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There goes the bride

Aishwarya Rai is all over London these days, smiling at the city from its famous red buses, awash with hoardings of Bride and Prejudice (B&P). It's just a quizzical smile ' and thank God for that. For if the hoarding was for real, the smile might well have been a giggle.

For, the Bollywood actress giggles with an amazing alacrity and abandon. During a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, Aishwarya offers baffling peals of laughter along with her answers. The giggling seems to have an autonomy and a life-cycle of its own, irrespective of what the situation demands.

But soon it is evident that Aishwarya's giggle is not just a giggle. It has many shades and colours like the dresses she wears in the Gurinder Chadha film. Emanating from her made-to-order mouth, the giggle can be almost anything: a weapon, an escape route, or simply, a hyphen to fill in the blanks of answers not fully given. Like a cough.

For even though she tries to be nonchalant about it, the actress whose name draws 116,000 results in a Google search, is at the crossroads of her career. With no big-banner Bollywood movies in hand and Project Hollywood yet to take off, the fate of her first international film releasing on October 8 might well decide the shape of her future. And that's no laughing matter.

That Friday, Chadha's 18-million-dollar English film ' named Balle Balle! Amritsar to LA in the Hindi version ' is set to be released all over India and the United Kingdom. Over 450 prints will be on view in the UK alone. As part of the publicity blitz, her wax model ' Aishwarya is the second Bollywood star after Amitabh Bachchan to make it to the Hall of Fame ' will be unveiled at Madame Tussaud's on October 4. She will walk the red carpet in Leicester Square for the film's premiere.

That's not all ' America too has a date with Aishwarya. In the USA, the film will be distributed by the top-of-the-line Miramax Films and has been slated for a high-profile release on Christmas Day.

Few Indian stars have a better cv for Hollywood than she. For many years, the world's premier film industry has attracted a host of Bollywood talent from Amrish Puri to Om Puri, from Gulshan Grover to Naseeruddin Shah. But they have been a movie's add-on ingredient, not their spotlight zones.

Aishwarya is the new global star for whom Bollywood is too small a theatre. Her ambitions are international. She knows exactly what she wants and how much. Few heroines, if any, would have dared to walk out of an Aamir Khan-starrer for not getting the price she wants. The former Miss World, who has also been a member of the Cannes jury, did exactly that. Because she sees herself as an international celebrity, not merely a Bollywood heroine.

And, perhaps, rightly so. For she has been selected as the Face of L'Oreal, with her photographs splashed in European fashion magazines. She is a global brand ambassador for Longines. And last month, crisscrossing continents, she shot an ad film for Nakshatra diamonds with international filmmaker Tarsem Singh in virgin Namibia. 'No other Indian actress has achieved so much internationally,' says Rohan Sippy, who directed her in Kuch Naa Kaho.

Besides a Hollywood film with actress Meryl Streep called Chaos and another named Singularity with director Roland Joffe, both of which will take time to go on the floors, she is beginning on another international film, Mistress of Spices, in January next year. Aishwarya will play the leading role of Tilo, an Indian woman who comes to America and starts a shop selling not just spices but a magical world. 'I think she can definitely make it in Hollywood,' says co-writer of B&P, Paul Mayeda Berges, who makes his debut as a director filming Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's diasporic novel.

But the truth is that these films are still some seasons away. And back home, her kitty isn't exactly overflowing ' at least not with the Karan Johars and the Aditya Chopras. She has no film with Bollywood's ruling Khan trinity ' Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir. She hasn't enjoyed a box-office success since Devdas (2002) and her latest film, Kyun...! Ho Gaya Na died young at the box office.

'Earlier she acted pricey. Now the producers are acting pricey,' says Komal Nahta, editor, Film Information.

Strangely, though, the flops have neither affected her market price nor her prima donna status. Industry sources say that she still demands about Rs 2 crore per film, much more than other top heroines such as Preity Zinta and Rani Mukherjee.

Among her forthcoming movies is director Rituparno Ghosh's almost-complete Raincoat, a film sure to make the rounds of the international festival circuit. In Shabd, where she reportedly plays an adulteress and stars with Sanjay Dutt and Zayed Khan, her director is debutante Leena Bajaj.

In this backdrop, the importance of B&P, a modern desi version of Jane Austen's 19th-century classic, Pride and Prejudice, cannot be overestimated. Asked if the film was a stepping-stone for an international career during the press conference, the Bollywood star contends that no one had asked her if she was moving to Tamil or Bengali cinema when she did Iruvar and Chokher Bali. 'I am just broadening my experience. As actors, we are gypsies or nomads. We go wherever our work takes us,' says Aishwarya, dressed in an off-white sari drenched in gold work and a spaghetti-strap blouse.

Director Chadha is more emphatic about the positive impact her film might have on the heroine's international career. 'This film will launch her into a whole new arena. Her performance will bring her to the attention of a lot of Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers from all over the world,' says the British Asian director, whose film stars Kiwi actor Martin Henderson in the male lead.

B&P ' a tribute to the best of Bollywood according to its director ' has drawn enthusiastic responses in pre-release screenings. The Daily Mirror critic was said to have gone weak in the knees after watching Aishwarya, who plays Lalita Bakshi, 'a proud firecracker with brains and balls' and a desi version of the spunky Elizabeth Bennet. A test screening by the US distributor Miramax in Clifton, a predominantly white suburb in New Jersey, got 97 per cent ratings.

Even the purists have been indulgent and the Jane Austen society is said to be quietly amused at the transformation of the Bennet family of Hertfordshire into the Bakshis of Amritsar. Says Chadha, rather cheekily, 'If Jane Austen saw the movie, she would come out saying balle balle.'

Trade pundits like Nahta concur that the film's box-office fate is vital for Aishwarya's Hollywood plans. 'If this film clicks, it will make life much easier for her,' Nahta says, though he adds, 'It is not as easy as it is being made out to be.' Director Sippy too feels that if B&P works, she will be on her way because Hollywood only understands the language of commercial success.

In a way, the timing couldn't have been better for Aishwarya. With Hollywood looking increasingly eastward hoping to mop up the lucrative market, the Asian look is no longer a disadvantage. Actors Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan are mainstream Hollywood stars and Chinese American, Lucy Liu, is one of Charlie's Angels. In its efforts to become more accessible to the East, Hollywood is willing to give more frame space to Asian faces.

That Aishwarya Rai is a thorough professional goes further to her advantage. Sippy relates an incident during the shooting of Kuch Naa Kaho. The young director was surprised when Aishwarya took up choreographing the movements when the dance director had to leave a day before the sequence was complete. 'It shows her commitment,' says Sippy. And Chadha tells you that Aishwarya had no hesitation in taking off her lip gloss when asked to.

If B&P turns out to be as big as Chadha's previous feature, Bend it Like Beckham, a record-breaker in the UK and moderately successful in the US, it could just be the Hollywood launching pad the Bollywood star is looking for.

Giggle or no giggle, Ms Aishwarya Rai seems to be an idea whose time has come.

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