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"Queen of Bollywood" to Land in Hollywood
Aishwarya Rai: World's Most Beautiful Woman

India's top female actress, Aishwarya Rai, is ready to take on Hollywood. In an interview on Sunday's 60 Minutes, CBS's Bob Simon talked with Rai, who is 31, discussing her work in India and her aspirations for the future. Rai, who has starred in more than 30 films in India, is about to begin filming The Mistress of Spices. She will also be appearing in Chaos with Meryl Streep and Singularity with Brendan Fraser.

Although Rai has been called the world's most beautiful woman, she has yet to have an onscreen kiss. Public displays of affection are frowned upon in Indian culture, and onscreen sex is forbidden in India. In the interview, however, Rai told Simon that, as far as taking this step, 'We'll cross the bridge when we reach it.'

Rai began modeling part time while she was studying architecture. She stood out in a Pepsi commercial in which she appeared with Indian film star Mahima Chaudhary. Rai soon caught the eye of India's film industry – known as "Bollywood" - but was determined to pursue a career as an architect.

Aishwarya Rai in LondonThe star of Bride and Prejudice, Indian former Miss World Aishwarya Rai poses for the cameras before entering the foyer of the London Palladium Oct. 4, 2004. The film had it's World Premiere at this famous theater.
Courtesy AP/Dave Caulkin

However, once she was crowned Miss World in 1994, she was inundated with offers that she literally could not refuse. Her first film, Iruvar, was released in 1997. In 1997, she won the Best Female Debutante Award for her role in Aur Paar Ho Gaya. She may be best known for her roles in Jeans (1998) and Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000). In 1999, she won the Filmfare award for best actress for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Devdas (2002), in which she starred, is the most successful Bollywood film ever made.

In 2003, Rai became the first Indian actor to be part of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. She was also hired as part of the L'Oreal Dream Team, which includes such famous faces as Catherine Deneuve & Andie MacDowell. She was also listed as one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World Today" and included on Rolling Stone Magazine's annual 'Hot List." Her first English-speaking film, Bride and Prejudice, will open in February. The film was directed by Bend it Like Beckham's Gurinder Chadha.

Aishwarya Rai in Agra
Courtesy Reuters

Rai is wildly popular in India, and has an international following. She is so popular that her newly created website, www.aishwaryaworld.com, is frequently overwhelmed with massive traffic. Besides her official website, there are over 17,000 fansites created in her honor. Considering that large Indian population in the U.S. and Canada, Rai will enter Hollywood with a built-in fan base. Will she break Indian taboos and kiss onscreen in a western film, shocking her Indian fanbase? We'll just have to wait and see.

D.R. Boyer

The World's Most Beautiful Woman?

(CBS) Who is the most beautiful woman in the world? Half a century ago, Hollywood would have presented her to us. Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman or perhaps Elizabeth Taylor.

But today? Correspondent Bob Simon reports the woman who currently holds the title, at least according to thousands of Web sites, Internet polls and even Julia Roberts, is someone you've probably never heard of.

Her name is Aishwarya Rai, and she is an actress living and working in Bombay, India. The reigning queen of Indian cinema, and also a classically trained dancer, Rai has starred in 24 films over the last seven years.

That may seem like a lot of movies, but Bollywood, India's film capital, is famous for churning out more movies a year than Hollywood. Three new films are produced and distributed worldwide every day, attracting a global audience of 5 billion people. That's twice the reach of Hollywood.

The reason Bollywood films have such universal appeal is because they're squeaky-clean. There are no sex scenes, not even kissing. Every time you think someone's going to do it, they'll burst into song instead.

"I'd assume that's really a reflection of our society," Rai says, when asked to explain the films' modesty. "Of course people kiss and of course people have a very healthy love life. This is the land of the Kama Sutra. But nevertheless, in our society you don't really see people around the street corner kissing or being extremely, overtly, physically demonstrative publicly. They do it privately but not publicly."

