Huh, I thought I’d already written this, but I guess I’d just written around it. Aish is someone who appears to be complicated but, I believe, is simple at the heart of it.
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it appears to me based on publicly available sources.
Aishwarya Rai is different things to different people. I used to find this irritating, the hypocrisy of it, the way she supported damaging false perceptions of her gender and her country, but over the past few years, especially since the birth of her daughter, I have come to a slightly different understanding of why she does what she does. I think she can’t help it, I think somehow the only way she feels she can survive is to create this false perfect image on top of her real self.
I want to start with what I think is the “real” Aishwarya. The real Aishwarya is the middle-class daughter of an army family. The army is one of the most privilaged and westernized and free communities in India. Which is true in many countries, but not all, so I feel the need to specify. Army officers are required to have a high degree of education. They are expected to be global, able to mix if they are stationed overseas or need to host visitors. The army provides excellence housing, so officers and their families tend to live together, a whole isolated community of educated global free people. That is how Aishwarya grew up, with free confident educated people. Also Anushka Sharma, also Priyanka Chopra, also Preity Zinta, also Sushmita Sen, and on and on and on. These army communities are fabulous at nurturing confident ambitious westernized young women who go on to movie stardom.
Aishwarya’s father left the army when she was in her teens and the family moved to Bombay where Aish went to a good local high school and started studies at a good local college. She also started taking classical dance classes, as many middle-class young women do. At 18, she entered a local modeling/beauty contest and won. She started working off and on as a model, finally landing her star making role, in a Pepsi ad featuring Aamir Khan. Until that Pepsi ad, Aishwarya was not noticably different from any other young woman of her class. Being a part time model while going to college is a fairly normal thing for a young woman to do, if she has liberal parents. Aishwarya had liberal army and now Bombay urban living parents. She was on track to model for fun in school, graduate, start a profession, fall in love and marry for love, have children, be a working mother, generally have a happy free life.
And then the Pepsi ad changed things. Suddenly Aishwarya was offered the world, all of India was in love with her. She won the Miss India and then Miss World competition the next year (and met Amitabh Bachchan, who was organizing the ceremonies through his ABCD Limited company). Movie producers fell over each other to offer her parts. Aishwarya was a little more experienced than the average new actress. She was 24 while filming her first movie, she had been modeling for 6 years by then. That’s a much longer gap than actresses usually get between the start of their professional career and their first film role. Most actresses are launched as teens, straight out of school. Most model-actresses after Aish barely have a year or two of modeling before they are plucked for film. But Aish was the first, so it took longer for the film people to figure out what to do with her, and she benefited from that. By the time she started her film career, she was savvy enough to choose wisely. Her first movie was with Mani Ratnam, a great director who gave her a great part. Her second film was Hindi and weaker, but also lower profile, she could get her face and name out without a lot of pressure. Third film, back to Tamil, fabulous role in Jeans with Shankar. Fourth film, another weak Hindi film, but one worth doing because it was a favor for Rishi Kapoor and kept her close with the Kapoor family. And then, finally, her fifth film where everything changed, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
This is the point at which I see the first big break between the private Aishwarya and the public one. Or rather, the creation of the public Aishwarya. In private, I don’t think Aishwarya has changed much from what she always was. The daughter of liberal educated parents, positioned to have a career, marry for love, continue working along with being a mother and wife. She may have dated casually and privately before HDDCS, but during HDDCS she started dating Salman, her first high profile relationship. Remove the movie star glamour, and this is what any young woman of her class would do, any young woman anywhere in the world whose parents encouraged her to follow her heart, who was confident in her freedom, who had a normal human desire to be loved. At 26 she started a serious relationship that was moving towards marriage, that relationship went terribly wrong and derailed her life for a few years, but then she recovered and ended up in a nice relationship that lead to a nice marriage. If Aish had never gotten that Pepsi ad, her life would probably have turned out the same way, graduated college and gotten a professional job, dated a few co-workers, maybe had some romantic upsets, and then ended up with a nice guy she’d known a long time who came from a similar background.
But in order for this private Aishwarya to survive, the one who had normal relationships and wanted a happy marriage of equals and had parents who loved and approved of her choices and so on, the public Aishwarya needed to be created to protect her. That “public” Aishwarya had a bumpy beginning. At first, it was just a matter of extending what she was already like in professional moments into interviews. There are stories of Aish on set from the time she started modeling, she was very careful to present herself as superhumanly modest. It was a needed protection, she was wearing these skimpy clothes surrounded mostly by men, her best policy was to emphasis her modesty, to ask them not to look at her, to rush into a cover-up as soon as the shot was over. She presented “sharam” to the world, and it kept her safe from misbehavior on sets. Once the media started pushing into her life, she continued to present that “sharam” to an extreme degree. She didn’t talk about dating, she didn’t talk about anything personal, she presented herself as an untouchable ice princess.
And so there became a disconnect between what was known about Aishwarya and what she said. And, eventually, what she said most of the time and what she said sometimes. Aishwarya didn’t really discuss or acknowledge her relationship with Salman, until it was over. Only after the police calls had become public knowledge and the rumors were flying of abuse, then she released a full formal statement describing the relationship as abusive. Naturally people were sympathetic with her and of course it is common for abused women to resist public discussion, even to outright lie and deny the abuse while it is happening. But there was another layer to it with Aish, the whiplash of going from someone who was calm and cool and deeply private to someone revealing so much all at once. The public Aish was so firmly in place, so smooth and unbroken and strong, that having the mask suddenly dropped to show the private Aish felt wrong. It made one or the other appear to be a lie.
