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India Splendor hosts a quiet evening with the biggest superstars of Indian cinema.
Interview with Aishwarya Rai and Mani Ratnam
August 14, 2006
Interviewed by Siddarth Puri
Article and photos by Ada Tseng
Camera and video edit by Oliver Chien
The first time we at Asia Pacific Arts looked at the India Splendor festival calendar and saw the words "Followed by Q&A with Mani Ratnam, director, Abhishekh and Aishwarya Bachchan," we thought it was a typo.
Indian royalty. Mythic creatures only seen on screen and in the tabloids. The Abhiash to our Brangelina. (Cementing the fact that making up words to name celebrity couples is an unfortunate but global trend.) Two of the biggest superstars in India -- who next year will be part of the bold but aptly titled "The Unforgettable Tour" -- plus Mani Ratnam, the director of Guru, were slated to make an appearance at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, California.
So where was the frenzy?
The first inkling of a commotion beginning to simmer came on Thursday, August 9th (only five days before the event), when the Los Angeles Times ran a spread of India Splendor in their Calendar Weekend section. India Splendor was reported to be one of the most ambitious privately funded South Asian festivals ever to take place in the U.S. A blown up picture of the stunning Ms. Rai emerging from a lake, drenched in rainwater, was sure to attract attention. The appearance had been confirmed, but only for the readers who read deep enough into the article to notice.
Hidden in a small, closed-off room of the Hammer museum, a red carpet had been set up for the Bachchans' arrival. As the clock started ticking, mumblings surfaced about how the royal couple was known for keeping the Indian press waiting for several hours. The restless crowd busied themselves with chatter. But as soon as the two of them walked through the door -- Aishwarya in a lime green, white embroidered salwar kameez and Abhishek in a dapper suit and silver tie -- the entire room of reporters, photographers, and cameramen fell silent.
A journalist who was visiting from India was bemused. This must be the difference between red carpets in India and red carpets in the States, he remarked. In India, everyone would be loud, there would be chaos, the reporters wouldn't be quiet like this. But that wasn't quite true. Red carpets here aren't known for good manners and politeness. I had never seen this before either. Here, there was a communal sense of revelry, of respect.
As interviews began, everyone snapped back into professional mode. Mani Ratnam spoke to journalists seriously and matter-of-factly. Abhishek alternated between staring stone-faced with his arms crossed, and turning on the charm to joke around with the press. Aishwarya pretended to still think it was "so weird" when photographers crowded to snap pictures of her, while not being afraid to pointedly retort "I don't understand your question" when a fashion reporter dared to ask about her clothing instead of her craft.
By now, general American audiences likely know of Aishwarya Rai. She was famously labeled "most beautiful woman in the world" by thousands of internet polls (as well as Ms. Julia Roberts), landed the cover of Time magazine as "The New Face of Film," showed Oprah how to put on a sari, gave Gong Li and Laetitia Casta a run for their money in the widely circulated 2004 Cannes red carpet photos, and reduced 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon and David Letterman to bumbling idiots. When it comes to work she's recognized for in the West, she is the star of films such as Bride and Prejudice, the recently released The Last Legion with Colin Firth, and the recently announced The Pink Panther 2 with Steve Martin.
But this only grazes the surface of why Rai is an international celebrity. Since winning the Miss World crown in 1994, she has acted in over thirty films in India, including Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Chokhar Bali, and the critically acclaimed Devdas. Admired as much for her beauty as for her classical dance training, YouTubers can admire her allure in clips such as "Dholi Taro" as well as the nine-minute Bunty Aur Babli dance with both Bachchans, father and son, at the same time.
The attention only increased when in April of this year, she married into the Bachchan family. The son of Amitabh Bachchan (an Indian superstar who, forty years ago, was known as the One Man Industry and still continues to make blockbuster films today), husband Abhishek Bachchan is no straggler himself. He has been consistently making high-profile films, from Yuva, Sarkar, Dhoom 1 and 2 to the aforementioned Bunty Aur Babli, the recent Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, and the upcoming sequel Sarkar Raj.
Recently, as India has been rising as an economic power, there has been more and more interest in the culture -- and therefore, necessarily more awareness of its massive, incomparable film industry. As Hollywood recognizes this as a market to be tapped, there has been more action towards co-production and multicultural collaboration. India's UTV joining with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment and funding M. Night Shyamalan's new film, Mira Nair uniting the legendary Johnny Depp with the more legendary Amitabh Bachchan in her next project, American actress Ali Larter and Indian actor Salman Khan starring in the recently released Marigold -- these recent developments have got both sides of the globe thinking about the future of film.
They've definitely gotten the Indian film industry cognizant of the position they're in and serious about how they want to be represented. At India Splendor, Mani Ratnam, Abhishek and Aishwarya Bachchan take the opportunity to speak up about working with Hollywood, disapproving of the label "Bollywood," and taking pride in the gift that keeps on giving.
Date Posted: 8/24/2007