wanted to do something English that was Indian at heart and show a sense of Bollywood to the world,” she explains. However, it was at the same time that she met with an accident and because of steroids, put on weight. With Chadha then changing her role to suit her situation, the film went as per plan and became a huge hit.

Family first: Aishwarya with her actor husband Abhishek Bachchan and daughter Aaradhya

Balancing act

It was in the middle of Ashutosh Gowariker’s film Jodhaa Akbar that Aishwarya decided to get married to Abhishek Bachchan. Completing the film without compromising on marriage required dual commitment — and she did it. Even during her pregnancy, she says, she continued to work till she was six and a half months in. “I thought after I deliver, in three months, I’ll start with advertisements. But, an industry senior told me, ‘I am a father of two, give it six,'” she laughs, acknowledging now that he was right.

Her last movie in 2010 was Guzaarish, and it was only in 2015, that she made a strong comeback with three films in a row, Jazbaa in October 2015, Sarbjit in May 2016 and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, in October 2016. “Jazbaa gave me the same start as I had with Iruvar,” she says. “There were exhausting days at work and tiring nights as a mother, but I decided I’ll never compromise on my commitment to Aaradhya,” she adds. Now that her little princess has turned four, Aishwarya says it is easy to convince her daughter that she has to go to ‘office’, chuckling that the term ‘shooting’ could have a wrong connotation.

Guiding star

What has not really changed for Aishwarya is the way she continues to pick her scripts and roles. Just like she excelled in her role in Provoked, Aishwarya did an encore with Sarbjit. With her next big release* Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Aishwarya knows the transition she has made. “Thankfully, because of the kind of work I have done, I don’t carry the ‘post-marriage’ tag that other leading ladies have had to deal with,” says Aishwarya, lifting her chin up a bit. The quiet sense of confidence she exudes is an outcome of her upbringing. “My parents have always been a source of immense support and have inculcated in me the values of commitment and integrity,” she says. “Hopefully, I can pass this on to Aaradhya,” she adds.

Be it movies or brand endorsements, she has been choosy but has stayed the course. At a time when brand ambassadors come and go, Aishwarya has continued with L’Oreal for more than 15 years. Today, despite having spent close to two decades in the world of glitz and glamour, Aishwarya still believes the best is yet to come. “I certainly don’t believe I have reached any destination. I don’t know what the destination is but I am enjoying the journey… I feel blessed,” says Aishwarya earnestly.

Our 45-minute meeting has already extended to an hour and forty-five minutes… She has been informed thrice that the next guests have arrived and are waiting to meet her. We wrap up hurriedly, but she waits till we gather our bags. As we get up to leave, she escorts us till the door and disappears suddenly, only to reappear with her prized possession, her daughter Aaradhya, asking her to wave us goodbye, which the little one does obediently. We wave back to her and the little girl, and leave feeling immensely satisfied, having spent a lovely evening with a rather sensible woman.

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