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Since 1st March, 1999
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Roses, rasmalai and Rai: Still romance cannot roll

Cannes, May 21: Aishwarya Rai and Vivek Oberoi sat at an outdoor table decorated with ivory roses, peonies and scented jasmine and looked down upon the twinkling lights of the yachts out at sea at Cannes last night.

In the swimming pool, lit with diyas and candles, there floated pink and white lotuses, and, to make the occasion auspicious, there was an image of Ganesh sculpted from fresh flowers.

After a breezy day, the wind had dropped on a balmy evening and the sound of frogs croaking in the distance added a desi touch. But this was France and the carving lovingly done on a large melon — “Cannes Film Festival 2003” — gave the time and place.

Bollywood could not conceive of a more romantic setting for a guy and a gal to whisper sweet nothings. Unfortunately for Ash and Vivek, there were more than 400 other people at the Hinduja party at their villa, Paradisiaque, perched in the hills above Cannes.

Vivek greeted Mumbai socialite Parmeshwar Godrej with a kiss and a friendly: “Who’s this beautiful lady'”

Godrej wanted to know where Aishwarya was. She was just behind, said Vivek, and there was Aishwarya, accompanied by her mother (who has been to all the screenings with her daughter).

With time on his hands, Vivek, who does not have proper accreditation, has instructed a lowly flunky to get him tickets to 14 screenings he wants to catch by the weekend.

Srichand Hinduja, head of the family who flew in at 5 pm yesterday to take personal charge of operations and who left for a board meeting in Geneva at 6 am today — yes, tycoons behave like that — wanted this to be a party to outdo all other parties in Cannes this year.

It was given, according to the invitation, in honour of “Ms Aishwarya Rai, former Miss World, Bollywood’s heartthrob and a member of the Cannes Festival Jury”. Most other members of the jury came, too.

The task of greeting her formally was left to one of the younger members of the family, Ramkrishan (“Remy”) Hinduja, a Michael Douglas look-alike except that the former speaks perfect French. He is co-chairman of the Hinduja entertainment group, Hinduja TMT (Telecom Media Technology).

Although he likened Aishwarya to “Bharat Mata”, he also took the opportunity to emphasise the Hinduja family’s renewed involvement with the Indian film industry. The Hindujas’ company, In Network, has taken a stall at the Cannes market to promote its distribution of such new movies as Boom (starring Salman Rushdie’s girlfriend Padma Lakshmi), Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot and Baghban.

It does seem the Hindujas want to enter the business again in a big way, this time to make films as well. For years, S.P. Hinduja has been threatening to make a Hollywood blockbuster.

Addressing his guests who included Subhash Ghai, Shekhar Kapur, Jeremy Wooding (an Englishman who has directed a Bollywood musical called Bollywood Queen) and producers and distributors from all over the world, Ramkrishan Hinduja said: “We are all here to celebrate the recognition of Indian films and its contribution to the best of international cinema as well as acknowledge and appreciate the achievements of our deserving celebrities. In the 1950s, the Hinduja group initiated a commitment to promote India and its traditions through the promotion and development of Indian cinema in non-traditional markets.”

Aishwarya has learnt that it is best to say as little as possible on such occasions. She thanked her hosts and said the Hindujas had always thrown parties for her, going back to when she first won Miss World in 1994 and last year when she had come to Cannes with Devdas.

“Aishwarya was very relaxed,” Gopichand Hinduja said today, shortly before flying back to London. “The French enjoyed the vegetarian food. All in all, it was a good projection for India. It was the best-attended party for years. All the food was freshly cooked in Cannes.”

Before taking the flight to New York, Ashok Hinduja, the youngest of the four brothers, confirmed that although 150 had been initially invited, “over 400 guests came”.

They included “Her Excellency Savitri Kunadi, Indian ambassador to France”, so one has to assume her attendance was cleared by the Indian government in Delhi. These little matters of protocol are far more important than they might appear.

Last night was an opportunity for the Hindujas to demonstrate that they plan their parties with military precision.

Since Indian food is not available in Cannes — the Indian snacks served at the party organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry on Monday evening was a disappointment — S.P. Hinduja awarded the contract to Mehernosh and Sherin Mody, who run La Portes des Indes, an upmarket Indian restaurant with Pondicherry influence, behind Marble Arch, London.

Sherin, like her husband, a former Taj Mumbai chef, flew to the Hinduja villa last week “to do a recce”, rather in the manner of the Brits dropping an SAS agent behind enemy lines.

Over the weekend, she arrived in Cannes with fresh produce in two refrigerated trucks, “one seven tonne and the other four tonne”. “I had 500 kilos of fresh fruit and flowers flown from Thailand to London — Cannes airport is clogged — and then brought to Cannes. We have also brought a staff of seven.”

Although the Hindujas do not serve alcohol in Mumbai, they do dispense champagne, wine and spirits in their residences in America, Switzerland, London and France.

Last night, white folk fell upon the following: cocktail snacks comprising vegetable samosa, pakora, spicy spring rolls and chilli baby corn.

There were salad and pasta bars, batata puri, dahi batata puri, pani puri, uttappam, dahi bhindi, baigan achari, singoda masala, asparagus, lotus root and mushroom jalfrezi, aloo dum banarasi, makkai palak paneer, moti pilau, tamarind rice, tarka daal, various rotis and multani naan.

For dessert, there was apple malpua and black pepper icecream (“to die for,” said Sherin), fresh fruit (24 varieties, including alphonso from Mumbai), gulabi phirnee, mango rasmalai, assorted Indian mithais and falooda malai.

Soft drinks included alphonso mango lassi and rain forest (kiwi, banana and pineapple).

Aishwarya and Vivek were offered a concoction made from green mango and roasted cumin.

Her middle name, it seemed last night, ought to be Perfection. As she made her way to her table on the lawn, she stumbled in the dark. As The Telegraph reporter instinctively put out a protective hand, she joked: “You would catch that!”

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