She is as girly as girls can be dying to burst into a train of chatter, letting her mind flow unstoppable through her speech. The passion with which she worked in the film is evident as she enthusiastically shares every tiny detail of her experience during the making of it. The gusto with she speaks of every person who's even remotely associated with this project actually makes you relate to her pain and pleasure in giving her sweat and blood to Raavan.
Over to the breathtakingly angelic Aishwarya Rai Bachchan…
Abhishek and Vikram said that you were the hero of the film.
A huge thank you. But they're just being very very generous Beera's of Ragini. The truth is that they have been incredible so the admiration is certainly the other way around if not more. They both have done an incredible job as Beera and Beera respectively. You can imagine how confusing it was doing it in Tamil and Hindi. I would like to take this opportunity to give credit to the entire team that is behind the making of Raavan, the whole team as in the director, the screenplay writer, the director of photography, the lyricist, the music director, the actors and the designer.
But the unrecognized heroes behind the making of the film who truly deserve immense accolades, specially for a film of this nature, are the set designers, the setting workers, the crew, the unit hands and the assistance. Basically, just everybody who was out there on location working as hard if not more. The whole team has worked very very hard, every working day, starting at five everyday ending at seven …if we were drenched they were all drenched too they were all right there in the water. They worked hard physically. So it's been hard work for the whole team.
You made a statement that Ragini is very special for you. How is she so special to you and how much do you identify with her?
Ragini is very special to me. This experience has been different from all my other experiences as an actor. It has been exceedingly challenging especially physically because of the nature of the film, the locations we have worked at and Ragini is abducted so she was pushed pulled tied thrown and put through such situations and I had to do that (meaning no body doubles) as in when I was thrown in the water, it didn't matter if I knew how to swim, I had to show it like I almost drowned and then struggled to come up and this too not just once but in the many number of takes, the various magnifications and as per the director's wishes.
It was just physically extremely challenging because Mani likes to shoot an entire scene in one go. He'd most often do the Hindi scene first, create the moment, create the scene with Abhishek and me and all the other actors in Hindi. If they are all part of the scene and once he found the moment with us then, the actors would suddenly change and all the Tamil actors would be in and then he'd want to shoot it very fast because he wants to capture it in the same light in the same given situation if Santosh wanted to do that. So to switch on into another language which is not a language I speak in first person was obviously I had to be mentally very, very alert to immediately recreate the scene without looking like you are challenged to remember the lines or something and at an entire stretch the whole scene again with no break. So if you're shivering it just gets that much colder and that much wetter; then if you're hair is dried out you have to wet it again because you have to look the same. So the point is physically and mentally this was extremely challenging as an actor.
And creatively too because you know it is not about how many takes- once you're working in this industry for a while you realize its just about that moment of magic and when you have that moment, everybody feels it, every actor in the field, every cameraman, and you know (snaps her fingers) the moment has happened. It can happen in the first take the third take the seventh take. It's just about making that moment happen. Once you hit it you know you've hit it and then suddenly you know you've got to do it in the next language. Now once you do it in Tamil you forget that you ever did it in Hindi and then that happens- something Santosh does in Tamil looks very good and Mani says 'Common call up the Hindi actors, let's do it this way' and now you've got to be superfast because the light is changing.
So I have not had any physical breathing time but internally your inner voice compels you to redo that magical moment. However, the question looms over my head- 'Now what happened in Tamil that Mani liked'…because I never went and saw when Santosh zoomed in and out (laughs). So do I have to do the same, do I have to do something different I don't know…so as an actor you're just trying to find the moment together. It's not just an individual moment. We all as actors, we genuinely like to do things together. It is not what I did in the shot that creates the moment, it's an 'our' moment. So you're secretly hoping for that 'our' moment to happen …because that's what's going to live onscreen forever. So in that way creatively as an actor it was extremely challenging. So Ragini will remain extremely unique as a memory for me as an actor. In terms of the way I have worked in this film.
