Rai, Aishwarya


Rai, Aishwarya
▪ 2005

      In 2004 actress Aishwarya Rai, whom American film star Julia Roberts described as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” was at the forefront of a revolution in Indian cinema. Rai, whose onscreen talent and mesmerizing blue-green eyes had inspired more than 17,000 worshipful Web sites, starred in Bride and Prejudice, a music- and dance-filled Bollywood adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that was directed by Gurinder Chadha, director of the 2002 hit Bend It like Beckham. As Lalita Bakshi, the Indian equivalent of the strong-willed Elizabeth Bennett of Austen's novel, Rai brought her star power and radiant beauty to her first major English-language film.

      Rai was born on Nov. 1, 1973, in Mangalore, Karnataka state, India. She was raised in a traditional South Indian home and was pursuing an education in architecture when her life took a dramatic turn in 1994. That year she was crowned Miss World, a title that put her on the fast track of the modeling business. She landed lucrative jobs with PepsiCo and Vogue magazine, and in 2003 she signed on as a spokesmodel for L'Oréal Paris. Her acting career began in earnest with acclaimed performances in Iruvar (1997; The Duo) and … Aur pyaar ho gaya (1997; based on the 1994 movie Only You), both films that broke from the simplistic structure typical of Bollywood films at the time and helped to push Rai to the forefront of the “New Bollywood.” For decades the Indian film industry, based in Mumbai (Bombay) and commonly referred to as Bollywood, had produced a large number of very predictable and clichéd feature films that were enjoyed almost exclusively by South Asians. Changes in Bollywood in regard to financing and production, however, had seen the industry move to improve the artistic quality of its product and to expand its audience beyond South Asia.

      Rai established herself as the new “queen of Bollywood” with her moving performance as the jilted lover Paro in Devdas (2002), one of the most acclaimed and popular films to ever come out of Bollywood and the first to be screened at the Cannes Festival. She followed with a critically acclaimed performance in Chokher Bali (2003; Choker Bali: A Passion Play), a tense drama based on the novel by Rabindranath Tagore. That same year she became the first Indian actress to serve as a jury member at the Cannes Festival. In early 2004 Rai was introduced to American audiences as a featured performer in a touring stage show of Indian actors. Later, even before the October release of the much-anticipated Bride and Prejudice, she began preparing to film two more English-language films—Chaos, with French director Coline Serreau and Rai's first major Hollywood costar, Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep, and Singularity, directed by Roland Joffé and costarring Brendan Fraser—as well as several more back home in Bollywood.

James Hennelly

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Universalium. 2010.

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