Aishwarya Rai at Cannes 2004
Chinese actress Gong Li, left; Indian actress Ashwarya Rai, center, and French actress Laetitia Casta, right, arrive to attend the screening of the film "Bad Education" during the opening of the 57th International Film Festival in Cannes, May 12, 2004.

Unlike some of her Hollywood counterparts, Rai's very much like the women she portrays: wholesome, dutiful and deeply religious. So much so, she insisted we visit her favorite temple for this interview. It's more than 200 years old and every week more than 100,000 people come from all over India to make offerings and pray to Lord Ganesh, the half-elephant/half-man Hindu god of happiness.

At the temple, Rai started attracting more worshippers than Lord Ganesh.

She says being treated as sort of a goddess in this way, "makes me feel guilty. I'll be very honest. When there's a distraction at the place of worship I kinda get a bit guilty. And I kind of say, 'Lord, forgive me. This isn't intended.'"

Despite the attention, Rai says she doesn't think much about the way she looks.

"I am really OK with the way I look, It's fine," she says. "All this is transient. I mean, it's really, you know, it changes with time, and that's the external."

Rai never dreamt of being an actress. She grew up in a strict middle-class home, the daughter of a merchant marine and a writer. She was an "A" student on track to becoming an architect, until the "Miss World" pageant came along. She entered because, she says, she wanted to change the way the world sees India.

Rai explains that, "for me, it went beyond being a beauty queen. For me, it was about being the 20-year-old girl from India on international platform and a lot of people actually would assume that I wasn't even educated in India because of the way I'd speak. And they'd be like, 'Have you studied in India? Do you actually speak English out there?' and, I was like, 'This is so interesting that so many people know so little about my country.' and this is exactly what I wanted to do when I set out on this little mission in my head."

At age 21, Rai became Miss World. It didn't take long after that for her to become the brightest star in Bollywood. Now 30, she's still a traditional Indian girl - which, by the way, means she still lives with her parents.

"By virtue of my job, I'm traveling," she explains. "You get to spend very little time with your family. We hardly get to meet each other except on the one odd day we really get to spend time, have dinner together. And that's rare, and we cherish it."

Still, Rai considers herself an independent woman, and she doesn't have anything to prove. She's an astute businesswoman who negotiates her own contracts, including endorsements for L'Oreal, Coca-Cola and DeBeers diamonds.

She is not only one of the wealthiest women in India, but Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. When she's seen in new clothes, it invariably sparks a new fashion trend. Choosing what to wear, she says, is not so much about caring as it is, "just about being open to life and trying different things out."

Right now for Rai, trying different things means going to Hollywood. She's already got several films lined up. Her first is from the director of "Bend it Like Beckham." It's called "Bride and Prejudice," and it's a very proper film. But eventually, in Hollywood, India's "good girl" is bound to run up against something of a cultural hurdle: kissing men on the big screen.

"We'll cross the bridge when we reach it," Rai says. "But yeah. We - let's see. We'll work on the story, work on the scene. I'll work on the part and, and let's see."

Would an onscreen kiss create a scandal for Rai back in India? "It would definitely be a topic of discussion," she says. "They're gonna enjoy it."

Sure, there are people in India who resent sharing their star with America. But, Rai notes, "then again there are so many Indians who have expressed so much of pride. They look at this as such a positive possibility. Because there really hasn't been that strong a representation of the Indian in Hollywood."

With Rai in the vanguard of an Indian invasion, that could change. Is Hollywood ready?

"Someone said to me this week that you are a Greek goddess with the soul of an Indian. What is the finest complement you have ever received? The one that touched you the most," Simon asks Rai.

"Well, when people call me real. I love it. And it has a lot of meaning," says Rai. "It means a lot to me and it's touching. People would see that and acknowledge it."

And one last question — one that every man watching is going to want to know. Does she have a steady boyfriend?