Now I speak about Ragini the person in the film. What I love about her is that she is an extremely strong woman, I relate to her on that part. She is a character who has learnt classical dance in the film even more than me. I have learnt classical dance only in my school years but she needs to be like a classical dance teacher which, in one little moment you see in the film like you know like she's teaching a bunch of kids at a dance class, so she knows classical dancing which bears some semblance to me…uh I have never been abducted so that we don't have in common (laughs) and I have never been dragged and pulled and thrown into a jungle and thrown into a water before so I have been in situations Ragini has been through.
Does Ragini derive strength from her strong belief that Dev will come to rescue her?
Of course, she also discovers Beera along the journey. Ragini is a very intriguing character I think that is why Mani also established the fact that she is an artist where through the classical dance factor you are also giving an insight to an artist… a woman who has strong opinions of her own who has the ability to look like…a lot of artists…the people in the art life…people with slightly open minded perspective willing to discover life around them, willing to discover people around them… so that is something that makes Ragini be open minded enough to discover Beera. Despite the fact that she is the abducted, she discovers the abductor. She actually discovers an insight into his persona, the truth behind why he has even committed this so called crime and that's interesting to see.
So is Ragini the one who transforms the bad cruel Beera into a good one?
Then again there comes a point in the narrative where Dev is for some time on the right side of law, the correct person, the correct individual but after a while its just bout going out there and getting Beera just because the man in him wants to get even with the other man. So somewhere it become about male egos for Dev.
So that is also something at one point that Ragini recognizes. So its very interesting that suddenly who is right who is wrong is unclear. It's not about questioning that but it's just that people are people and everybody has black and white and grey in them. So thereby through Ragini's perspective the audience also gets to discover facets of the character. So that is why I think it's very clever of Mani to title the film Raavan.
Abhishek's character is not called Raavan its Beera. But when you say Raavan you see ten heads, that's the first things that you'll think of. But what you're really thinking about possibly is ten facets to a personality which is obviously evident when you speak of the character Beera…and there's one very interesting thing that Abhishek has done in performing Beera actually even Vikram in the Tamil version, where you find himself talking to himself very often and you know he is constantly switching his mind which could possibly be ten heads within his head. The ten voices within himself.
The reason I'm saying this is so that the audience can be introduced to this aspect, so that when they're seeing it they can understand why Beera is the way he is. So the ten heads of Beera are obvious. But somewhere equally there are as many heads to Dev or Ragini. We all have these multiple facets to our personality and that's why the title of the film is relevant.
You have worked with two actors playing the same character. With whom was you comfort level more?
I think that's something that you guys will evidently take absolute joy in sitting and writing about (laughs). But I think this film should prove that chemistry is in the screenplay. Chemistry is really what we are all as actors creating…I mean the moment creates that, the screenplay creates that, and that is exactly what the director is extracting.
The scene is not necessarily about two people. This in itself should be a statement. I as an actor have been absolutely honest in enacting the Hindi version with Abhishek or enacting the Hindi version with Vikram as dev, enacting the Tamil version with Vikram as Beera and there Prithviraj as Dev. It just goes to show that as an actor you're being honest to the moment . It's not just about this individual you have a crackling connection with which is often made out …you know people say - 'Oh you have a chemistry with this person you have a chemistry with that person'…I don't completely believe that.
You know you'll find a lot of actors saying that a film that has succeeded has chemistry and a film that has not succeeded doesn't have chemistry. I don't think that's got to do with people as individuals, it's got to do with screenplay of a film. That works for the audience. You're drawn into it, you experience it. Once you experience that, you obviously experience the so called chemistry in everything else.
Yes what I did find Santosh referring to is, what happens is that, when you see Abhishek and me onscreen, you naturally see that much more an intense connect. That is as the viewers see it. I'll never be able to say that. I was as sincere in recreating the scene when Vikram and me were looking into each others eyes …as Beera. So it's really about delivering to the moment. But I think people will naturally see a connection on the former side but I don't know whether that's a perception or a fact.
