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As Aishwarya Rai becomes the first Indian actor to be a member of the Cannes Film Festival jury this month, the buzz about her in the West is reaching critical mass. The misstep on Bond not withstanding, she already has an international film in the bag.

By Anopama Chopra with Ishara Bhasi and Anil Padmanabhan

The angels obviously are on Aishwarya Rai's side. Which is why, three weeks after she was rammed by a jeep into a cactus, Rai is zipping around her spacious sea-facing home in a wheelchair. Her ankle is fractured; her lower back has deep thorn pricks, her hands are scratched but her face is immaculate. Wearing a bright blue T-shirt and lungi, she is, as always, stunning. "The cactus was like a mother who took me in," she says. "It was incredible. I experienced God." God, who seemingly has both taste and imagination, has other plans for her. Next week, Ash flies to the 56th Cannes Film Festival as a member of the feature films jury. It is the first time a Bollywood actor has received this honour. Cannes, the world's most prestigious festival, will catapult her on to the international stage. Meanwhile, the buzz about her in the West is reaching critical mass. She already has one international project and her agents and mangers are furiously marketing her in Hollywood as "something special". Superstar Julia Roberts is rumoured to have called her "the world's most beautiful woman" and Moulin rouge director Baz Luhrmann remarked that he loved her in Devdas. Rai may or may not be the next Bond babe, but she is most likely to be Bollywood's first crossover star.

Rai knows her way around the Croisette. She was at Cannes last year for the world premiere of Devdas and obviously made an impact. "She was the head turner," says director Karan Johar who also attended the festival. "She came out in that mustard-yellow sari and all the Valentino gowns went unnoticed." But being on the jury is an unprecedented honour. The nine-member jury, headed by French director Patrice Chereau, includes Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh and Hollywood actor Meg Ryan.

The days will be packed with screenings - 20 films from 13 countries have made the official selection. The nights will be a dizzy round of red-carpet events and high-glam parties where Ash will exchange pleasantries with the likes of Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood and Keanu Reeves.

If that wasn't enough, Rai will also be presented as the latest entrant to the L'Oreal Dream Team. The company, one of the official sponsors of the festival, recently selected her as an international ambassador. Only 11 women worldwide are part of this team - among them French legend Catherine Deneuve, Chinese superstar Gong Li and Hollywood actor Andie MacDowell, Ash is the second Indian after Diana Hayden to make the team. Though plans are still being firmed up. L'Oreal India Marketing Manager Sunita Bangard says there will be much "fanfare around her". "For us, it is a double opportunity and we will make the most of it." With 4,000 journalists in attendance, that shouldn't be difficult.

Rai's agents at William Morris and her manager Simone Sheffield are also hoping to make the most of it. The global spotlight will help generate more heat but Hollywood is already biting. Aamir Khan, who is currently in Los Angeles, says that Ash's name frequently comes up. "At least four people, including a guy from Dream-Works Studio, were talking about her. I can sense that they want to work with her, " Rai's agents are pushing her as a leading lady "in the league of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts", "We are looking at only A-grade movies," says Sheffield, who has managed the careers of stars like Jane Fonda and Lana Turner. Last October, Rai had a slew of meetings with the powers that be in Hollywood: Harvey Weinstein from Miramax, actor-producer, Robert de Niro, director Spike Lee, leading talent agencies and several casting directors. They talked cinema, scripts, strategies, possible projects. "There is," says Sheffield, "total interest."

In Hollywood, like in Bollywood, Ash's face is creating faith. She is a genetic masterpiece and her beauty transcends cultures and languages, Rai has a classical quality about her - Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh calls her a "miniature painting". Unlike other Indian actors who have worked in the West - Om Puri and now, Naseeruddin Shah - Rai isn't restricted to playing subcontinental characters. She can convincingly be Spanish, South American or Italian. "Her English is impeccable," says London-based author Nasreen Munni Kabir, "and her beauty is global. She could be a big star here."

For the past one month, the press has been speculating about whether stardom would arrive via a Bond movie. A Reading-based event and PR group, Imagio, which doesn't officially represent Bond, simply proposed the idea, but it was enough to create global headlines. Actually, Rai's first cinematic step into the International arena is director Gurinder Chadha's Bride and Prejudice, the shooting for which starts in July.

The $18 million film, a reworking of Jane Austen's classic novel, features Rai as Lalitha, a stubbornly intelligent girl, the Punjabi avatar of Elizabeth Bennet. Chadha, who won global recognition with her last hit. Bond It Like Beckham, is negotiating with New Zealand actor Martin Henderson to play the hero. 

The film, based in Punjab but shot in London, is the perfect bridge between two filmmaking cultures. "We live in a completely international world, " says Chadha, "so it is only natural that actors should explore different industries. It is a chance to be resuscitated as a performer."

For Ash, going West is a savvy career move. At 29, she has already scaled the heights locally. She has the meatiest parts, a massive pay cheque (approximately Rs 1.5 crore per film) and a string of lucrative endorsements ranging from Coke to Nakshatra. This year, she also picked up the best actress award for Devdas at every single aware ceremony, starting wit the Screen Awards in January to the V. Shantaram Awards last week. She may not have the Madhuri Dixit-like muscle to push a bad film through - Trade Guide Editor Taran Adarsh points out that her home production Dil Ka Rishta took a dismal opening - or the innate talent of a Kajol. But the right director and project, she sparkles.

