Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is celebrating her 49th birthday today. And clearly age is just a number when it comes to Aishwarya. She continues to dazzle us with her evergreen beauty and powerful performances in movies. The Indian film industry’s outdated terms for an actress’ shelf life don’t apply to her. While she has given us a variety of memorable characters in a career spanning about 25 years, she is at her best when she is working with director Mani Ratnam.
All successful filmmakers will have a set of actors with whom they would like to collaborate frequently. K Balachander had Kamal Haasan. SP Muthuraman had Rajinikanth. Vetrimaaran has Dhanush. And Mani Ratnam has Aravind Swamy. It was a mix of shock and surprise that Aravind was not cast in the director’s latest movie Ponniyin Selvan 1. It’s also a fact that certain actors remain a permanent muse for directors. If not for them, they can’t begin to imagine a story worth filming. For example, Atlee can’t probably even begin to come up with a sellable plot idea, if he’s not imagining ‘Thalapathy’ Vijay in it.
Some actors are so immersed in a director’s vision that they elevate their imagination to the next level. Is there any other actor other than Samuel L Jackson, who can add such grace to Quentin Tarantino’s expletive-heavy dialogues? You know Quentin was about to shelve his iconic movie Inglourious Basterds because he couldn’t find an actor who could live up to his vision of Hans Landa, the most charming and chilling villain ever produced on the world celluloid. Just in time, Christoph Waltz waltzed in and walked away with the character, which made the European newcomer into a mainstream phenomenon in the US.
Film collaboration is a two-way process. Some actors bring the best out of the directors and vice versa. One such rewarding collaboration is what Aishwarya Ria shares with her ‘guru’ Mani Ratnam.
Aishwarya is in her element when she is in a Ratnam film. She has so far worked with the master filmmaker in four movies, including Ponniyin Selvan 1. And here’s our ranking of Aishwarya’s best performances in Ratnam films.
4) Ponniyin Selvan 1
Iconic writer Kalki Krishnamurthy envisioned the character of Nandini as this astonishingly good-looking woman, whose beauty had the power to bring even the most powerful empire to ruins. Who else can justify this imagination of Kalki besides Aishwarya Rai? While Nandini is described as treacherous and poisonous by her enemies, what escapes the eyes of narrow-minded men in Ponniyin Selvan is her intelligence. The men at the time fail to grasp it’s not her beauty that threatens their very existence but her sharp mind and ambitious heart. Aishwarya performed this character in a very restrained way to keep the grace and poise intact even in the face of a raging tempest.
Aishwarya as Guru’s beloved Suju again had to oscillate between a free spirit while still complying with the patriarchal rules of society. That’s not an easy task to pull off. She fights back the gender stereotypes in her own way. At face value, she looks like a woman who has resigned to society’s designation as a weak sex, but within the given circumstances, she exercises her free will and independence. In the scene at the railway station, which feels like a sober version of the DDLJ climax, she decides to ‘elope’ with her husband at a moment’s notice.
Even though it was her debut film, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s performance had the maturity of a seasoned actor. It’s only possible for a director of Mani Ratnam’s calibre to see there was more to Aishwarya than her pretty face. She infused the film with cheeky and playful energy as Kalpana, and delivered a restrained presence as the dutiful wife Pushpavalli. In her very first film, she excelled in the daunting task of showing such great variations in a double role.
No other director can so aesthetically explore the face of Aishwarya Rai as Mani Ratnam. He created a series of Aishwarya’s photographic portraits in one of the grossly underrated movies, Raavan. Aishwarya looks delicate and formidable at once in the film, where she essays the role of a modern-day Sita. We can’t imagine anybody else in the movie whose beauty and strength could convince a man consumed by vengeance to have a change of heart.