Which Beera was the best?
Real life pairs have not delivered big hits like till now in India. Were you apprehensive of pairing with Abhishek?
Guru is Mani Ratnam's biggest hit in his career ever…so get your facts right …and even Sarkar Raj was a hit. Maybe people didn't want to talk about it but go and ask the distributors and get your facts checked. Before marriage, just after marriage and now this is the second film after marriage.
Mani Ratnam has proved a lucky charm for you…right from the staring of you career …personally and professionally he has proved lucky for you. What would you like to say about that?
Mani is special. I don't think the right word would be lucky. He is just a very very special person in my life. Personally of course I consider him as my guru but then that's my approach to all the directors. I come to the sets like a student… that has been my approach till date.
Mani will always have a special place in my life for being the first director in my career. It's like he calls me kanna (a Tamil slang meaning apple of my eye) today, when I started I don't remember him calling me with such an endearing term but by Guru I became his kanna and then I got married so he started calling Abhishek mapley ( in Tamil the word means 'husband' and usually the father and uncles of the girl use it to address her husband with affection and respect). So he'd ask me – 'How's mapley?' and things like that. So we talk that way. We're very, very close.
Having said that, I'd just like to say the familiarity is that much more intense and special with time. Any actor who would want to work with him…it's not just me because he was my first director, not just Abhishek because Yuva was such a landmark in his career. Like Vikram has waited so long to work with Mani…he has waited for hours outside his studio hoping hell take his screen test and cast him …every body has a major aspiration to work with him…any actor who does not confess to it is I think lying (laughs).
Every actor every creative person looks forward to working with a director as special as Mani. It's a fabulous experience, learning experience working with him each time. Each time he becomes more special and you look forward to the next time.
So coming from me obviously there will be special reasons attached to it like working with him in my first special film, working with him in a film like Guru and working in an even more special film like Raavan but I think any time in my career you would've asked I would've said the same thing, any other actor would have also said the same things about Mani.
Aishwarya you have no barriers when it comes to appeal. South India, North India, France people all over the world recognize you and like you. How much will your presence help Raavan to connect with the international audience?
I think you all have answers in the question itself (laughs). Umm… I am very, very grateful for all the opportunities I have had in my career as an actor. It was also something I sought when I started working. I was being welcomed into the industry even before I went for the pageants. I keep reiterating that Miss India was not a way to enter Bollywood because I had been getting offers before I went for the pageant. At that time I was reluctant to enter Bollywood because I didn't want to give up my studies.
Later on, I learnt from my dear friend Rajeev that Mani wanted to cast me in Bombay, Dharmesh wanted me for Raja Hindustani, Yashji and Subhashji wanted to launch me. I had already been spoken to for these movies before I did Miss India. I had met Shekhar (Kapur) and he was making Bandit Queen at that time. He told me that I could get my degree but that I would come back to Bollywood. He told me that he had done his C.A. but he was making movies and he was sure that I would join movies too. Yashji used to tease me that I could do architecture, then design sets for them and they would make me an actress. He told me that I would be in the movies. Everybody believed that I would be here, in Bollywood. After I did Miss World, I had six months off till college reopened and I started considering filmy offers. I am glad I took the plunge because I am so totally at home, being an actor.
When I chose to work with Mani first in a Tamil film, I did not do it because kaam nahi mil raha tha, isiliye maine tamil film mein kaam kiya (I was not getting work in Bollywood, and so did Tamil film). I just secretly like to break pre-conceived ideas. I am very thankful that the professionals, be it my directors, my colleagues, my audience have allowed me to do that. Every girl wants to do that but sometimes your destiny does not allow you to do that. I am glad I had the opportunity to kind of break myths.