"That's for the autobiography," says Rai, laughing.


Queen of Bollywood
By Alex Perry

Luminous: Aishwarya Rai (right) shines in 'Bride and Prejudice'

Indian leading lady and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai leads the charge as a hipper, edgier, more professional Bollywood bids for global dominance.

The burly British film crew gazes in wonder at the image of the stunning young Indian woman on the playback monitor. As her jeweled sari radiates ruby and amber across their faces, the woman smiles out at her audience, stifles a giggle and draws butterfly-wing lashes down over olive-green eyes. A pause, she looks up, throws her head back and laughs, then withdraws into another coy smile. The shot, five bewitching seconds that may not even make the final edit of Bride and Prejudice, ends. The crew doesn't move. Without a word, the tape is rewound and another viewing begins. It is perhaps the seventh or eighth in a row. "Marvelous," sighs an assistant director. His fellow crew members nod in vigorous agreement. Behind them producer Deepak Nayar beams at director Gurinder Chadha. "After this," chuckles Chadha, "she'll be able to do anything she wants."

Aishwarya ("Ash") Rai has been a superstar in India since she was crowned Miss World in 1994, so seducing a film crew, even her first British one, doesn't faze her. "It's not just about how I look," she says in the elegantly articulated English of the Indian élite. Indeed, after a handful of forgettable movies in the 1990s, Rai earned gushing reviews for her performances in last year's Devdas, for which she won seven Indian critic awards, and this fall's Chokher Bali. In Devdas in particular, critics swooned over her transformation from innocent lover to jilted avenger and agreed that she more than held her own against Bollywood's biggest male star, Shahrukh Khan, and Bombay's other queen, Madhuri Dixit.

But Rai's looks—"the most beautiful woman in the world," according to Julia Roberts—haven't hurt her, either. Rai turned Western heads this spring as a Cannes festival jury member and the new face of cosmetics house L'Oreal. The attention led to her invitation to the airy hills north of London, where she is now playing the lead in Bride and Prejudice, Chadha's hotly anticipated follow-up to her hit movie Bend it Like Beckham. Bride is a modern, Bollywood version of Jane Austen's classic, in which the Bennetts of Pemberley become the all-singing, all-dancing Bakshis of Amritsar. But Rai's soaring star doesn't rely on one film alone. Scarcely does she wrap Bride before rehearsals start for The Rising, an epic based on the failed 1857 Indian rebellion against British rule. Then, in March 2004, her agents confide with considerable glee, the 29-year-old ex-model is slated to start shooting opposite Meryl Streep in Chaos, French director Coline Serreau's remake of her acclaimed drama about a housewife who adopts a battered prostitute, a role that will mark a daring departure for Rai. If that weren't enough to guarantee her arrival, Rai is also talking to director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding) about a part in Homebody/Kabul, based on Tony Kushner's play about the Taliban. And she's signed up to star in India's first IMAX production, Taj Mahal. All five movies should release worldwide over the next 18 months, by which time, Nair predicts, Rai "will be the next Penelope Cruz."

But Cruz never brought along an entourage like this. For although 2004 may be Rai's year, it is shaping up as Bollywood's breakthrough, too. Following Rai westward will be India's brightest male star, Aamir Khan, whose Lagaan (Land Tax) was nominated for an Oscar in 2001 and who returns opposite Rai in The Rising. Western audiences will also be introduced to Indian art-house icon Rahul Bose, who will appear with Glenn Close in Merchant Ivory's Heights, a contemporary tale of five affluent New Yorkers. And behind the camera this trickle of A-list Indian talent becomes a monsoon flood. In addition to its British-Indian director, Bride and Prejudice combines the skills of legendary Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan and sought-after Bombay cinematographer Santosh Sivan. Meanwhile, director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Bandit Queen) has announced a return to India with a $25 million production called Paani (Water), set in 2060 Bombay but slated for a worldwide release. Fellow auteur Vidhu Vinod Chopra is currently casting the thriller Move 5 in Los Angeles. And Ugandan-Indian Nair will be unmissable in 2004. She releases Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon; takes Monsoon Wedding to Broadway; starts work with Rai on Homebody/Kabul; directs a star-studded adaptation of British writer Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist, and executive produces three Indian films under a deal with Universal Studios worth up to $15 million.

