I, Too, Have Seen the World
Aishwarya Rai...the inside story

FILM FARE March print edition

Aha, Aishwarya Rai. The material girl for a zillion pin-ups. Think of a heavenly beauty and you think Ash. Circa 2001, she's a conglomerate of images, a one-woman bonfire of the vanities. I watch her negotiate mega-buck deals with entrepreneurial savvy, grapple with international agents, asserting her rights for equal status with phoren stars, be it for a perfume launch or a film contract. For sure, she's upped the ante for the Mumbaiwood movie heroine as well. And she's always been making huge waves. Recently she made news with all the public laundering of her relationship with Salman Khan. Her look is a crucial medium of her message. And pray what's that: Glow gorgeous glow. But right now, she's hopping mad. Hurt...and wanting to set the record absolutely straight. Without much two-do, I switch on the tape-recorder to ask:
So many good and bad things have happened to you this year, right?
Professionally, I'm on a roll. I have no doubts about the way my career has been going. I've never felt the need to name-drop or align myself with a particular project just to stay in the news. Regrettably, I've had to dissociate myself from quite a few projects.
Which has riled quite a few film-makers.
I ask questions. It's sad if that makes certain film- makers uncomfortable, it's sad. But I really want to be completely a part of the project before I say yes. Like Devdas for instance. I'm almost like Sanjay's(Bhansali)hands-on assistant on the set. There's none of that "baby ko bithao aur juice pilao" gibberish there. Unfortunately my personal involvement in some of my projects is being misconstrued as high- handedness.
You're about to complete Radheshyam Sitaram or Hum Panchi Ek Daal Ke. So how come, there hasn't been any announcement of any top-line projects?
I consider that a back-handed compliment actually. The implication is that I haven't given step-motherly treatment to my backlog of films, I'm completing them like a sincere professional. I'm not the type who'll yell about my achievements from the rooftops. And since you've asked, let me tell you, that all the " big names" have approached me. There are 365 days in a year and there's only these many films that I can do. Having said that, I've only greenlighted the IMAX film of late, an international collaboration which will be made by Bharatbala and Kanika, who made the Vande Mataram film with A R Rahman. It's not a power trip to say that X,Y or Z has signed me on, hopefully my accomplishments are there for anyone to see and assess.
There's talk that you had meddled around with Tanuja Chandra's film as well.
Of course not. I was very happy with my role. I'm sure Tanuja's film will be made . Hrithik Roshan who had signed the film before the change in his star status, understandably had problems with the role. He felt there wasn't much to do. I don't know why I've been dragged into whatever happened. Strange. The fact is that I loved the character created by Tanuja for me...and I hope that she finds a hero soon.
You have a bone to pick with the media.
Only with a certain section of the irresponsible press. I've never wanted to be the flavour of the month. I'd rather be known as a sincere professional. It's never been important for me to be newsmaker or a dial-a quote wonder. That's not my deal at all. Okay, let's take statistics. How many interviews have I given you in the last six years? Just five or six? Doesn't that say something. I hate to sound immodest, but this dates back to my personality since the age of 13. I've always got attention, which at times has been quite unwarranted. Once I joined modelling, I was always in the spotlight. The Miss World title was a progression. I'd also like to believe that at every stage, except for that stray media mongering about an animosity with Sushmita(Sen) or the completely unwanted bit with Manisha(Koirala), my reputation as a professional has been impeccable. My conduct has spoken far more loudly than my words. I always believed that my silence on several topics will be an advantage in the long run.
Maybe the inaccessiblity to the media at large has been a sore point?
For the last five years, life has been a whirlwind. I've been more outside the country than in it. But let me also state that, I've been accessible at every stage. Be it to promote my films, for endorsements or a cause. I don't want to win any brownie points for giving good copy to the press. I've been extremely dignified and well-behaved while dealing with journalists. So many journalists who have interacted with me, have come away pleasantly surprised. So many of their pre- conceived notions about me having vanished. But none of that has really come out in print. Some things have just been passed around like a game of Chinese whispers. At the end of the day, all that's been said in the end are half-truths and lies. I was studying to be an architect, I wasn't plotting to join the movies. Films were just another career option. I took acting up with the same schoolgirl enthusiasm I had for examinations. Acting is a job and I take it very seriously. Unlike so many other actors,joining showbiz wasn't quite my lifetime's dream.
But can you blame media for being high on dial-a-quote personalities?
So there. To each his own. It's never been important for me to be on the prime slot on any media person's wish-list. How come there's amnesia vis-a-vis certain celebrities? How come their arrogance, brattishness and debauched behaviour is condoned? All I'm saying is that when film personalities let journos be privy to their life and most intimate thoughts, that sure shouldn't be misused. I'm here to interact with the media, not pander to them.
Okay, let's talk about the recent spate of articles where your family has talked about being traumatised by Salman Khan etc?
The articles were a gross travesty of the truth. My parents have never once spoken to the media in recent times. I mean, they never tom-tommed my achievements when I won Miss World, so why would they want to talk now? It's just not them. Does my father seem the sort to be traumatised by rumour- mongering and seek media help? I hate to say this, but there's been some sort of a witch-hunt. I can handle the media games. But what saddens me is that my family is being dragged into all this mess. A particular paper has stepped beyond all limits of decency and decorum.

