Thursday, December 16, 2004

About beauty and Indian stars in the West

I have been intrigued by the attention heaped on Aishwarya Rai by the Indian media.
Today, I think she looks better than many other models and movie stars, even Hollywood ones. But, I did not think that much of her beauty when she first landed on our TV screens.
To be honest, when I first saw her on the Pepsi and Palmolive ads, I did not think of her as the "most beautiful woman" even in Mumbai! In fact, it was only at the time of the Miss India contest of 1994 that I got to know who she really was. That was courtesy one of my college friends who was a big fan of hers and I teased him about it. In the Palmolive ad, I felt she looked pretty and remarked to my mother about it. But my mother normally takes such things very casually with a "Who doesn't look pretty these days?" kind of attitude. In the Pepsi ad, I actually thought the other girl (I think Mahima Chaudhary) was prettier than Ash (as Aishwarya Rai is also known). Frankly, I thought her lips were too prominent and in that ad, that flawed-in-my-opinion feature stood out in bright red alongwith her attractive, unusual-for-an-Indian eyes. And let me tell readers here that Aishwarya was not the only model who had caught my eye on TV. I was fascinated by a few TV actresses and another model - Gayatri Joshi of "Swades" who starred in that Pond's Age-Defying Complex ad (though I was shocked to know how young she was when she participated in the Femina Miss India contest of 1999..I mean, what is there to defy about your age when you are twenty-something?!)
Some actresses whom I thought were incredibly beautiful - the late Divya Bharati, Mrinal Kulkarni who played the role of Ahilyabai Holkar in "The Great Maratha" and also the wife in "Hasratein", Seema Kelkar in "The Sword of Tipu Sultan", Sridevi, Jayaprada, Juhi Chawla, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Manisha Koirala (who I thought looked stunning in "1942 - A Love Story"), Mala Sinha and many others. There are a couple of others whose faces I think have lovely features , too - Sriprada in the afternoon serials "Waqt Ki Raftaar"and "Aparajita" and Gayatri Shastri in "Om Namah Shivaya".
I have read arguments both for and against beauty pageants. Personally, I feel they are more like the glamourised version of a college personality contest combined with a modelling contest with a lot of moolah, prestige and TV coverage. Does becoming "Miss World" or "Miss Universe" mean that the winner is literally "THE most beautiful" woman in the world? I don't think so. If that were the case, then what about last year's winners and what about the vast majority of females who never participate in them?
Secondly, these contests are not only about the most beautiful face. One thing here. Looking at magazines and these pageants, I feel the Western emphasis is more on figure, skin texture, teeth and hair when it comes to judging beauty. Right from my childhood, it has been the facial features - proportionate eyes, forehead, nose and lips, shape of the lips, eyes, eyebrows and nose, cheekbones and other things that has been the hallmark of great beauty for me. That is why I don't find even some top models that beautiful. Furthermore, a beautiful figure can be attained by at least many, if not all, by a disciplined lifestyle, diet and exercise over a prolonged period of time. Skin can be altered with creams, lotions, make-up and a healthy, nutritious diet, sleep, exercise and elimination of stress. But your face? It is what you are born with. Plastic surgery to drastically alter your features may or may not work for everyone, is not economically viable for everyone and is just not "natural". That is why the first thing I look for when it comes to physical attractiveness is a lovely face.
I have increasingly started to suspect that our ideas of beauty are not only our own but also shaped by our parents, peers and the media. My penchant for small, but not very thin or insignificant, lips might have to do with the fact that my own lips were praised for their shape and smallness when I was a child. Added to that, the images I was exposed to, of Goddesses such as Durga and Lakshmi in temples, the image of Sita in Raja Ravi Verma paintings that are present in many an altar and even paintings of Mother Mary and biblical characters, all had arched eyebrows, petal-shaped eyes, cute, sharp noses and bow-shaped, curvy, small lips. For my friends in school, I was not that pretty because of the pimples and boils that popped up all over my face in my teens and my flat hairline above my forehead. Added to that, I was quite chubby though not fat. My sense of dressing and grooming were gawky, styleless and sometimes, plain funny. But back then, I must say I was more liberated than what I am now because I cared less about my looks and more about what I accomplished in my studies and extra-curricular activities.
Thirdly, a beauty contestant gets a good chance to show off her personality, self-confidence, style, elegance, public speaking skills and power of expression besides offering viewers a glimpse of her talent and achievements. So, her face is not the only criterion on which she is judged. But, sometimes, I find that even when contestants answer equally well, one wins and the rest, as they say, "go home". Sometimes, an answer that seems to come straight from the heart, devoid of political correctness, does not win you the crown. I remember Madhu Sapre in the finals of the Miss Universe contest of 1992. When asked what she would do if she became the Prime Minister of her country, she talked about building a sports stadium and encouraging sports. The winner talked about doing something for the children and was made Miss Universe 1992.
As for Miss India, the whole speaking round is in English, so a person who is educated in the vernacular medium and is not very fluent in English, would find it pretty intimidating and demoralising. And look at the entry criterion for Femina Miss India. The line goes - If you are at least 5" 6, under 23 years of age and have got what it takes to take on the world....
Now, does it mean that anyone with a height under 5" 6 is not beautiful?

