The biggest star you've never seen

Aishwarya Rai is among the planet's biggest box-office draws. So why doesn't Hollywood know what to do with her?

Published February 10, 2005 7:59PM (EST)

In a promo for the cable channel Imaginasian, a service that targets Asians who have settled in the United States, an attractive group of young Asians talk about the reasons they tune in. The most potent comes from a young man who says that the only people he sees who look like him on American TV are playing the gardener, or the computer nerd.

The pickings are even slimmer at the movies.

The foreign stars Hollywood has traditionally welcomed have been overwhelmingly white Europeans or some variety of Anglo-Saxon. That has remained true since silent movies, even as the cinemas of other countries have produced their own stars. No region of the world has produced more charismatic screen personalities in the last 20 or so years than Asia, and due to bad distribution of foreign films and Hollywood's passing them over, almost none of those stars are widely known here. Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh all have received second-class treatment in Hollywood. And while Zhang Ziyi, who dazzles in "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" (and does her best acting yet in Wong Kar-Wai's upcoming "2046"), is filming "Memoirs of a Geisha" for "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, Hollywood's more typical use of her is the meager supporting bit she had in "Rush Hour 2." Tony Leung and Andy Lau are so charismatic and commanding in "Infernal Affairs" (dumped into theaters here by Miramax) you'd expect a Hollywood that retains any sense of what constitutes star power to be beating down their doors. Instead, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio will take over their roles in Martin Scorsese's planned American remake.

It's against this background that the Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai is making her Western film debut. Miss World at 21, Rai, now 30, is one of Bollywood's two or three biggest stars. And since India's film business is the world's biggest, that means that Rai is one of the planet's biggest stars. Her first Western film is "Bride & Prejudice," a loose adaptation of Jane Austen's novel directed by Gurinder Chadha ("Bend It Like Beckham"). She will also be seen in Coline Serreau's American version of her French thriller "Chaos" with Meryl Streep, and Roland Joffe's "Singularity" with Brendan Fraser.

It's too soon to tell whether Rai is a great star or, in the final tally, a memorable one. She is certainly a creature born to be in front of a movie camera -- one to weep with in her tragic roles, and sigh over the rest of the time. Stunningly beautiful with fine cheekbones and big, luminous eyes, Rai is right at home in the dreamy, romantic patches of Bollywood films (in "I Have Found It," she even gets to swoon). But she can narrow those eyes appraisingly, snap out a retort to put some upstart in his place, and be as enjoyably tart as she can be meltingly vulnerable.

So, given her prominence in the world's biggest film industry, given that she has already achieved the glamour and popular appeal that makes a movie star, the question is, What can Hollywood do for Aishwarya Rai that Bollywood hasn't already done?

Judging from "Bride & Prejudice," not much. Miramax perpetrated Gurinder Chadha's attempt to introduce Bollywood style into a movie aimed at Westerners, and Chadha doesn't have the precision, the craft or, most important, the belief in the conventions she is employing to make the movie work. Rai has been given perhaps the clumsiest entrance accorded any gorgeous star in recent memory: She's seen in medium shot on the back of a cart as workers toil in the fields. Is this Bollywood or socialist calendar art?

Worse than Chadha's ineptitude is her cluelessness about the form. In this gloss on "Pride and Prejudice" the Darcy character is played by Martin Henderson, who has a name like a law firm and a romantic presence to match. (Rai's sister's suitor is played by Naveen Andrews of "Lost," and woe betide the attempts of any bland pretty boy to be a romantic lead when Andrews is around.) Chadha's Darcy is the ugly American, making self-satisfied comments about how backward India and its customs are. His character is summed up by his intended business venture: a luxury hotel that would in effect save Western tourists from having to actually experience the surrounding culture.

And yet that is exactly the audience Chadha has made this movie for. She has blanded out the conventions and charm of Bollywood cinema in order to appeal to a Western audience. The irony is that an audience with some experience of Hollywood might find themselves right at home watching Bollywood entertainments, and it's galling that, for many Western moviegoers, their first exposure to a Bollywood picture is no more distinctive than the latest Kate Hudson vehicle.

