Yes, they Cannes!

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By Amit Roy is bowled over by Sonam Kapoor the bookworm and mesmerised by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan the global heroine. IS SONAM THE CLEVEREST GIRL IN BOLLYWOOD AND ASH THE MOST BEAUTIFUL? TELL T2@ABP.IN
  • Published 18.05.11

Within five minutes of meeting Sonam Kapoor, you realise not that she is an absolute charmer — which she is — but that this kid is going to have a tough time getting a husband who is her intellectual equal.

The question you ask yourself is: is this the cleverest girl in Bollywood? Shouldn’t she be teaching English at Jadavpur?

We are on the seventh floor terrace of the Martinez, which is where the French cosmetics giant, L’Oreal, has its Cannes headquarters. Under a parasol, Sonam reminds you of that iconic photograph of Francoise Gilot, Pablo Picasso’s mistress, with the artist. Beyond the Croisette, the Mediterranean sparkles in perfect early summer sunshine. The yachts, big and small — and an extra large one when Vijay Mallya is around — look pristine white. Sonam, who had flown into Cannes the previous evening, looks freshly scrubbed, pretty in a red dress — and ready for the film festival.

Sonam, who has been a L’Oreal ambassador for three years — Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Freida Pinto are the two other women from India — says she has had an exceptionally busy year but generally spaces her work and shooting schedule so that she gets time to read.

“I love reading, I read too much — I have bad eyesight because of it.”

She goes on: “I read anything and everything. I love the classics, I love Indian contemporary authors — I love Rohinton Mistry’s work, I love Vikram Seth’s work, I love Chitra Banerjee (Divakaruni) — I think she is surreal and very Indian and very beautiful.”

She likes Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. She is also keen on the American cult author, Charles Michael “Chuck” Palahniuk and his novels, Fight Club (1996) and Choke (2001).

At 16, she read the novels of another American, Ayn Rand, notably The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). “One role I would love to do is that of Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged,” she confides.

She loves books and their smell but because of weight restrictions on flights, she now tends to download her reading onto an iPad.

Surely, as one of the most highly regarded young actresses on the scene and as Anil Kapoor’s daughter, she can rely on a team of 50 flunkies to carry her luggage and her books? “I don’t,” she laughs. “I only have a manager and a valet.”

The suggestion that in Bollywood an actress who enjoys reading must be rare produces a mild rebuke. “That is such a misconception,” she remarks. “I know for a fact that Kajol reads a lot.”

L’Oreal appears to have done the right thing in picking Sonam but the offer came via her agency immediately after she had made Saawariya. “They said L’Oreal wants to sign you. I signed before (my next film) Delhi-6 released. It took six months for the negotiations. I signed after (only) a year of being in the (film) industry.”

She sets out what she has to do for L’Oreal: “I have been part of their skincare line and the make-up and the hair — I basically endorse most of their products, actually. I know a lot about make-up, trust me.”

She disagrees when it is put to her that women in India tend to use too much make-up. “That’s an antiquated idea of what India is right now, especially where cinema is concerned, because in my second film I was not wearing make-up. It was just a little bit of concealer in Delhi-6. In a country like India you can’t get away with wearing too much make-up because of the climate. Since I have been aware of make-up, it has always been ‘less is more’. I think that always works.” Sonam recently shot some video tutorials on how to apply make-up.

There is yet another disagreement over whether the shape of the Indian woman has altered, with the modern generation tending to work out in gyms. She concedes she has not thought about the subject but “if I look back on it you see Nargis and Nutan were very, very skinny. But at the same time you have Mumtaz and Madhubala who were a little bigger”.

“Then again you look at Madhuri Dixit and look at Sridevi,” she continues. “Sridevi was bigger but Madhuri was really thin, she had thin legs — she was known for her body. And then you have Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi who had great bikini bodies. You had Sharmila Tagore — I don’t think it (the shape of the Indian woman) has altered to such an extent. The only thing that has changed is that we are taller. Our generation is just taller.”