Of course the public Aish is a lie. The public face of any celebrity is a lie. But usually there is more of a blending between public and private, so the reveal of the “private” does not feel such a shock. 20 years ago, Aishwarya did not handle this blending well. And she continued to not handle it well many many more times over. After Salman, Aish started moving briefly into western film. Devdas made a splash at Cannes and so did she, from then on she was a regular on the Cannes red carpet. She got the L’Oreal contract and they helped promote her worldwide. And she got the part in Bride and Prejudice which lead to another global media push. This was another major miss-step in her public/private handling. Overseas, she decided to present herself with the same “sharam” and modesty and “don’t touch me” that she had been using all along. It worked well, to a degree, the talk show hosts and so on loved the idea of this beautiful confident professional woman who was also virginal and untouchable and on a pedestal. But it wasn’t sustainable, she couldn’t fit in with the celebrity culture of the west if she continued to set herself apart so much. Far worse, once the presentation started coming back to India, she suffered a massive backlash from the Indian media and public for the outright lies she was telling in her western interviews. This is post her public statement about Salman’s abuse, that big moment of ripping back the curtain to reveal the “real” Aishwarya. And here she is telling Westerners that she has never been in a relationship, never dated anyone. More than that, there was the way she was pursuing a western career, without giving full dignity to her prior career. A lot of it was mere passivity, if the interviewer chose to describe her movies as strange and dance based and so on, she would let it go and not disagree. But it left an unpleasant taste to the Indian audience as they saw her take film after film in the west while leaving them behind.
At the same time as the move to the west, there was the awkward ending of her Viviek relationship. That is primarily on Viviek, but it was another moment of Aish’s public face simply not being flexible enough. Viviek called a press conference to declare that Salman Khan was persecuting both him and Aishwarya because they were in love and he was jealous. This was an insane move on his part. You simply do not call a press conference to discuss interpersonal problems in your relationship. And on top of that, Viviek took it upon himself to talk about Aishwarya’s problems without her permission. And finally, he attacked one of the most powerful men in the industry along the way. India was left confused and eventually angry as they watched Aishwarya drop a bombshell statement acknowledging Salman’s abuse, and then say nothing else about it. This massive thing had happened, and she was pretending it hadn’t happened at all? She was going on talk shows in America and laughing about how people in India don’t date? It was too strange, too surreal.
And then the western career didn’t work out, Aish returned to India for one big come-back role, and surprisingly started dating her co-star Abhishek Bachchan. Within two years, they were married, in the biggest and most disastrous celebrity wedding India had ever seen. “Disastrous” because of what was happening outside, inside the photos look nice and I am sure everyone was very happy. But again, that smooth untouchable Aish ran up against the media and failed. Previous celebrity weddings had included a moment when the couple stepped outside and the press took photos. It was understood, it was planned, the press waited outside to photograph the guests as they arrived and behaved nicely and were rewarded with photos of the smiling couple. But this was Aishwarya Rai, who you never felt like you really knew, getting married into the most important family in Indian film. The chance to catch a glimpse of something real there was just too tempting. And the family did not handle it well, instead of making clear when you would get to see the “real” Aish, some kind of viewing system, they shut down all contact entirely, they kept the private real Aish as locked up and hidden as ever, and the press went berserk outside the gates.
Post-marriage, Aish slowed down but did not stop her career. She and her new husband worked together regularly, and she worked without him too. The change was that the “public” Aish was finally allowed to retire. She didn’t have to be smooth and perfect and modest all the time to protect herself, her family name did that for her now. No more awkward interviews, no more untouchable photoshoots, she could fade into her new family, let them handle the PR, and just do her job. The “public” Aish problems only came up a few times after marriage, moments like when she became pregnant and did not tell anyone, including the producer/director of her current film, leaving them stunned and upset at the public announcement. Or the birth of her daughter, when a whole floor of the hospital had to be cleared and cell phones confiscated to protect their privacy.
I think Aish is a deeply deeply private person who cannot seem to resolve that privacy with her role as a public figure. I think she would be far happier and more successful if she felt comfortable simply opening up, just a little bit. I think the media and public would hound her far less if she just gave them what they wanted. Over and over again this policy of hiding anything real has gotten her in trouble. There are still people who don’t believe her tale of Salman as an abuser, because she didn’t even acknowledge they were dating before or after (depending on the outlet). Her wedding would have been a much calmer and pleasanter day if she had just allowed limited press access. Her pregnancy could have been far less stressful and her return to work post-pregnancy a lot easier if she had been willing to tell her director, in confidence, that she was in the early stages of pregnancy but would prefer not to make it public in case something went wrong. Even her daughter’s birth need not have been such a circus, in the end the stories of cell phones being taken from nurses caused as much of a stir as an unofficial photo might have.
But if I remove that public part of her life, if I think of Aish as someone I might have dinner with or go shopping, she seems lovely. I suppose that is also part of the issue. I don’t like the public Aish at all, I find her hypocritical and cowardly and a little bit stupid. But I do like the private Aish. If the two women had more in common, perhaps I might like them both.