When she first started, the former Miss World was criticized for being plastic. Her banal Hindi film debut, Aur Pyar Ho Gaya, was followed by a string of uninspiring flops, in which her mannered acting prompted people to dismiss her as another Barbie doll model who couldn't act. But in 1999, with Sanjay Leela Bhansalt's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, she silenced the legions of Ash-bashers with a finely nuanced performance. The film, which emphasized her Indian core - in the second half, she wore only saris - was a critical and commercial success. It was then, she says, that she became an actor, "I started to look at films as a whole and getting involved with every aspect of it."

She still has the earnestness of a new student. She picks unusual projects and then works doggedly to hit the right notes. After the intoxicating grandness of Devdas, Rai chose to go minimalist in Ghosh's rendition of a Tagore novel, Chhoker Bali, about the forbidden passions of a widow. "It's a very demanding role," says Ghosh, "but she took it up as a challenge." For Tagore, she is also taking a massive pay-cut - the film's budget is what she charges for a single film - and forsaking make-up. Says Ghosh: "She listened to me unquestioningly. The film is set in an age when women did not wear stitched blouses or petticoats. When I told her this, she was slightly taken aback but never challenged it. She immersed herself totally in the period Bengali milieu."

The art house starkness of Ghosh's film will be balanced by the more mainstream urbane comedies she is doing with two debutant directors, Rohan Sippy and Samir Karnik. She is also trying to fit two ambitious historicals into her schedule - Ketan Mehta's 1857 and Roland Joffe's The Invaders. The directors who work with her vouch for her professionalism. "I've completed 47 days of shooting," says Karnik, "and have never had to wait for her. In fact, twice she came before I did on the sets. I was so embarrassed." For Kuch Na Kaho, Sippy took over 20 takes of a scene in which she had to go down a curving 40-ft mudslide, but she was "game for it".

The catch for Rai has always been her personal life. Last month, she was at the center of a media maelstrom, with ex-boyfriend Salman Khan threatening to kill rumoured current boyfriend Vivek Oberol, who promptly dispensed the news to hungry television crews. In the fury that followed, Ash also broke her characteristic silence with a press release that, among other things, said that she was at the receiving end of Salman's "abuse (verbal, physical, emotional), infidelity and indignity". Why, despite this, she chose to stay with him for two years remains an enduring mystery. Meanwhile, the Salman camp insists that she continues to incite the already imbalanced star by sending SMS messages and Oberol maintains that "It's a platonic relationship. She is my dear friend."

Wherever the truth lies, this much is known: Rai's tumultuous relationship with Salman cost her at least two projects. Shah Rukh Khan dropped her from his home production Chalte Chalte after Salman created havoc on the sets. She is also no longer Sanjay Leela Bhansalt's muse. The Devdas director was instrumental in her meteoric rise but his next film, the ambitious historical Bajiro Mastani stars Salman and Kareena Kapoor. Obviously angry at Rai's unwillingness to work with Salman. Bhansali refuses to comment on her. "I hope she succeeds," is all he is willing to say.

Her love affair and its aftermath have been both public and messy. But apart from the two projects, it hasn't impacted her career. A glossy Coke commercial with Oberol and Rai was released just as the latest scandal broke, but the company says the informal feedback has been positive. "People love the plot," says Coke's Shripad Nadkarni, "and the youthful energy. We weren't worried about it."

What helps is Rai's ability to hold her head above the mud-slinging. She says, "God has helped me to remain connected with myself. I've had ample opportunity to completely lose focus but I haven't succumbed. I'm still discovering the woman in me and that's good." Even when Salman's actions were extreme - on Sippy's sets, he rammed a car into a tree at high speed - Rai kept a stoic silence. "It's quite amazing how she can compartmentalize and focus," says Sippy.

The focus has been in place since her modeling days. Ad maker Prahlad Kakkar, who brought her into the limelight with a Pepsi commercial, recalls that even at 21 she was "an extremely mature, sensible girl, except for her choice in men".

A top student at the Rachna Academy of Architecture, Rai dropped out to contest beauty pageants. By then, she was already the most expensive model in the business, charging upwards of Rs 3 lakh for a campaign and Rs 10,000 for a fashion show. Obviously, the limelight was more seductive. "Her mother, " say Kukkar, "was wary of the film business, but I told her that given the right director, Rai could be the female version of Amitabb Bachchan."

She is, as her director in Taal Subhash Ghal says, "an Indian soul in a western packaging'. So, at first, playing femme fatale was problematic, Kukkar says it took her 19 takes and tears to get the sexiness in Pepsi's "Hi I'm Sanju" just right. Despite her fashion industry background, she refuses to kiss on screen and is not given to too much exposure. "If you can't define me," she says laughing, "I'm happy." Her family and friends go a long way in grounding her. She hardly has time to socialize any more but still keeps in touch with her friends from college.

Photographer Farrokh Chothia (she calls him Fruki), is also close to her. "even though we don't keep in touch regularly, she's a buddy," she says. Her mother Vrinda and brother Aditya have joined the business as writer and co-producer of Dil Ka Rishta, but they remain a close-knit Bunt family with middle-class values and strong community ties. At Cannes, Rai is likely to be the only international celebrity accompanies by a mother.

But mom won't get in the way of glamour. For the moment, Rai is busy figuring out her footwear - her injury means that she will not be able to wear heels - and clothes with her favourite designer and long-time friend Neeta Lulla. Cannes is Glamour Central and Ash will have to stand out in a sea of sensational looking women, ranging from sultry Spaniard Penelope Cruz to the porno movie starlets who strut in skimpy clothes in the film market. Lulla says the accent for the 10-day wardrobe will be "desi". "Don't you worry," says Rai, hopping around the room on one foot, "I'll be striding there with all my Indian pride," We believe her.



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