Sonam would have liked it if she and Aishwarya and Freida had been photographed together. “Three different heights — I think I am the tallest in most countries,” she observes. “I am really tall — I am 5ft 10½. Most of the girls in the West are not as tall as me.”

Is there an agreed idea in India of what constitutes beauty? “I don’t think so — we are so diverse in our skin colour, hair colour, eye colour,” she muses. “I don’t think there is a particular idea because you have a Kajol, who is dusky and beautiful, and then you have an Aishwarya, who is porcelain skin and beautiful. Both of them are the top stars.”

This girl, who can speak entertainingly on any subject, would sail through the toughest Oxbridge interview, you conclude. “You have Kareena Kapoor and you have Rani Mukerji and both of them are equally big stars, so the perception is wrong that only fair-skinned girls succeed because our country has that diversity. You always had a Smita Patil and a Shabana Azmi. It has never been like you have to be fair, especially in the movie industry. I have grown up with Zeenat Aman — her skin colour is the same as mine.”

This year, the 23 (out of 25) global L’Oreal ambassadors who have come to Cannes are showing off gold coloured cosmetics during their red carpet appearances. But why gold? “Because gold is sun-kissed,” says Sonam. “India if anything is a country that is completely sun-kissed.”

Bollywood’s gold girl then talks about the late Maharani Gayatri Devi who was hailed by Vogue as one of the most beautiful women in the world. “Have you read her autobiography — A Princess Remembers? I liked it a lot. She was the daughter of the Maharani of Coochbehar.”

The mother (Indira Devi) is another role Sonam would like to play. “If Maharani Gayatri Devi was a dynamic person, the mother was crazy, she was amazing. She used to have a tiger with her; she was really revolutionary in the way she used to think, the way she used to dress, the way she used to throw parties...”

“There is a portion (in A Princess Remembers) where she talks of how her saris keep falling because she never knew how to drape a proper sari. She was a tomboy, right? Everybody thought, ‘Oh, my God, what a fashion icon’, but she (Gayatri Devi) used to dress like her mum in her chiffon saris.... There is a portion (in the book) when she is coming down the stairs and she had to run back up. It was really hilarious.”

Coming from a film family and being Anil Kapoor’s daughter have helped her career. “Of course, it helps. It would be taking something away from my family if I said it didn’t. But I have never been at any of his sets because our mum (Sunita Kapoor) wanted us to have a very grounded childhood — we went to a normal school, then I went to boarding school. By the time I was back I started working, I never had a chance to digest that my dad was a big star.”

While Slumdog Millionaire has opened up a new phase in her father’s career, Sonam, too, has her own fan following. “For me it is mostly young girls and young kids — it is not too many adults,” she says. “Yeah, they do go a little mad. I was a little crazy when I was younger. I had posters of everybody in my room and I would scream and shout. I saw Will Smith once and I could not speak because I had just seen Men in Black.”

Her heroes are sometimes unexpected. “The same thing happened to me when I met Salman Rushdie at a party — when I saw him I could not get a word out. I was 15 — I was very young. It was 10 years ago.”

She claims she can have a normal life in Mumbai. “I think in Bombay you can because they are so used to bigger stars — if I am there, Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan are right next to me. If you go to other parts of India like Delhi or Calcutta then you can’t (wander around in public) but in Bombay the vibe of the city is very casual.”

This is Sonam’s first Cannes — and she will do the usual things: walk the red carpet, attend parties, see a couple of movies. But it won’t be her last.

Cannes is currently showing iconic photographs from the past of stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly. Who knows but 50 years from now, Sonam’s photographs from this week may merit inclusion under the “old is gold” theme.

She did look exquisite against the backdrop of the sea.

Aishwarya- The Global Heroine

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the 2011 Cannes red carpet in Armani Prive (From left) Madhur Bhandarkar, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Ronnie Screwvala at the announcement of Heroine in Cannes. Picture by Amit Roy Aishwarya with husband Abhishek
at Cannes 2007

Madhur Bhandarkar, who is to direct Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in her new film, Heroine, puts it very well: “Aishwarya is a little modest. She is the brand ambassador for India and for Indian cinema when it comes to the French Riviera.”

