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A Beast Called Beauty
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Aishwarya Rai

In the age we live in, physical appearance has become so important that not just women but men too seem to be slaving for it. Creams that wink away wrinkles, lotions that lighten the skin tone, men stripped to their waist to show off their ripping muscles and women with breast implants seem to have taken over the human race. Film stars are no exception. Rather, they are completely besotted by how they look – on screen and off it.

Take, for instance, the current Indian fixation called Aishwarya Rai. A commonly heard criticism is that she is never willing to shed her glam-doll image to cross the barrier between a star and an actress. Even in Mani Ratnam’s latest “Raavan”/”Raavanan”, she is daintily decked up, despite being held prisoner in a frightfully harsh terrain by men who are no better than a bunch of uncouth ruffians. Even her scars look a beautiful pink and as ornamental as they can possibly be. She wears couture clothes designed by Kolkata’s Sabyasachi Mukherjee, and is never without mascara and a trace of lipstick. And, of course, she looks divinely gorgeous in the most physically and emotionally trying moments — but fails as an actress. Obviously, Rai’s attention is all towards how pretty she can be, rather than how well she can perform.

But Ratnam is not the only director guilty of pampering Rai’s vanity. Some years ago, Bengal’s Rituparno Ghosh walked into this trap as well by letting the camera caress Aishwarya. His “Choker Bali”, set in the early 1900s, has Rai playing a very young widow. Childless, she is part of a cruel tradition that humiliated and tortured such women, banishing them to widow homes (which still exist today in places like Varanasi) and to a life of utter depravation. They were denied simple pleasures like eating meat or fish. Despite all this, Rai managed to look as ravishing as ever. So what if she had to wear a white sari and no blouse!

Stars who get obsessed with how they look or dread aging probably end up in a sorry state. We have two classic cases from the world of cinema. One is Bengal’s iconic Suchitra Sen, whose recent illness and hospitalization provoked me to think up of this subject. She has lived a life of recluse for years, refusing to get out of her palatial Kolkata bungalow and to meet any one other than her daughter, Moon Moon Sen, and grand-daughters, Raima and Riya. It is reported that India’s most prestigious movie award, Dadasaheb Phalke Prize, had to be denied to her, because she refused to travel to New Delhi and receive it from the country’s President!

Now, why would she have shut herself away? Perhaps, she did not want anybody to see her grow old and infirm. She would have preferred the world to remember her as a stunning woman: the Suchitra who took Bengal by storm with her aristocratic beauty and classic poise. She was an epitome of dignity and grace. The first Indian actress to have got an international honour — that at the 1963 Moscow Film Festival for her “Saat Paake Bandha” — she created a sensation with one movie hit after another, including “Aandhi” in Hindi, where she portrays a character resembling Indira Gandhi. Pairing with another great Bengali legend, Uttam Kumar, she remained on top for two decades. The romantic pair never faltered.

It is said that she had to refuse Satyajit Ray’s offer to act in his “Devi Chaudharani”, because of problems with her dates. Ray never made the film. She also could not do a Raj Kapoor movie.

In 1978, at age 47, Sen realised that she was aging in a tinsel world that has never been kind to older actresses – and made a neat exit. She has hardly ever been seen in public after that. People dubbed her Indian Garbo.

Greta Garbo, that lovely Swedish actress, also vanished from public eye or just about. She was only 36 when she decided to quit. Discovered by film director Mauritz Stiller, who transformed her from a plain sales clerk to one of the greatest films stars cinema had ever known, Garbo’s ethereal beauty and enigmatic personality added to the runaway successes of movies like “The Torrent” (1926), “Love” (1927), “Anna Christie” (1930), “Grand Hotel” (1932), “Anna Karenina” (1935), “Camille” (1936) and “Ninotchka” (1939).

Hardly had the flash-bulbs stopped popping when she walked out of the make-belief world and far away from arc-lamps and greasepaint. She moved to New York and erected an almost impregnable fortress around her. Fans were devastated by Garbo’s mysterious movie, and her reclusiveness added to her mystique.

However, a biography of Garbo, penned by Antoni Gronowicz, gives a plausible explanation for the actress’ decision to exit when everything was going in her favour. “After my bath each day” she had said “I examined my naked body in the mirror, and every day I noticed new wrinkles. So I underwent massages, dieted, and performed strenuous gymnastics to hold off age. But I was not successful.

“Getting old is a very painful process, especially for a woman. And most especially for a woman who was once a great and original beauty”.

Greta Garbo hid herself behind huge dark glasses on the rare occasion she chose to get out on the streets. Suchitra never even did that. So mortally petrified they probably were of withering away in layers of wrinkles that they preferred to shun society and call it off with community. Garbo died when she was 84 having spent no less than 50 years as a loner. Sen is almost 80, and she has been a recluse for over 30 years of her life.

Both stars threw away really huge chunks of their lives presumably fearing that they would begin to look less alluring as they grow older. Oh, but what a waste to have chucked away decades of artistic excellence!

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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.






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