My first film, Iruvar was a Tamil film and not a typical launch film. I had two different roles to play and the film was not about me. I still chose to do it. People who watched Iruvar said that – 'For a first time actor it was neat', irrespective of what people wrote after that in Bollywood. Many directors saw Iruvar and everybody believed in me and gave me good films to work in. I tried to strike a balance between Tamil and Hindi movies and at one point I even chose to do a Bengali film with Ritu.
Later, much ado was made about me doing English films and moving to Hollywood. I have always said that 'No! I did not move to Chennai or Calcutta'. Its just about if opportunities are coming my way and my schedule allows it, I will do some English films.
Cannes started with Devdas. Yes, the French have given me a fantastic welcome, they give me so much love, and they truly give me a special place and I am very thankful for it. The exposure is not limited to France. When I went to the Berlin Film Festival, it was just insane and fabulous and so on and so forth in a lot of my travels. I am thankful that life, opportunity and destiny have helped me broaden my horizons to the extent that it has that I have a very strong international audience and I'm very thankful for their support. When as an actor you have such a strong huge audience it is very gratifying. It has strengthened my conviction of freeing myself from treading the conventional path.
I have not done films that are guaranteed super-hits and you know that the time you sign them. You know you work with banners and certain actors and aankh bandh karke (with eyes-closed), you know the film is a hit but I have tried to be different. Instead of doing just that, I have explored different characters in my career. In a year when I have many offers, I try to choose four different characters so that the audience gets to see a different Aishwarya. Obviously, fir har film ki apni kismet (then each film has its own destiny). If it is a hit, great, if not then at least I got to do something different and memorable. My audience has given me that freedom. So that is the reason I have chosen to portray a character as recent as Ragini. Long answer (laughs).
Lot of girls today want grow up to 'be like Aishwarya'. What was your childhood dream?
I wanted to become a doctor, aaj bhi utni hi ladkiyan hai jo kahengi badi banke main doctor banoongi (even today there are a lot of girls who say – 'When I grow up I'll be an actor'). I had and still have a genuine love for the subject. I studied science and a lot of my friends today are doctors. They tell me even today that I would have made a fantastic doctor because I genuinely enjoy the subject. Very honestly, yes, I joined architecture , it was a last minute change because I thought it was a blend of science and art. Maybe that is why it was easy for me to leave it. If I were doing medicine, I would have never left it. Because I genuinely totally love that subject. Today, my doctor friends tease me that I fulfilled my khwaaish of treating people through my social work. In a way, it has brought me back to service because I do a lot of work around health-care. Somewhere deep down that's the passion that is still getting fulfilled.
I never dreamt, even remotely, that I would be in films because nobody in my immediate family or even far off family is in films, at all! As a child, films were there on screen and I was the audience. I never thought I would be here. It goes back to the first photo-session I did and word got around. The good part is that I have been lucky because I never had to struggle through auditions and work has just come my way. But God has struck a balance because all my assignments have been extremely demanding and I have worked really hard through my career. So this has been a fine, true and equal balance of luck, destiny and immense hard work.
I think I gravitate, I just go towards more and more demanding assignments that are even more difficult. Every time I do interviews, I say that the role was challenging but next time, it is even more challenging. It has all been very demanding, for sure!
On one hand, you have a lot of fame, you are brand, a power unto yourself but on the other hand, you are criticized for your clothes and fluctuating weight. So does criticism about such small things bother you?
You have put it in perspective by saying that these are small things. Fortunately, because of my family and upbringing, I have a strong support system I have the ability to look at it the way you said – that these are the small things.
In larger picture, in terms of reality, in terms of constructive work and a productive journey moving forward, it does not matter. I'm very very thankful to God and to all these opportunities. Honestly, fame is directly related to the kind of support and appreciation you have from your audience. The love and support I have from my audience is so immense and huge that this percentage of negativity is so minimal. It loses its importance in my life. Having said that, I know this sounds very philosophical and strong, but I am human too. Initially, it did hurt me a lot more and today too, it does affect me, I'd be lying if I said it doesn't affect me at all. I am very sensitive and creative as actors are. You have people criticizing you when you have worked to do your best and receive appreciation.