We are on the beach opposite the Majestic Hotel in Cannes when Aishwarya agrees to look back over the past decade.

Aishwarya first came to Cannes in 2002 with Shah Rukh Khan when they were co-stars in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s remake of Devdas. The following year she was invited back to serve as a member of the main jury. Since then, she has not failed to walk the red carpet in her capacity as an ambassador for L’Oreal.

In 2007, she had a film which had a market screening — Jagmohan Mundhra’s Provoked. At a press conference, she sat next to Kiranjit Ahluwalia, the Sikh woman whom she played in the film. It was an emotional occasion because it had taken a long campaign by women’s rights activists in the UK to secure Kiranjit’s release after she had been given life for killing her abusive husband. Aishwarya even hinted that in a past relationship, she had suffered abuse. The reference appeared to be to Salman Khan though it was unclear whether she was accusing him of violence. At any rate, that unhappy chapter in her life has been closed.

In another year, her then boyfriend, Vivek Oberoi, joined Aishwarya in Cannes. After marriage, Aishwarya has walked the red carpet with her husband, Abhishek, though filming commitments prevented him from coming this year.

As the girl who won the Miss World title in 1994 and then joined the Hindi film industry, it is easy to understand why L’Oreal should take her on. But the cosmetics firm has kept her on for 10 years, recognising she has exceptional qualities.

On the matter of looks, there is no shortage of beautiful women in Cannes but even now, Aishwarya turns heads in what is acknowledged to be the world’s most glamorous film festival.

“Cannes has been virtually my home because this is my 10th year of coming here consecutively,” she acknowledges. “How time flies! Yes, it is absolutely familiar.”

She arrived in Cannes this year even before the festival had got under way properly. She never fails to get into the numerous “spotted in Cannes” diary columns in various local magazines and newspapers.

She realises that there is no better place than Cannes to launch a new film. This is going to be Heroine, which will be produced by Ronnie Screwvala of UTV and directed by Bhandarkar. The film is about the “ups and downs” in the life of an actress, “Mahi Arora”.

Aishwarya knocks down suggestions that Heroine is something of an autobiographical tale. “It’s not an autobiography for sure,” she emphasises. Shooting begins next month. When the film is released, despite Aishwarya’s denials some people will invariably look for parallels with her personal life.

“That will probably be what the viewer is searching for (identification with her own life),” she accepts. “As an actor it is your creative and professional responsibility to give to your characters with absolute commitment. But it must always be remembered what the actor does is what the director has envisioned and visualised for a particular character. It is not about you just going there and doing your own thing, creating your own character. It’s what been written and that’s the way it gets eventually brought to life on celluloid.”

As Aishwarya points out, she has worked with UTV twice before — on Jodhaa Akbar and Guzaarish. “I am totally at home with UTV.”

This the first time she will be working with Bhandarkar. “As an actor I consider myself blessed and fortunate that I have had this opportunity to have a variety of experiences in my career.”

She has admired many of the big names of Hollywood she has met over the years, including the president of the jury this year. “Robert de Niro? (He’s an) absolute inspiration, if you look at the volume and variety of his work.”

She is comfortable, though, with Indian cinema and does not get too exercised when films fail to become crossovers. “If you are seeking to create a cinema which would go beyond your Indian or Asian diaspora, then that’s what you creatively make. But what the world recognises as Indian cinema is exactly what it is — largely made for our core audience. If it transcends, then great, wonderful, let’s celebrate. And if not there is nothing to lament about. That is exactly the audience you were seeking to start off with.”

She argues that Cannes is the place to watch and appreciate world cinema. This is true for Indian and non-Indian movies. “The language of cinema and the story-telling may be Indian for people from other parts of the world but this is a perfect platform to understand (Indian movies) — here at the festival you get to watch international cinema made by directors from different countries.”

Aishwarya hasn’t written her autobiography but she should. She has quite a story to tell.

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