Nor is the traffic one way. Following 20th Century Fox's decision to pick up The Rising, the first Indian-made movie that a Hollywood studio will release worldwide, Warner Bros. and Columbia TriStar Films are both planning to distribute Bollywood films abroad. Going a step further, a handful of Western independents are inaugurating a rash of East-West coproductions using Bombay's cheap, skilled workforce. Shooting recently started on The King of Bollywood, with British supermodel Sophie Dahl; and winter should see production begin on Marigold, a story of an American B-movie actress stranded in India.

It will all give a distinctly Indian flavor to some of next year's biggest movies. And to their makers, stirring in a little spice makes perfect sense. Chadha says her theft of Austen will work because Bollywood shares themes with Western art of a more innocent age. "When you see how perfectly the plot of Pride and Prejudice fits Bollywood, you see how Austen and Bollywood use the same language of joy, love, family and sadness that's so uplifting and involving, and so rare and different from Hollywood today," she says. "I think the audience will eat it up." For Nair, the explanation is even simpler. "The West is suddenly waking up, noticing what the rest of the world has been watching all these years and working out where it came from." She predicts more international exposure for Bollywood as Hollywood realizes the commercial sense of combining the world's two biggest film audiences. Already, on the set of Vanity Fair, Bollywood's leap onto the global stage has afforded her some deliciously surreal moments: playing up Calcutta-born William Thackeray's Eastern influences with a dance sequence, she says, "I had all these white folks, these big stars, lined up, doing my thing, dancing to my Indian tunes." Nair guffaws: "It was wonderful!"

The film world has heard rumors of an Indian invasion for years. In London in particular, the success of cross-cultural writers like Vikram Seth, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, department store Selfridges' decision to adopt a Bollywood theme, and a host of wildly successful Indian TV comedies has long convinced the British public that it was set for a Bollywood bonanza. Often, the sheer size of the Indian film industry—releasing an average 1,000 films a year, compared with Hollywood's 740; and attracting an annual world audience, from Kuala Lumpur to Cape Town, of 3.6 billion, compared with Hollywood's 2.6 billion—made it seem as though the West was the last to catch on. But even though Chinese film boomed with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, somehow the Indian wave never broke. And although Indian films showed in theaters from Singapore to San Francisco, the truth was that few Asians, Europeans or Americans outside the vast South Asian immigrant community actually saw them.

The reason was not hard to fathom. However deep the artistic void that gave the world Death Wish V or Police Academy 7, Bollywood has long outdone Hollywood for formula and cliché. After a two-decade-long golden age that produced films such as Mother India (1957) and Sholay (1975), the industry slipped into a succession of hackneyed action flicks and copycat song-and-dance romances made under a factory ethic in which actors worked on five, 10, even 15 films at a time.

Remakes and plagiaries of Hollywood were routine, scripts were almost unheard of, and cast and crew often took the same characters, shots and dance steps from one production to another. The love stories were particularly indistinct: thousands of boys met thousands of girls (songs of joy!), broke up (songs of sorrow!), reunited (joy!) and led a cast of hundreds to a meadow outside Zurich for a leaping, ululating and face-achingly joyous finale. Actors sleepwalked through careers. "You can't imagine what it was like," says Anupam Kher, star of 290 films in 18 years, who reprises his role as the father from Bend it Like Beckham in Bride and Prejudice. "After the whole fame thing wears off, you begin to wonder, 'Really, what the hell am I doing?'" Even domestic audiences complained, including India's leader. "Why do our films stick to stereotype?" lamented Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after seeing Devdas, which for all its well-deserved critical praise, was still the 12th version of the same love story since the original 1928 silent movie. By mid-2002, Bollywood was largely a commercial concern—to this day, critics rate films and actors almost entirely by box-office pull—of little interest to anyone outside South Asia, except homesick migrants and the odd film buff.

