| Gurinder Chadha and Aishwarya Rai at Cannes. (AFP)
Cannes, May 17: Not since Brigitte Bardot did her sex kitten act on the beach at Cannes some four decades ago has an actress caused as much of a stir as Aishwarya Rai did today.
“Aishwarya, Aishwarya,” the massed ranks of the world’s snappers called out repeatedly as she got perilously close to the water’s edge with film director Gurinder Chadha.
Ostensibly, the reason for her appearance at the D’Albion Beach restaurant was to promote Chadha’s next movie, Bride and Prejudice, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Aishwarya will play the female lead.
By and by, the photographers, who are more used to dealing with tabloid blondes, got bolder.
“Show us a leg,” they pleaded.
Not a chance. Aishwarya wore a demure black dress, with chappals. Her foot still hurts from her accident, she told The Telegraph (“I’m still in pain”).
“I wish she wouldn’t wear black,” complained a well-known showbiz hack from a Fleet Street newspaper.
She smiled. The snappers melted to a man.
If Aishwarya was not going to reveal a leg or anything else for a Bond movie, it was unlikely she was going to do it for an army of frenzied photographers. Proudly watching Aishwarya was her mother, who has accompanied her daughter to Cannes.
The rumours about her being approached about being Bond girl are not entirely untrue, it seems, although at this stage she was not willing to say anything more.
Asked how she was going to “combine Hollywood and Bollywood”, she responded partly in Hindi: “Jo bhi hai — you hear about it (the rumours) but please don’t jump the gun. Wait until announcements are made.”
This hints that announcements might ultimately be made.
Aishwarya has dealt with all sorts of press to say anything other than the anodyne but she always says it with great charm and usually accompanied by gales of laughter. The French waiter, of Spanish and Greek extraction, who served her lunch and has presumably seen a beautiful woman or two, admitted he thought she was quite something.
"It's the eyes," he said wistfully.
The trip to Cannes, she said politely, "is a great pleasure and it is a memory I am going to cherish for a long time."
Asked if she had seen any films, she burst out into laughter. "Yes, I am a member of the jury; evidently I am doing my duty with all sincerity -- what better than to watch movies."
There was a mock up poster of Bride and Prejudice which Chadha had knocked up for the distributors. In America, the film has already been taken by Harvey Weinstein's Miramax group which will ensure wide and efficient north American distribuition.
Aishwarya's male co-star, the New Zealand born Hollywood actor, Martin Henderson could not make it to Cannes but the Indian actress was welcomed by Chadha as "my leading lady".
While Chadha will direct, her producer, as was the case with Bend It Like Beckham, will once again be the Los Angeles based Indian, Deepak Nayar (a nephew of the Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar).
He said the film will be shot in Britain in July, followed by sequences in Los Angeles and Bombay.
Chadha is having second thoughts about calling her adaptation Bride and Prejudice, which she feels might give the impression her movie is a parody of the Jane Austen novel.
She sees the film as Bollywood taking the Indian genre into the west. She said she had been inspired by such musicals as Grease, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof.
While Jane Austen's novel was partly based on tensions in class, her English language movie would seek to explore east-west conflict.
She told Aishwarya: "You are the right person to take Bollywood across to the hearts and mind of millions of people across Europe and America and Asia."
Aishwarya has got a first as an Indian actress. A 'Oreal poster -- Aishwarya promotes the cosmetic firm -- adorns the Croisette, the main beach avenue, in Cannes.
"I haven't seen it yet but I have been told about it," she said. Then, childlike, she asked: "Did you recognise me'"
At this rate, Aishwarya is becoming the best known face at Cannes this year. And, to be fair, she is not doing a bad job representing India. For better or worse, people know Bollywood is big.