On Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's birthday, we revisit her friendship and films with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and reflect on how the director understands her aura like nobody else.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan continues to be an epitome of beauty and glamour after nearly three decades in the business. From ruling the modelling industry and TVCs, to winning the Miss World crown, Aishwarya has been a name to reckon with. While the actor has worked with almost all the leading filmmakers in the film industry, her association with Sanjay Leela Bhansali –which began with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam happened (1999) remains special.
It has often been said that no director has managed to capture the grace of Aishwarya Rai, like Sanjay Leela Bhansali did. As the firecracker Nandini in gorgeous lehengas and bandhni dupattas, Aishwarya sparkled in the backdrop of the barren Rajasthan in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Bhansali knew Aishwarya’s most striking feature are her sea blue eyes, and that’s how Nandini reacted most evocatively in the film. In fact, Aishwarya’s first interaction with Salman Khan’s character revolved around her eyes.
While Aishwarya was a free-spirited yet vulnerable young woman in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s first half, she exuded maturity post interval — a win-win situation for the actor to unleash various aspects of her craft through a single character. Aishwarya won a Best Actress award for the film, which also established her lifelong friendship with the ace filmmaker.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali once told Filmfare, “There’s something in her eyes. That’s the most important aspect of her beauty. They are not ‘normal’. They are so powerful that even if you don’t give her dialogue, they emote. Some eyes have devi shakti (power of the goddess). Like Hemaji’s (Malini) eyes. Like Lataji’s (Mangeshkar). Also, her eyes are beautifully coloured and fill up naturally.”
Bhansali revealed that he first met Aishwarya at the screening of Raja Hindustani, a film which she had reportedly declined. “Inhi aankhon ka asar huwa tha (these very eyes had affected me deeply),” he said.
The filmmaker recalled in the same interview how she walked up to him in the lobby, shook hands and introduced herself, praising his previous directorial Khamoshi.
“Our hands met, our eyes met. I saw a fire in her eyes. Those days I was looking for a girl to play Nandini. I said to myself, ‘Yehi to hai meri Nandini (she is my Nandini)’. People had doubts, whether she would deliver because she had a Miss World image and a Western face. But I thought why not tie her hair in a plait and give her a traditional look?”
For Bhansali, Aishwarya was more than just a pretty face. Three years later, he presented Aishwarya yet again in a powerful avatar, in Devdas. Playing his Paro, Aishwarya was flawless, as if Paro always belonged to her. The character was made immortal by Suchitra Sen in Bimal Roy’s 1955 version. Aishwarya made her eternal for a new generation.
Bhansali came to Aishwarya’s rescue everytime she was having a low phase at the box office. When Devdas was released in 2002, the actor was struggling with duds like Dhai Akshar Prem Ke and Albela. Devdas infused life back into Aishwarya. And the way she portrayed the pain of Paro remains etched in our memories. The way she understood her director made this a camaraderie at an emotional level.
The duo collaborated for the third time in Guzaarish (2010). This was a brilliant departure from what Bhansali films stand for. There definitely was extravagance but yet, it was dark, daring and melancholic. For once, there weren’t any colourful sets, but the backdrop of Goa and a mysterious air around it. And in the mundane life of Ethan (Hrithik Roshan), Aishwarya as his nurse Sofia added radiance and robustness to every frame. She makes Ethan come alive with her presence. That’s her aura, both on and off camera.
Aishwarya had once revealed that the actor-director duo was supposed to reunite for Bajirao Mastani, but Bhansali couldn’t find a Bajirao for her! In fact he didn’t get her a Khilji too, indicating that she was in talks for even Padmaavat. Getting the right casting opposite Aishwarya came in the way both the times.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali understands the aura of Aishwarya Rai like nobody else. It seems she finds wings with him, generating a different kind of power on screen. We surely hope to see the two greats, reuniting for a project soon.
Happy birthday, Aishwarya Rai!
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