So what's changed? Everything. Rai's unchallenged position in the industry is partly due to her determined pursuit of "different, against the grain" roles, such as her 1997 part in Tamil director Mani Rathnam's little-seen but acclaimed art-house movie Iruvar. But Rai is not some solitary crusader, rather the most successful disciple of a new mantra of innovation that has swept Indian film in the past year. Because in 2002 Bollywood truly bombed. All but 12 of the year's 132 mainstream Hindi releases flopped, and the $1.3 billion-a-year industry, used to comfortable annual growth of 15%, groaned under unaccustomed losses of some $60 million.

The formulas suddenly weren't commercial anymore. And although some moviemakers groped around for new blueprints—horror, skin flicks, anything—a band of urban and Westernized writers, directors, producers and actors, loosely grouped under the banner "New Bollywood," overran the industry. "Overnight, those of us who didn't think the audience was dumb and who were sick of movies being talked about as 'products' were in charge," says producer-of-the-moment Pritish Nandy. "The old generation lost control, and the new generation just walked in."

Today, fresh ground is broken with every release. Out are fluffy romances. In are films such as Jism (Body), Mumbai Matinee and Khwahish (Desire) that have shattered Bollywood's tradition of prudish sex scenes, by making previously taboo kisses routine and by finally ditching the rustling bushes that used to denote what came next. Out are badly dubbed punchups and in are dark stories like the true tale of Bombay's rival crime lords (Company) or India's Hindu-Muslim divide (Mr. and Mrs. Iyer), weird stories like that of a hairdresser who reads minds (Everybody Says I'm Fine) or a retired judge who literally runs off with a young model (Jogger's Park) or dark and weird tales like the one of a failed rock singer who leads his bandmates to murder (Paanch). Urban, middle-class films like Dil Chahta Hai (Do Your Thing) are proving there is money in ignoring India's rural audiences, whose preferences run to the spectacular, the musical and, invariably, the alpine. Some films are even leaving out the songs. Director Ram Gopal Varma dropped the music from both Company and his smash horror-thriller Bhoot (Ghost). "It doesn't make sense to a Western audience," Varma explains over drinks at Bombay's Hyatt Hotel. "I live in this country, and I've still not got used to it. And, frankly, I couldn't give a f—- for the villages." (During the conversation, Varma took a revealing call from a film distributor in Dubai. He cheerfully informed the caller, "There is no music in the film, only background music. You won't really hear it." He then turned to a TIME reporter, grinning, with his hand over his phone, and laughed, "'No songs! No songs!' He's having a heart attack." After hanging up, he added: "I'm in that position now, you know? 'F—- you! Take it or get out!'")

If music is used today, it's for a reason. Bride and Prejudice choreographer Saroj Khan, 55, says that for 600 films she did nothing but "item numbers," dance sequences inserted with little regard for narrative. "Now suddenly I have a story to work with," she says. "You won't believe me, but that's very different. And very nice." Concludes Kaizad Gustad, director of Boom (about three supermodels who must somehow find the money to pay for 30 Mob-owned diamonds they've lost): "Suddenly, the newer and riskier the project, the greater the chance of it getting made."

