On the last Saturday in May, as the sun set over the azure waters of the French Riviera, the Croisette would have worn a deserted look, as tourists, media and celebrities packed their backpacks or Louis Vuitton luggage, as the case may be, and bade farewell to the 76th Cannes Film Festival, held every year at the resort city that hugs a neat curve of France’s south-east Mediterranean coastline. The red carpet, mottled with stiletto jabs, would have been rolled up, denuding the renovated Palais des Festivals building of the pomp and grandeur it had sported since May 16.
But as life plods back to normal, the kaleidoscope of images generated during that fortnight remains embedded in our consciousness, making us, in fact, view celebrity life refracted through the camera’s lens. More so with the delicious prospect of stumbling onto the quotidian which, thanks to the histrionics on the ’gram, then often gets transformed and metastasised into cringe-worthy content.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, in a Sophie Couture gown, crafted with aluminium paillettes.
So, while Aishwarya Rai Bachchan might have returned to Mumbai to a somewhat regular shooting routine, we are still overwhelmed by her appearance in an oversized, shimmery, silver, hooded creation that was cinched at the waist by an equally oversized black bow. Her winged eyeliner and red lips were also ubiquitous on every media feed where her “hoodie” couture popped up, and still does. The trolls had a field day, describing her in various ways: from a samosa to a paratha rolled up in aluminium foil.
Regretting that I had extended my daily Instagram limit beyond 15 minutes to dissect the couture at Cannes, I felt a sense of personal disruption by the negative reviews. Those hazel blue-green eyes had mesmerised me and other baby boomers, right from her modelling days, when Prahlad Kakar cast her in the Lehar Pepsi ad film, as the unforgettable Sanjana, circa 1993. (Lehar was added as a sop to the anti-foreign lobby, in order to Indianise the label). Having spotted her cool and unaffected irreverence, I knew she was made for bigger and better things.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in a green sequinned midi by Valentino.
This is her 21st year at Cannes — no small feat at age 49 — when some of the debutantes who comprised the Indian contingent were twenty-somethings. Age is no deterrent to this veteran, and Rai Bachchan displayed a seemingly unrehearsed ease and nonchalance as she appeared for the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. The Miss World charm and gloss of 1994, just one year after the ad film was aired, was still well in place. Yet, neither her sequinned Christmas-green cape-sleeved Valentino midi that she donned at one of the L’Oréal-hosted events, nor the Sophie Couture gown crafted with aluminium paillettes drew encomiums with the fashion police, a privilege that Rai Bachchan has rarely experienced through two decades of her red-carpet appearances at Cannes. Her fans moan and groan at this fact, though hardly discouraged from withdrawing the label “Queen of Hearts”. After all, they say, she still has the face that could launch a thousand ships.
Today, those benchmarks of who is actually “fair and lovely” have thankfully changed. The doe-eyed, sinuous and sultry Sobhita Dhulipala, for one, has been grabbing her share of the limelight for a while now, and dazzled as a speaker on diversity at the India Today Conclave South 2023 recently. However, I get the sense that Ms. Rai’s sartorial follies now, and those of the past, have begun to hurt our collective pride. For the giggly, Jai Hind and Ruparel college graduate, who had after all, graced the cover of Time magazine in 2003, and had gone on to become the poster girl of the country — fuelling its soft power — keeps tripping up and falling short of another global win. So, do we now feel a displaced sense of self-worth?
Sara Ali Khan’s posts caught the whole Cannes scene from the beach to the India Pavilion, but she didn’t make us feel like we had been adopted by the bigwigs hobnobbing at Cannes. While Rai Bachchan somehow comes across as a Cannes insider, given that in 2003 when she was just 29, she was the first Indian actor, and one of the youngest actors, to be selected on the Cannes jury. If the festival bills itself as an event with a conscience, Rai Bachchan definitely missed photo ops along the years; like being seen riding in one of the official fleets of electric vehicles. Instead, she concentrated purely on what she could put out on the red carpet, purple lipstick included in her appearance in 2016. Her series of debacles of dress at Festival de Cannes thus put a dampener on our own aspirations that were embodied by her girl-next-door debut in the Pepsi ad.
The 1993 Lehar Pepsi ad, directed by Prahlad Kakar.