Now, for the interest of the West in Ash. Now, in my opinion, Aishwarya is not a bad actress. In some scenes, she came across as very convincing. But, I don't think it is because she is the best actress India has ever produced. Come on - we are a country of Nutan, Nargis, Madhubala, Revathy, Rekha, Sridevi, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Madhuri, Tabu, Waheeda Rehman and many other illustrious figures. Did any of them even get invited to any film festival? Maybe one or two of the whole lot. The fact is, the West has only recently started taking such unprecedented interest in commercial Indian cinema. They had honoured Satyajit Ray and Mother India made it to the final five of the Oscars, but did they ever take notice of a superstar Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna or Hema Malini or Dev Anand? Did blockbusters such as "Sholay", "Aradhana" or a tear-jerking "Anand" gather even half the attention that a "Devdas" does?
One reason , I think, is that the growing NRI population in countries such as UK and the US, created a huge market for our films. A film like "Yaadein" that does not do so well in India is a hit abroad. Part fo the reason is, homesick NRIs get a nostalgic state of the ideal "Mera Bharat Mahaan" (My India is great) in our sugary, candy floss blockbusters. Because they don't get to see Indian films that often, they are thrilled when they get the opportunity. And of course, the Western reviewers have started noticing the box-office fortunes of 'desi' (meaning, "local" in Hindi) films in some niche theatres.
Added to that, our actors have been gyrating their hips in almost every part of the globe now, be it on the streets of New York in "Kal Ho Na Ho", Govinda and Karisma in Switzerland in "Hero No. 1" or Hrithik Roshan and Amisha Patel in "Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai". And not to forget the mother of all modern blockbusters - "DDLJ" on the streets of the stiff upper-lipped London. A few years ago, at one awards ceremony, somebody from a European country's department fo tourism had come on stage. Awareness and a curious amusement about this unique song-and-dance style of storytelling has grown gradually over the last decade.
Commercial Hindi films are going places - to the Locarno film festival, to Germany, Cannes and also the Oscars.
So, if the average Westerner wants someone who represents this new (new to them not to us) kind of cinema - who is he going to pick? Someone who is eye-catching, has some hits and who the local Indian media raves about all the time! Who fulfills all the above criteria? Aishwarya, of course. If I wanted to know about American superstars, I would watch Hollywood movies and pick up an American magazine such as "People" or a proper trade magazine to know about them (Mainstream American newspapers do not devote much space to film stars except in film review sections). The same thing applies when a Westerner wants to know about Indian stars. Ash has been all over the pages of almost every media publication in India.
Another thing is, it is my opinion and that of a few others - because of her light eyes, light skin and features, Ash can look like some other Asian, not just Indian. This greatly widens her scope of work in an international market. She speaks excellent English and has been cowned Miss World, so she has already been proven to appeal to an international crowd. Luckily for her, one thing led to another and once Devdas caught the attention of the Cannes crowd, there has been no looking back. She waltzed into the Cannes jury and into, gasp, Madame Taussad's!
You might ask - so big deal! Why not Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Preity Zinta and Amitabh Bachchan? Well, in Hollywood and American TV serials, actors are not just picked from a beauty pageant. After all, it is not enough to have a reputation for being good-looking, you have to fit the role. Lead roles are still garnered by ones with Caucasian looks (I think "white" is inappropriate) though these days, African Americans are also making waves. The visibility of Indians as a distinct ethnic group is still far less than Hispanics or African Americans or even the Chinese in the US and other countries. Cinema and TV only reflect the demographics of the society they are made in. And, Indian superstars ultimately look Indian. With increasing globalisation and immigration, lesser-known ethnic groups are also becoming prominent and there is a good chance of netting a plum role in the near future. In the meantime, what can get our Indian actors an international audience are collaborative projects that involve meeting of the East and the West.
Another thing is , regional cinema stars hardly get any mention in the national media. There are some brilliant directors, composers and actors in Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Malayalam and other language films. Why can't we distribute these films on a wider scale with subtitles? Unfortunately, a Mani Rathnam or A.R. Rehman gets noticed only after "Roja" and "Bombay" are dubbed in Hindi and made with Hindi stars such as Manisha Koirala and a Rituparno Ghosh becomes a household name only after he casts Aishwarya Rai.
I have seen some bravura performances in the South such as Simran's in "Vaali" and "Pammal K. Sambandham" and Meera Jasmine, not to forget stalwarts such as Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal and Mammootty. Many actors from the South could not strike it rich in the Hindi film world and they are ridiculed for their accents and looks. If a South Indian guy who has immense talent cannot make it big in his own country, how can we expect our films and stars to appeal to an alien culture that speaks in its own accent? That is why I find it really amusing and annoying when the Indian media devotes reams of space to Ash getting a Hollywood role or why some film did not win the Oscar. What I say to Indian filmmakers is - first make films that enthrall and reflect the many realities of life in India itself rather than the same cliched love stories or family musicals with a recycled plot and "Ishq, pyaar, neend na aaye, chain na aaye" lyrics.

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