Propelled by this whirlwind of raw creativity, star after star is breaking type and embracing new roles, recharging some long-languishing talents. Like Rai, Bombay legend Amitabh Bachchan is trying something different, raising eyebrows with his portrayal of the stylishly amoral, Bo Derek-obsessed crime kingpin in Boom. "It's a crazy film by a crazy guy," offers the 61-year-old with evident delight while on the set of his new war movie Lakshya (Target). And producer Nandy cheerfully expects a torrent of outrage upon release of the gritty Chameli, as megastar Kareena Kapoor dumps her customary chaste refinement to play the streetwalker of the film's title opposite Rahul Bose's banker. The head of 20th Century Fox's Indian arm, Aditya Shastri, describes the industry as suddenly, and fundamentally, transformed. "It takes a very brave or very foolish person to do a traditional song-and-dance movie today," he says. Bose, who as the star of Chameli, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Mumbai Matinee and Everybody Says I'm Fine is the ubiquitous face of New Bollywood, goes further: "Put us all together, and you have a movement. Put us together with the audience, and you have something sweeping the world."

On the set of Bride and Prejudice, Rai is already coping with some of the pitfalls of the revolution. After every scene, she quietly slips past the longing stares of 100 Indian extras and retreats to her cordoned-off trailer. This past year she has already endured her own "Bennifer" style press attention when she split from fellow movie star Salman Khan only to link up with the star of Company, Vivek Oberoi. The size of her celebrity is measured by the 17,000 unofficial websites in her name and the immediate overloading and crash of her own official site the moment it was launched this spring. Ensconced in her trailer, she admits to having "so little time to myself and for my sanity. Last summer, I had meetings with Robert De Niro and Roland Joffé and Mike Leigh," she says. "They'd say, 'When are you available?' And I'm like, 'Maybe at the end of next year.' And they're like, 'Wow, you can't be serious.' But that's my life right now." Indeed, Rai seems to have little time even to sleep: she scheduled both her photo shoots with TIME for the middle of the night, saying it was her only free time, before crying off exhausted on the second shoot and finding a spare two hours the following day. But you won't hear Rai complain. "I can always choose to do something else," she shrugs.

And she seems to accept that as a model turned actress with no training, she's on a steep, and tiring, learning curve. "I'm a student," she says, hands folded neatly in front of her. "I want to do better, and I want directors who can find the actress in me and be my teachers." But like many of Bombay's bigger stars, one of her first lessons was to turn herself into something of a recluse, never discussing her private life and rarely being photographed in public. "I like my work, and I'm true to it; and apart from that, I'm just being," she says.

Overwhelmed by the demands on their time or simply by their own importance, lead actors in Bollywood would in the past jeopardize entire productions by double-booking themselves, turning up hours late on set (sometimes not appearing at all) or raising fees midway through a shoot. But bigger names, such as Rai and Bose, are now signing with Western talent agencies (both are with the gilt-edged William Morris Agency) that ensure commitments are honored. Amitabh Bachchan, who for years set a lonely example of professionalism in Bollywood, couldn't be happier. "It's a joy to be working like this," he says. "To end the disorganization that has ruled for so long, it's an absolute delight."

It's all part of a newfound professionalism in Bollywood that is evident both artistically and financially. On the set of Lakshya, at Film City studios outside Bombay, this new regimen is in full effect. Director Farhan Akhtar and producers UTV have fixed a budget of $7 million (large by Bollywood standards), issued contracts to crew and actors, insisted on a finished script, insured the set and laid out a meticulously detailed schedule for months of continuous shooting in Bombay and Ladakh. Such black-and-white commitments may be rudimentary in the West but are almost unprecedented in an industry in which a quiet word or a handshake have long sealed deals and in which films were shot piecemeal over a number of years.

Likewise, the financing of Bollywood movies has become far less murky. In the 1990s, a series of scandals broke about the links between Bombay's movie world and the underworld. Producers were the target of repeated police investigations into how deeply Mob money had penetrated the movies, and top actors who were called to testify often sensationally refused. Indeed, just last month, Devdas producer Bharat ("King of Bollywood") Shah was sentenced to a year in jail (but released due to time served) for concealing the underworld's involvement in his 2000 movie Chori Chori, Chupke Chupke (On the Quiet, Hush Hush). In the past, such attachment to Mob money and the conditions that came with it—flying stars to Dubai, Pakistan or South Africa to indulge gangsters' egos—proved a major deterrent to Western investors.

