The Leading Lady

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Aishwarya Rai has been Bollywood's leading lady for years, but now, with a slew of new films due for release across the world, is on the verge of becoming a global superstar. TIME's Alex Perry caught up with the 29-year-old former Miss World on the set of Bride and Prejudice, just north of London.TIME: How do you choose your roles? You seem to be getting pickier. Rai: I'm a student. I want to do better, and I want directors who can find the actress in me and be my teachers. I'm interested in the whole process of editing, post-production and direction. With each film, I get more and more involved and it's more and more time-consuming.Also, I like to break myths and people's preconceived ideas. My characters have always stood for something, have always had an opinion, although they've never really rebelled.As for being picky, in the beginning, I did get a bit caught up in the way the industry functions at top speed. I was never fast-paced in the way I work. Initially, I was working on several films at a time, then I would work on a maximum of two to three films a year and by Devdas I had slowed down to two, and now, this is my seventh year, I have slowed down even more. Three years ago I was on a world tour, a promotional tour, with [The Rising co-star] Aamir Khan. I was at my first show with him and I was saying, Aamir, I really want to work much more selectively. He asked me how long I had been acting and I said Four years. He said, It took me six years to get to even vaguely working the way I wanted.TIME: How do you feel about becoming a world star?Rai: For me, it's not about breaking big in Hollywood, but having interesting experiences. In July 2002 I met [Bride and Prejudice director] Gurinder Chadha and in October I went to the States—I had just had a very positive experience in Cannes and from the European media—and I went and met with the agencies and it just snowballed. Last summer, I had meetings with Robert de Niro and Roland Joffe and Mike Leigh. They'd say, When are you available? And I'm like, Maybe at the end of next year. And they're like, Wow, you can't be serious. But that's my life right now.I really don't work to a plan, but I just do what interests me and what I like to do. Gurinder had great ethics and goodwill and I like what she had to offer.TIME: Are you trying to move away from traditional Bollywood song and dance romances? What do you make of the New Bollywood? It seems to be generating a lot of interest in the West. Rai: I am very happy with our cultural backdrop and the backdrop of our cinema and participating in a movement to project our cinema internationally. Cinema is cinema, but for some reason in the world arena, Indian cinema is slotted into its own small category. People are breaking the stereotype and it's good that Indian cinema is being recognized. Now is the time and there are actors like me who are willing to support that change.But it's unfair to say that Indian cinema is arriving. Indian cinema has been delivering a certain aesthetic to its audience very successfully for years and I can say without any shame that I love song and dance. I'd hate to see that disappear and as an artist I am happiest to put my all into an art form, as you do with song and dance. Maybe the world is just becoming more aware of our culture.TIME: Why did Bollywood stay in the same rut for so long?Rai: For a long time, cinema has been the biggest form of entertainment in India. And the larger body of India has such hard lives that when they go to the cinema, they want to be transported, to see a world of hope and color and positivity, the innocent, beautiful fairytale. It's the chance to be transported from the toil and the worry, the chance to feel good about life again. Boy meets girl, a bad guy comes along, but everything is sorted out in the end. It's the innocence of Life is Beautiful. Song and dance sequences create that mood. It's beautiful in its own way. In Bollywood, it's always a happy ending.TIME: Are you aware that half a billion Indian men think you're the perfect woman?Rai: Is this an image I'm working hard to live up to? No, I have always just been... I am human. If I was really trying to live up to that perception of me, that would be too much pressure. Then more fame you have, the more input and hard work there is. I have so little time to myself and for my sanity. But no, I'm not acting to an image. I have to get into another character enough in front of the camera. If people think I am just an image, they're wrong. I'm just being the girl I was brought up to be.TIME: How do you cope with the pressure?Rai: Is there pressure? Well, there is the sheer pace of my life these days. Premieres, festivals, interviews, press conferences, there is less and less time for yourself. And you do feel it. They only way I'm OK, the only way I keep sane as I have immense faith in God and my friends. But if you do not perceive the pressure, it's not there. It's all about conditioning yourself. And hey, I can always choose to do something else. I just go with the flow and try to recognize the reality of it all. It's really not something I worry about. I only think about it when I'm asked. I'm just too busy. I like my work, and I'm true to it; and apart from that, I'm just being.TIME: Is that really possible in your position?Rai: I have to learn to be light on myself. I could be really disappointed and hurt by what is said about me: all this trivial stuff about wardrobes and if I was wearing huge gowns, would it cover up my plaster? [Rai fractured an ankle this year.] But I cannot work myself into a knot and hurt about it. But when I went abroad, it was such a humbling experience, it was a fabulous experience and people were amazing with me. People have been wonderful. The response I have been accorded has been humbling. So I said, Alright God, I get the message. Go with the flow.