I know you feel persecuted. But as a huge star, it's a part of the baggage?
I don't buy that at all. Does a couple seeing each other make more headlines than an earthquake? And since have all the newspapers in the country become so showbiz obsessed. I thought that was the prerogative of film magazines.
Continue please.
My family is my strength and my weakness. I'd hate to see them looking sheepish or embarrassed of me just because some reporter doesn't know how to do his job. Why distort facts so grossly? I mean, look at the stories that appear on the internet. My brother who's sailing has to read the most weird and untrue things about me on the net. Who's to stop this? I've not spoken to any website or given any interviews to a portal ever. I'm planning to launch my own web site. When I do that, I'll announce it. A fabricated story reaches 50 million people in one shot. The editor of a newspaper or magazine carries a clarification some 10 days or a month later in a single column on page 8. What's the use? The deed has already been done. Everyone tells me that newspapers go to the raddi after a a couple of days. But excuse me, the story has been filed for the public memory for years to come. How come we still remember so many true and untrue stories even long after the personalities have been dead? I've lost count of how many times I've been engaged and married off in the last two years. And there have been such vicious stories about my family and me falling out over Salman...making my family out to be victims of mental and physical abuse. Hello, what's going on? I hate to think that there are people out there who dislike me or are so envious of all that's god's given me. Funnily enough recently, I read the letters to the editor's page of the magazine which has been writing trash about me and Salman over the last three years. A reader complained that the magazine was unnecessarily targeting us. A wry smile escaped my lips.
But some relative has spoken about the goings-on in your life?
I'd really like to know who this relative is. He doesn't even know that my father worked in the merchant navy and not in the defence forces. He wasn't a freedom fighter either. And no relative of ours, especially South Indian, addresses my parents as "Vrindaji" or "Krishnabhai." I mean the facts are distorted beyond measure. Everyone knows that mom and I go to temples. Now that's being distorted as my mom going to temples to make mannats and guard me against the evil eye that's supposed to be plaguing me. And that my mom met with the accident because of all the tension. It's all so sick.
There's been a lot of malice directed at Salman Khan's family too. A communal slant has been sought to be given to the Salman Khan-Aishwarya Rai story.
That's really scary. Why should such things happen? Have you read the kind of things Salman's family has been dragged into? Why make it a communal issue and fester more negativity. We live in tough times...why fan the communal flames some more. I realised the disastrous repercussions when I got fan mail saying that they'd fix Salman and his family. That really upset me. The media has made me out to be one helluva daughter! But Salman's family has been extremely supportive. The news poured in when I was shooting for Devdas. They kept calling on me throughout the day to check if I was allright. Salman who's stayed away from the media for over 10 years wanted to talk first time. Why? Because my family was upset. I feel responsible somewhere because two innocent families have been dragged into all this muck.