But today, even Bombay's police admit the connection with the underworld is weakening—a transformation that began in October 2000, when India's bureaucrats finally lifted outdated restrictions on Bollywood's access to banks and private investors. As legitimate funds poured in from respectable backers, so a new culture of legal and transparent business practices swept the industry.

New Bollywood is not there yet. Director Nair estimates that it will be "two or three years" before its movies attain what she calls Western-style "craft and rigor," and UTV's founder, Ronnie Screwvala, adds that it will take "three to five years" before Western business practices become standard. In the meantime, maybe the greatest danger of Bollywood's invasion of the West is that the West might invade right back. Director Varma's urbanized zeal for Hollywood—"anyone who doesn't follow the West is gone"—carries with it the danger that, in less-skilled hands, Indian film could become little more than exotic imitation. Although he admits to enjoying how well the world received Lagaan and although he welcomes New Bollywood's energy, actor Aamir Khan warns that a wholesale rejection of song and dance might kill the "color, fire and innocence" that defines Indian cinema. "Of course, Bollywood can be quite ghastly," he says. "But at its best, it's a wonderful form. There's a level of passion and excitement and a heightening of emotions which can be momentous. It'd be awful to lose it."

With Rai as India's standard bearer, there is little immediate danger of that. She may position herself as New Bollywood in terms of roles, but in person Rai embodies the Indian middle-class—and very Old Bollywood—ideal: a modern girl with traditional values. For someone emerging as a 21st century film star, there are few people less likely to turn into a Western-style sex kitten. Asked about her image as every Indian man's dream girl, she replied: "I'm just being the girl I was brought up to be." In fact, it is because Rai is such a paragon of age-old, dutiful Indian femininity, says producer Nayar, that she was so right for the headstrong but obedient Elizabeth Bennett character, Lalita. "That's her appeal," says Bride and Prejudice co-star Martin Henderson. "When Hollywood women are so exposed—when you see ass cheeks hanging out on MTV, for God's sake—there's something wonderful about a woman who is sensible and refined, mysterious and sensual."

In an age of terror, perhaps it makes sense for audiences to yearn for a more innocent time. Rai agrees that although New Bollywood may represent a welcome reinvigoration of a tired industry, the reason she is suddenly attracting a global audience is the same reason that Bollywood has always drawn adulation from millions of Indians. "It's the chance to be transported from the toil and the worry," she says, "the chance to feel good about life again." Whatever the innovations of the new Indian wave, the true essence of Bollywood, she says, will always be "a world of hope and color and positivity, the innocent, beautiful fairy tale." So is this the beginning of a storybook adventure for her and Indian cinema? Why not? As she says, "In Bollywood, it's always a happy ending."


The Leading Lady
Actress and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai

Aishwarya Rai has been Bollywood's leading lady for years, but now, with a slew of new films due for release across the world, is on the verge of becoming a global superstar. TIME's Alex Perry caught up with the 29-year-old former Miss World on the set of Bride and Prejudice, just north of London.

TIME: How do you choose your roles? You seem to be getting pickier.

Rai: I'm a student. I want to do better, and I want directors who can find the actress in me and be my teachers. I'm interested in the whole process of editing, post-production and direction. With each film, I get more and more involved and it's more and more time-consuming.

Also, I like to break myths and people's preconceived ideas. My characters have always stood for something, have always had an opinion, although they've never really rebelled.

As for being picky, in the beginning, I did get a bit caught up in the way the industry functions at top speed. I was never fast-paced in the way I work. Initially, I was working on several films at a time, then I would work on a maximum of two to three films a year and by Devdas I had slowed down to two, and now, this is my seventh year, I have slowed down even more. Three years ago I was on a world tour, a promotional tour, with [The Rising co-star] Aamir Khan. I was at my first show with him and I was saying, "Aamir, I really want to work much more selectively." He asked me how long I had been acting and I said "Four years." He said, "It took me six years to get to even vaguely working the way I wanted."