The music (which includes a performance by that great Indian pop star Ashanti -- seen to much better effect in "Coach Carter") is a mishmash of imitation-Bollywood pop and numbers with the pumped-up saccharine feel of bad '80s pop. Chadha precedes the first dance number with a character making a disparaging remark about Andrews' attempts to be "the Indian MC Hammer" and it's as if she were apologizing in advance for the stylized convention of characters bursting into song and dance. She then goes on to sabotage the number by cutting against the rhythm of the dancers, or cutting away from them entirely.

The movie does wind up showing some welcome generosity to one character (Nitin Ganatra), who is at first purely an object of fun. There's an unexpectedly mature scene where a friend of Rai's defends the compromise she made in selecting her husband and makes it sound like a reasonable choice. And I liked Rai's answer to Henderson's disparaging remarks about arranged marriage: She tells him she and her friends see the custom as an international dating service.

Chadha seems to think that she's bringing substance to froth by making arranged marriage (or, in this case, interracial marriage) a topic of discussion. But as the Indian film critic Anupama Chopra points out in her monograph on the Indian film "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge," the lovers who must fight against the convention of arranged marriage (or class or race) to be together is a staple of Bollywood movies. Chopra is reminding us that one of the functions of melodrama is to produce dramatic tension via a plot that challenges the status quo. (Which may be why women's concerns were so often addressed in the "weepers," movies and novels aimed at a female audience.) And in the context of traditional entertainment, those challenges often reverberate more than they do in work done outside the mainstream.

Luckily, we don't have to settle for "Bride & Prejudice." Even if you don't live in a city where Indian movies are shown, many of Aishwarya Rai's movies are available on DVD. (I've found fast, reliable, and reasonably priced.) Even better, one of those movies is a Jane Austen adaptation.

Rajiv Menon's 2000 "I Have Found It" ("Kandukondain, Kandukondain") is a delightful modern-day version of "Sense and Sensibility" whose simultaneous freedom and fidelity to Austen puts the illustrated-classic slavishness of Ang Lee's version to shame. (Important: Look for the just-released Kino Video DVD of this film. The previous DVD version had subtitles that whizzed by, a problem that, after the first few minutes, the Kino version corrects.) Menon handles the melodrama of the disinherited woman and her three unmarried daughters with precisely the right touch. It's never so heavy that he makes you fear for the women. Menon brings the same light touch to the making-of-a-movie subplot, with the oldest daughter (Tabu) falling in love with an aspiring film director. These scenes are never knowingly po-mo, even as Menon achieves a pleasing irony in the young director caught up in just the sort of romantic complications he'll likely wind up making movies about. The tone of "I Have Found It" is less broad, less forced than many Bollywood films. The way in which Manon pairs off the characters romantically is so gracefully achieved it's as if they were ice skaters gliding together.

The pleasure of watching Rai here is seeing the collisions on the way to her happily ever after. It's a pity someone wasn't around to show Rai's entrance here to Gurinder Chadha: a close-up of her face as she emerges from beneath the water in a swimming pool. The role (the Marianne character of Austen's novel, here called Meena) is well-suited to Rai the dreamy and dreaming romantic heroine, and Rai the nonwilting violet who instinctively throws down challenges to the men interested in her. Luckily, Rai has limited romantic interaction with the actor Abbas, as the financial wunderkind who falls for her (he's a dull, doughy presence), and some lovely moments with Mammootty as the wounded ex-army captain she slowly realizes is the man for her. Meena and the captain have the kind of companionable combustibility that tells you they're made for each other, and Rai and Mammootty (warm and affecting as a man regaining the dignity he has thrown away) play their scenes together beautifully.

"I Have Found It" (which is in Tamil and not Hindi) is a modest version of a Bollywood musical. For the deluxe, no-expense-spared variety, you can't top Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 2002 "Devdas," which, in addition to being the most expensive Indian movie of all time, has to be one of the most lavish movies ever made. This is the type of movie where the courtesans at a brothel present themselves via a dance conducted in a room that makes a Busby Berkeley soundstage seem like a breakfast nook. Binod Pradhan's cinematography doesn't miss putting a burnish on any surface, least of all the actors' skin. Everywhere you look in "Devdas," there are patterns and textures and all manner of visual ravishment.