That's exactly what Salman tells me. But why sadden my parents. They've been so proud of all my achievements, they've brought me up with so much dignity, why torment them? In any case, And what's the issue here? That two people are seeing each other? It's my personal opinion, but Salman's one of the most vilified and misunderstood people. He's never felt the need to explain his stance. But this time, I can see that there's alot of hurt there. And where's the scandal? Aren't there enough scandals in the lives of other celebrities, models, sportstars, journalists and dare I say politicians? I didn't know that a man and woman seeing each other would ruffle so many feathers. An editor tried to humour me and said," Darling all No 1's go through this. That's the price of success." Hello, hello, who decides what price one has to pay for success?
What was that bit about Salman Khan banging on your apartment door relentlessly and you not opening it.
Oof, such heavy weather was made about it. Yeah, I'd been shooting through the night for Devdas, I was completely pooped when I reached home. He spoke to me and said that he was coming over. I had a cup of hot chocolate and before I knew it fell into a deep sleep. I didn't know when Salman arrived, I didn't hear the knocks on the door. Obviously, he was worried, since he had spoken to me only half an hour before that. Yes, he banged the door incessantly, his knuckles were bleeding, but nothing as dramatic as what written in the papers. A couple of hours later, he summoned his staff for help, I woke up sheepishly. The next thing, I read in the papers is that I've locked him out of the house. And please, why would my poor father give any security guy instructions not to let Salman into the house? We don't belong to some militant household.
You've been portrayed as a victim of abuse.
That's the giddy limit. Do I look like a masochist or the sort who'd go through physical or verbal abuse? A year after my accident...when I fell of the stairs, I'm still being asked if I was physically abused. It saddens me that I'm being portrayed as this battered woman. It wasn't the year of the millennium for me but the malign-um year. Salman, Shah Rukh, Hrithik and I have been at the receiving- end this year. How long to endure falsehoods being bandied about as the truth? A lie being constantly repeated gets a validation. Who knows if 100 people tommorow say that the sky is fuschia pink and theorise about it in the papers, someone's actually going to believe that the sky is pink.
Don't hit me, but you're in fine company.
At least Shah Rukh, Hrithik and and Salman have production houses. They have staff and people to rally around them, do their paperwork me etc. But what about me? My father still has an active business in the shipping industry, he has a life of his own. I can't imagine him getting into legal tangles and suing newspapers and magazines.

It's a catch 22 situation
You bet your boots it is. Tomorrow even if my parents were to go for a routine check-up at the doctors,it will be said that all because of me, stress has given them high blood pressure. God forbid tomorrow if anything happens to one of my parents, will the journos take moral responsibility? All this has taken such a weird twist. I mean, how can people take half- truths and write their own screenplay?

Who framed Aishwarya Rai?
You tell me. Celebrities lead such stressful lives. The more successful you are, the tougher your life. I've seen certain colleagues resort to psychiatric help, counselling and even pills when they cannot handle the media-bashing...the pressures of showbiz. Please spare a thought and do not create more stress. Even countdown shows and mock news shows pick up the poop about celebs and run it. Humour has become nasty. Taking the mickey out of us has become fair game. Everything is not so glitzy. There are huge demands on our personal lives. A few years from now, our twenties will be over. Please let me reall it with fondness, not disdain. Right now, I'm following the Buddhist principle: Smile as abuse is hurled your way and this too shall pass.

Anything else to declare?
That I've done my work with integrity, honesty and compassion. To put it figuratively, I have a great story to tell...and I tell it well. No holds barred.

Jitesh Pillai