TIME: How do you feel about becoming a world star?

Rai: For me, it's not about breaking big in Hollywood, but having interesting experiences. In July 2002 I met [Bride and Prejudice director] Gurinder Chadha and in October I went to the States—I had just had a very positive experience in Cannes and from the European media—and I went and met with the agencies and it just snowballed. Last summer, I had meetings with Robert de Niro and Roland Joffe and Mike Leigh. They'd say, "When are you available? And I'm like, "Maybe at the end of next year." And they're like, "Wow, you can't be serious." But that's my life right now.

I really don't work to a plan, but I just do what interests me and what I like to do. Gurinder had great ethics and goodwill and I like what she had to offer.

TIME: Are you trying to move away from traditional Bollywood song and dance romances? What do you make of the "New Bollywood"? It seems to be generating a lot of interest in the West.

Rai: I am very happy with our cultural backdrop and the backdrop of our cinema and participating in a movement to project our cinema internationally. Cinema is cinema, but for some reason in the world arena, Indian cinema is slotted into its own small category. People are breaking the stereotype and it's good that Indian cinema is being recognized. Now is the time and there are actors like me who are willing to support that change.

But it's unfair to say that Indian cinema is "arriving." Indian cinema has been delivering a certain aesthetic to its audience very successfully for years and I can say without any shame that I love song and dance. I'd hate to see that disappear and as an artist I am happiest to put my all into an art form, as you do with song and dance. Maybe the world is just becoming more aware of our culture.

TIME: Why did Bollywood stay in the same rut for so long?

Rai: For a long time, cinema has been the biggest form of entertainment in India. And the larger body of India has such hard lives that when they go to the cinema, they want to be transported, to see a world of hope and color and positivity, the innocent, beautiful fairytale. It's the chance to be transported from the toil and the worry, the chance to feel good about life again. Boy meets girl, a bad guy comes along, but everything is sorted out in the end. It's the innocence of Life is Beautiful. Song and dance sequences create that mood. It's beautiful in its own way. In Bollywood, it's always a happy ending.

TIME: Are you aware that half a billion Indian men think you're the perfect woman?

Rai: Is this an image I'm working hard to live up to? No, I have always just been... I am human. If I was really trying to live up to that perception of me, that would be too much pressure. Then more fame you have, the more input and hard work there is. I have so little time to myself and for my sanity. But no, I'm not acting to an image. I have to get into another character enough in front of the camera. If people think I am just an image, they're wrong. I'm just being the girl I was brought up to be.

TIME: How do you cope with the pressure?

Rai: Is there pressure? Well, there is the sheer pace of my life these days. Premieres, festivals, interviews, press conferences, there is less and less time for yourself. And you do feel it. They only way I'm OK, the only way I keep sane as I have immense faith in God and my friends. But if you do not perceive the pressure, it's not there. It's all about conditioning yourself. And hey, I can always choose to do something else. I just go with the flow and try to recognize the reality of it all. It's really not something I worry about. I only think about it when I'm asked. I'm just too busy. I like my work, and I'm true to it; and apart from that, I'm just being.

TIME: Is that really possible in your position?

Rai: I have to learn to be light on myself. I could be really disappointed and hurt by what is said about me: all this trivial stuff about wardrobes and if I was wearing huge gowns, would it cover up my plaster? [Rai fractured an ankle this year.] But I cannot work myself into a knot and hurt about it. But when I went abroad, it was such a humbling experience, it was a fabulous experience and people were amazing with me. People have been wonderful. The response I have been accorded has been humbling. So I said, "Alright God, I get the message. Go with the flow."


The above articles are from Elites TV, CBS, and TIME.



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