The unknown model and Raja Ravi Varma-esque classic beauty came to symbolise a certain enigma that her character, Sanjana, bestowed on the modern young woman, dressed in just a simple white T-shirt and jeans, thank you. “Sanju”, as she was referred to in the ad film, added to the mystery, as it was a play on gender — was this imminent Sanju, who was yet to appear on screen, male or female? Few seconds later, sporting red lips and rain-drenched hair, appeared Aishwarya Rai as Sanjana, oozing all the confidence of a new-age woman looking for a Pepsi, that iconic drink that is emblematic of a liberal West. Yet, the native ring of “Sanju” synced without dissonance as she boldly asked, “Got another Pepsi?” Overnight, the Sanjana sensation had captivated the country, as girls born that year became namesakes, with parents hoping that all of their yearnings for a progressive India would see fulfilment by dint of this new-age name. Suddenly, without her knowing it, Rai became the face of a liberalised India, and drinking Pepsi was just one of the new habits that this outward-looking generation would adopt.
Today, we are still looking for the Sanjana in Aishwarya. But, over the years, she has allowed her persona to be shaped by an ersatz Brand Aishwarya instead of the spontaneous, jeans-clad Sanju who was confident enough to want it all. We seek that Kakar-directed oomph, but we are subjected to subservience to the multinational label L’Oréal and its coterie of image makers and spin doctors. Maybe fashion is just not her thing, and she should surrender that territory to the likes of Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt and Sonam Kapoor Ahuja who however, are not idolised for beauty in the same way as Rai Bachchan is. They have a certain savoir faire and also personify different moulds of feminine appeal, each of which in its own way has changed the perception of what constitutes an Indian woman who is to be hero-worshipped.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, seen with daughter Aaradhya at Nice Airport ahead of the 76th Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Was Rai’s over-the-top gown a desperate attempt at surpassing these newly minted ambassadors of India’s soft power? Or maybe the gravitas post marriage, and all the inherited trappings of the Bachchan mantle sit heavily on her shoulders? Although, she has definitely carved her own individual niche of parenting, one that celebrates her career-driven celebrity motherhood to include and acclimatise her daughter, Aaradhya to the inevitable spotlight of being not just a Bachchan, but also the daughter of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. While this may have raised eyebrows among family and friends, she has received little public criticism, and has remained devoted to her choice.
But someone has to inform Rai Bachchan, or rather give her the good news, that with the distinction of being “statue-ised” at Madame Tussauds also comes the ongoing responsibility of finding more ways of paving the way for Generation Next, and next, and next. Was the beauty of Sanju’s enigma also an underlying hint at the multitude of aspirations bubbling underneath? Were the character and actor interchangeable in encapsulating a new vibe that captivated parents to name daughters, born in that year, Sanjana, asks author Sanjana Ramachandran, in her essay, aptly titled, The Namesakes. Is the trolling actually a backlash to her selling out?
Our national treasure, billed on Oprah Winfrey’s show as “the most beautiful woman in the world”, is no longer ours. Where are the rousing speeches to lift women out of their mundane diurnal duties? Maharani Gayatri Devi, another legendary beauty, often seen in Onassis-style dark glasses, was known for living life on her terms, and shunned the purdah system, an age-old convention for royalty. Rai Bachchan, a Padma Shri awardee in 2009, has vowed to donate those incredible eyes to the Eye Bank Association of India but we want to exploit her agency to the hilt during her lifetime. For one who speaks close to four Indian languages and has, according to latest reports, acted in about 48 films in five different languages, she is an appropriate candidate to advocate the advantages of our country’s immense diversity. Way back in 2003, she told Verve, “Language is not the issue, whether it means doing movies in Tamil, Bengali or Hindi…. Titles of Hollywood, Bollywood or Tollywood…it’s cinema, man — that’s what it really is for me.” In 2023, she’s definitely walking the talk with the release of Mani Ratnam’s much-acclaimed epic historical films, Ponniyin Selvan: I and II, based on a Tamil classic, where she plays Nandini, a Madurai-born, Pazhuvoor queen. Interestingly, her screen launch was also in the director’s Tamil political drama, Iruvar.
So, while still on the cusp of turning 50 on November 1, 2023, Rai Bachchan has to grab every opportunity to premiere the real, unmodified Ash — and if that does happen, we can all prepare for Season 2 of “Ash Unplugged”.
Till then, join the movement, #BringBackSanjana.