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'I seem to know nothing about how to woo the press here'

By Subhash K Jha
May 18, 2005 18:40 IST
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Aishwarya RaiAishwarya Rai, last seen wowing the Cannes crowds, is feeling on top of the world.

In a candid interview, Rai, one of India's prettiest international exports, spills the beans on getting Oprah Winfrey into a sari, and more. Excerpts:

You made Oprah wear a sari on her talk show!

Yes, I was extremely happy to be on her show. I absolutely admire her. I never thought I'd actually be meeting her -- and that too, on her show! It's so strange. But prior to our meeting, during my visit to the US for the premiere of Bride & Prejudice, I had some afternoons off. And I watched Oprah. I thought how wonderful it would be to be on her show. And within a month, I was!

She put me in the Woman Of The World section. Her very efficient team did all the spadework within no time. The procedure was meticulous. On the evening of the Bride & Prejudice premiere, they did a quick interview. The next day, I rushed to Chicago to record with Oprah.

And the sari?

I thought I'd wear one on the show, and packed two of them, in case Oprah wanted to wear one too. As luck would have it, my flight was delayed and I reached minutes before the show went on air! So I had no time to change, which is a pity.  Americans love the garment but have no clue how it's tied.

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Oprah is very respectful and appreciative of all cultures. She was very curious about the sari. And I helped her put it on, on air! She has sent me an autographed picture saying, 'Next time we change the blouse.' She was very sweet.

Did she ask penetrating questions?

That's her. She's very direct. She asked me about skin-whitening products and the penchant for changing one's skin tone. I told her how everyone wants to experiment with skin colour, hair, everything. Being on a show like Oprah, representing your country, is a big responsibility. I answered for myself and not on behalf of the industry.

Even when I was asked by Oprah about Indian women in general, I was very careful because I live in a city. The core of India lives in less urban areas. There are so many different faces of Indian women. If we identify the Indian prototype as a woman with large black eyes, long black hair, and a graceful sari, then I don't fit!

During the Miss World pageant, there was an objection to my looks, saying that I didn't fit into the Indian prototypes. When I was joining movies, my light eyes and fair skin have been seen as impediments. For a long time, my looks were seen not suitable for Indian cinema.

You've been accused of being coy on questions of sexual mores and even kissing....

Again, I'm very clear -- I speak for myself. I've never said I'd never kiss, or whatever on screen. I've always maintained I'd cross that bridge when I come to it. Again, I'm accused of playing it safe. The truth is, I don't know what tomorrow holds. So I can't make a close-ended principle about it.

When a song from one of my films, Kucch Na Kaho, was shown on Oprah, I realised everyone out there assumes a song is a substitute for a kiss in our films. That image of coyness about our movies exists long before me. I keep saying, on all my interviews abroad, that things are changing in our cinema, though very slowly.

I do know that the peck has become a familiar sight in our films, and I don't have qualms in saying so. Still, if people think I'm a prude in my pronouncements, what can I do? I'm definitely not judgemental about different kinds of films being made in our country. As long as there's an audience for them, there will be different kinds of films.

ShabdAre you heading out to Hollywood?

Every time I'm asked if I intend to go to Hollywood, I insist I'd do films there just as I've done two Tamil films (Iruvar and Kandukondain Kandukondain) and acted in Bengali (Chokher Bali). There is no dearth of tempting offers at home.

I've always said I don't wish to speak about assignments until they're finalised. I hope filmmakers notice how respectful I've been to their projects, even when things haven't worked out. Many major projects have gone to other actresses, and people don't even know I had been approached for them.

What else is coming up these days?

Raj Kumar Santoshi's Saamna. Rajji and I wanted to work together from the time I entered films. The first script he narrated to me was finally made as Dil Hai Tumhara by Kundan Shah, with Preity Zinta. Then we continued discussing projects.

I loved Lajja, and would've loved to be in it, but there was a date issue. We had decided I'd appear as Sita in a Ramayan episode in Lajja. Then he decided not to shoot it.

Finally, I just had to do Khakee! Rajji has so many ideas. We almost did a costume drama, Prithviraj Samyukta. We're now doing Saamna which is a very topical subject. It starts in the latter-half of the year. So Saamna or Dhoom 2 will be my next two releases. Dhoom 2, with Hrithik Roshan, starts in June.

You attended the party for Time magazine's 100 most influential people in New York...

People are so busy playing up my so-called boring image. But yes, I did attend the Time party for achievers in New York. I flew down for four days, attended the event, and also did a photo-session for an American magazine before coming back home.

Aishwarya RaiSo how was the Ash-Bash in New York?

Ash bash? Ash-bashing is what's going on constantly over here! Someone asked me why I'm politically correct, even when people hit out so openly at me. But the truth is, I've never been brought up to behave any other way. I can't say anything hurtful about anyone. I just don't believe in saying mean things. I won't feel good doing that. It's strange why being well-behaved is perceived as being too 'propah' and staid. This is the way I am.

I'm amazed how many people feel good hitting out at me. They're welcome to do it. Earlier, they had more leeway to deny their indiscretions in print. But now on television they look pretty ridiculous denying what they say. 

You're constantly travelling these days!

I know! But I do manage to catch four-five hours of sleep, plus a movie on international flights, so I like flying. It's the only time when I'm on my own.

As long as  your feet remain planted on earth.

Koi shaq?(Any doubts?) I had actually just flown in from London, done my ads for Lux and Nakshatra and then gone to New York, and I didn't regret the exhausting travel schedule!

Attending the Time event was great. To be in such fine company was humbling. I always feel proud to represent my country at any international event. I love to wear a sari and look Indian. Because I am! In all my interactions abroad, I'm perceived as representing my country, and not just as an actress.

As an actress, you've just begun to be recognised abroad.

Why now? Even as far as Devdas, I was recognised for my acting. Critics abroad gave me very good reviews for Devdas, Kucch Na Kaho, Chokher Bali and Raincoat.

Director Andy Tennant claims that he had offered you the lead in Hitch.

Did he? He re-wrote the role. When I first heard the script, I too wanted it rewritten. But then things didn't work out. In fact, I'm making no effort to get work in Hollywood. No one seems to pay attention to this fact.

The Indian media has accused me of employing a PR agency to get me work abroad! Actually, I need a PR agency in Bollywood since I seem to know nothing about how to woo the press here!

ShabdBut seriously, it's good if Indian cinema is being finally taken seriously. Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan was in the US for a festival of his films and was warmly received. Rituparno Ghosh flew down with Chokher Bali and Raincoat in LA. Such a warm response! And Mr Subhash Ghai screened Taal in the US recently, and the audience responded so warmly!  It's good to be appreciated for my work. I'm still exploring. I'm still growing as an actress.

What are your international projects?

I've just completed Paul Mayeda Berges' Mistress Of Spices. It's a very Indian film, a masala film with a difference. It's about the spices -- their scents and significances. It's being readied either for the Sundance or the Toronto film festival.

And now, there's the shooting of Jagmohan Mundhra's Provoked in a start-to-finish schedule in London. It's the true story of a Punjabi woman named Kiranjit Ahluwalia who left India to marry a London-based guy, only to be badly abused in the marriage. She finally ends up in prison for murdering her husband.

These aren't routine roles.

But I have never pursued ordinary roles. From the start, I've searched for challenges as an actress. That remains unchanged.

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Subhash K Jha