That kind of bigness and manipulation doesn't count for anything if the scale of the production isn't matched by a corresponding bigness of emotion. A commercial enterprise of this size can never be pure. There's no escaping at least some calculation. But that calculation can either be deeply enjoyable, as in "Gone With the Wind," or crassly exploitative, as in "Titanic." Happily, "Devdas" is much nearer to the former. Unhappily, the film never had the chance to make good on its rapturous reception at Cannes in 2002 and prove itself a huge success in the West. The movie isn't subtle enough for the art-house crowd (if it were boring and "tasteful," then they might go for it), and foreign-language films are always a tough sell with English-speaking audiences. That's a Catch-22 that can drive you nuts, because "Devdas" is some kind of classic. It's got a grandeur that Hollywood no longer seems able, or willing, to pull off. This is easily one of the most enjoyable epic entertainments the movies have produced.

The source of the film, set around 1917, is a popular Indian novel that's been filmed several times (notably in Bimil Roy's 1955 version, regarded as a classic of Indian cinema). Shahrukh Khan (like Rai, one of Bollywood's biggest stars) plays Devdas, the pampered only son of a rich household who returns home after studying in England. The girl next door, Paro (Rai), who has loved him since they were children, expects to be his bride. She has kept a candle burning for him in the 10 years he's been away. But Devdas' mother (displaying a possessiveness recognizable to only sons of every country) is not about to let him be married to a household she considers disreputable. (Paro's mother, played by the marvelous Kiron Kherr, was formerly an actress.) She orchestrates a public humiliation of Paro's mother, who swears revenge by finding an even more glorious match for the spurned Paro. Of course, the result is ruin for both Devdas and Paro, and their road to ruin is the stuff of terrific historical fiction, full of incident and drama and romance.

The role of Paro calls for Rai to suffer, to make us believe we're watching a young woman who could literally die of love. She somehow pulls it off without wallowing in masochism, and without allowing the character's good-heartedness to turn her into a simp. (The scenes between Rai and Madhurit Dixit as the courtesan who cares for the outcast Devdas clearly recall the scenes between Olivia de Havilland's Melanie and Ona Munson's Belle Watling in "Gone With the Wind" -- if Melanie weren't so insufferably noble.)

It's that kind of beauty that works for her, in a different way, in Rituparno Ghosh's delicate romantic drama "Raincoat." Ghosh's film is as far from "Devdas" as you can get. It's a stripped-down, largely two-character piece, set in a cramped, dingy sitting room on a rainy afternoon. It's shorter than most Bollywood films (two hours) and features no music or dance numbers. The movie is a variation of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," in which Manoj (Ajay Devgan, whose large frame gives a special poignance to his vulnerability), who has lost his job since the factory he worked at closed down, ventures to the city to secure capital for a new business from his friends. There, despite the pleas of his mother and his friends, he visits Niru (Rai), the woman he loved and lost when she went into an arranged marriage with an older, wealthy man.

For awhile, the interplay between them trades on mutual self-deception, with each of them trying to convince the other that life is treating them better than it appears. Between the lines, the truth becomes apparent -- and yet the visit goes on, with neither of them breaking the fragile pretense of good fortune they've so carefully built.

Rai appears as she never has on-screen, disheveled, her hair mussed, dark circles under her eyes. Slamming stars who take on the roles of ordinary people has become as much of a critical cliché as lauding them for their "bravery" when they appear without makeup. But star glamour can be strangely powerful when we watch a star suffer in the drab surroundings that Rai does here. Even when we know the situation has been concocted by the filmmakers to affect us, we are nonetheless encountering something that shakes our most cherished moviegoing fantasies, the belief that nothing bad can really happen to movie stars. Rai and Devgan's acting is very affecting, and Ghosh's direction gentle and unadorned. But "Raincoat" plays on our fantasies about what it means to be a movie star, and the movie isn't the kind that can be shaken off by a good cry. It stays with you.

The appeal of Bollywood is the peculiar mixture of naiveté and calculation that has often characterized popular moviemaking. Sentimental and manipulative and broad and clichéd as they can be, they do not seem cynical or crass about undertaking the job of entertaining a mass audience. When, in "Devdas," Shahrukh Khan sees Aishwarya Rai and asks, "What brings the moon down to earth?" and she answers, "To take your breath away," it's like the moment in "Saratoga Trunk" when Curt Bois says to Ingrid Bergman, "You're very beautiful," and Bergman gives a little laugh and says, "Yes, isn't it lucky?" And Rai is beautiful enough to pull that line off. The moon may come down to earth in that moment, but she's lucky to be working in a movie system that's still willing to find a place for its stars in the firmament.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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