So negativity and criticism hurts me much lesser today because I have strengthened my ability to look at things as I just said. This ability to recognize the positivity has come with time and experience. The love is so much more.
Regarding criticism about small things such as dresses, frankly, this may sound presumptuous coming from me but people, including journalists and professionals, say that it has become fashionable to criticize me so that the statement-makers get noticed. It does not make sense to me because I am not going to my wardrobe and pulling out a dress because I have no time for that, I am just running about, I'm on the move. I am being dressed by designers and stylists, who are professionals in their own field. They are extremely experienced and talented. They are not people who have no knowledge of what they are doing.
I thought it was seven years but media reminded me that it was nine years at Cannes. It's silly what people say out here, but out there, it is an international platform and you are dressing up for the international platform and it's is a wonderful feeling (laughs). The praise is immense. To be called 'The Princess of Cannes' by their daily magazine called Gala is such a wonderful feeling because you are being celebrated. I had no idea what people were saying here. Then Paa said that people here have already started (criticizing my clothes) and he also told me to ignore because it is silly. Then people over here said that I finally wore a sari but they have to know that I was doing that for an Indian film. Each year I cannot return and explain that I am being asked to maintain a dress code at Cannes. I cannot repeat myself for nine years. We should behave like grown-ups and mature people. It is exhausting to answer such questions because it is water off a duck's back if that makes any sense.
This movie was very tough physically, emotionally and creatively, so how did Abhishek help you?
The best part is that in front of the camera, we are professionals: actors doing our jobs. As actors, we both genuinely love working with each other. We have worked together before marriage so when people ask me how it is to work with my husband, I do not know how to explain…what has changed when the cameras start rolling.
What is wonderful about working with your spouse is that when you come home at the end of the day, there is a sense of comfort in, because you go home to your spouse no matter what the location is.
Shooting Raavan was really tough and I would be exhausted due to the dual films being made and I would not even get a minute off on the set. So it was just wonderful to come to the arms of your love at the end of the day. It is comforting to know that you have someone with you. There are so many things that did not need to be said. When you are a couple and working at different locations, you talk on the phone at the end of the day, you're sharing or sometimes you're so exhausted even to share. So here all that was just out of the window! Because we knew what the other was thinking and going through.
When you are there with each other, you are already braver for each other because if you are away and you suddenly hear that your husband wants to jump off a 90-feet-high cliff, it would be very scary. If he heard that I would be scaling a waterfall, he would go – 'Are you nuts!' We would be over-concerned for each other if we were not there, because we're not seeing it. I am not saying it is not tough but the fact that you are there with each other is comforting. Both of us are adventurous spirits. We like to push ourselves beyond the norm, we both know that about each other, so it was great to not have to explain that to each other but be there to see it. I am sure all husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends will understand what I am saying.
Tell us about the leeches on the sets.
The leeches were sucking onto everyone's blood. I didn't know leeches were thin before they sucked onto your blood. Once, there was a wire on Abhishek's foot and I was like-'What's that?'. He said it was a leech. I did not know they were that thin, like vermicelli because you have the image of a big fat blob. It becomes like that after it has your blood in it. All of us cast and crew members would have leeches on us at some point of time. It was a great adventure for all of us. Having spoken about us as a couple, the whole crew became like a bunch of college kids on a camp or like one big family. We were all there for each other.
You are breathtakingly beautiful but you have hardly ever capitalized on your beauty or sex appeal in your films. You have not let your beauty do the talking for you and why is that?
Oh, now you all see! (Laughs)
You could've worn short skirts and taken up more eye-candy like roles…
You could have made it your first film…
Were you contemptuous of the title?
I carried that forth when I eventually joined films. I did not join films because I was glamour-struck or I enjoyed being in the limelight. This was not any road to stardom for me because the Miss World year was as huge as stardom could get because I met heads of states and famous personalities from around the world. Getting into movies was not about getting a fan base, adulation, dolling or dressing-up, and being on magazine covers.
I wanted to break conventions regarding the 'pretty-face' adage. It was more about the craft itself. An actor is about being an actor and it is a very credible job, and not just being this pretty face. I have been fortunate to work with like-minded directors throughout my career. I had the opportunities to break conventions. We all might have aspirations but sometimes opportunities do not come our way.
I am thankful every director, on the first day of shooting, except Mani and Sanjay, tells me that they want to do something that is not Aishwarya Rai. I come back to saying - 'What is 'Aishwarya Rai'? Every director from the beginning of my career till today has tried to create a character that is different from me and memorable. That has been my interest as well.
Bringing it down to the nitty-gritty such as make-up, hair, and costume, I regard them as very important and meaningful aspects of an actor because they help create different characters. That is the way I have used them.
Even when I did Dhoom 2, we used to joke about it. Hrithik and I would say that in this film, dedication is all about the right profile, looking good and looking cool. We just didn't let the camera do the work because we are good-looking people. We were conscious about looking cool and we showed it in every frame. That was the USP of that film because it was not about some great character sketch. Sunheri was unlike any character I had played. How do you say 'funny guy' with that twang? We had to work it out and make seem plausible. It was not that we had to work-out, look pretty and 'Yay, we're done!' We had to create the character too.
Tell us about working with Vikram.
He is a very accomplished actor and very experienced. If you really trace his career, he might be senior to us in terms of the amount of work experience or duration he has been in films. Having said that, that this is what happens when you work with Mani. Everyone comes to the table like first-timers. We are just dedicated to our craft, about creating memorable moments together. We are all actors working together.
In terms of him as an actor, he was working in Hindi for the first time. I could understand his trepidation because today I am way more familiar with Tamil but it is his first Hindi film. I could understand what was going through his mind when he was playing Dev. Fortunately, Mani never shot that simultaneously so he did not have to switch between Dev and Beera as the schedules were separate. When he was Veera, I'd be dealing with Hindi-Tamil-Hindi-Tamil so he would understand what I was going through. When he was Dev, I was doing Hindi-Tamil-Hindi-Tamil again. It was a funny and unique situation because Prithvi, the actor playing Dev in the Tamil version, is a Malayali. We would all joke with Mani about what he was doing. Prithvi is a Malayali doing Tamil, I am a Hindi-speaking actor doing Hindi and Tamil and Vikram is Tamil doing Hindi. So we'd all look at each other and desperately support each other (laughs) because we were speaking in languages that were not our first languages. That was a wonderful experience because everybody was supporting each other.
Abhishek wonderfully was very conscious when I was Ragini and they were Beera and Veera, he never wanted Vikram to feel that we both were a real-life couple and that much more comfortable than Vikram and me. Anyway, they both know each other and are friends. So they would finish their shots and go to their corners and Mani would do my single, close-up shots as they sat together and jammed. They used to prepare each other for situations such as being at the edge of a cliff or scaling a waterfall. Mani would do the Hindi version first so Abhishek would shoot first and then explain the situation to Vikram before he would do the scene with me. They called each other "The Raavan Club" where they would jam and connect and I'd be like – 'Great, I am the one dying here doing two versions and you guys are becoming buddies!'
Do you work too hard to maintain your beauty? Do you avoid junk food and stuff?
Abhishek seems to be sports buff. He seems to be very excited about the FIFA world cup. So you guys planning to go to South Africa for the finale?
You know, right now we're just so busy with the release of Raavan and even after that out schedules are jam-packed. If time allows we'd love to! It'd be a joy!
Favourite team or player.
Reporter and Author: Susan Jose