In times of war, wise men say, Aishwarya's story should not be told. As usual they are wrong. The obtuse triangle is a classic human tale that could be our own hidden story but just that it's played out by prettier people. It has a moral too, which, contrary to convention, has to be put right in the beginning. Love has nothing to do with intelligence.
What made a bright girl who won a Miss World contest for reasons other than affinity to Mother Teresa send out an embarrassing press statement a few days ago saying, "I do not want to get into gory details which would incite washing dirty linen and other ugly untruths.... No one can play God because there is a God"? What made a girl, who is the most beautiful woman on Earth after your wife, get involved with an alcoholic woman-beater whose understanding of women is that if they have long legs they must be good? Aishwarya herself says, "I was at the receiving end of his abuse (verbal, physical and emotional), infidelity and indignity." Why didn't Vivek Oberoi switch off his mobile phone even after, by his own admission, Salman Khan called him 41 times in the middle of the night? (A text message says, 'Because his incoming was free.') When there are no good answers, it must be love. And the author of some mischief, however unwarned about the soft, insane nature of men in these affairs, is Aishwarya Rai who has almost gotten away with the much sought after title in the New Age: 'victim'.
A pretty girl, brutalised by a shirtless man, forced to scream in public: "For the sake of my well-being, my sanity, my dignity and the dignity and self-respect of my family—ENOUGH." Adding to the trauma is a sensational ankle fracture in what she calls "a near-fatal accident". Which decent society can bear the pain of a beautiful girl? But in theory such a woman cannot be a victim. She is a lot smarter than that.
It's believed that it was Aishwarya who strongly influenced Vivek to hold that headline-hogging press conference a few days ago. He was at a Coke press meet when some journalists asked him whether Salman was threatening him. He told them that the cola's platform was not appropriate for personal clarifications. So he called the journalists home later in the evening. But before the Coke press conference, Vivek did hint to some film journalists in private: "If the question about Salman threatening me is asked, I will respond." That was the cue for some to get up and bring the issue to life.
It's a regular practice among people in public life. In the last Cricket World Cup, a very odd question was asked during a press conference after India's match against Sri Lanka to Javagal Srinath who had won the Man of the Match Award. "Who do you dedicate the award to?" Srinath promptly dedicated it to a friend who had died recently. Vivek Oberoi—who is said to be completely conquered by Aishwarya, though he denied anything more than "friendship" to Outlook —has a history of being controlled by the women he loved. Former fiancee Gurpreet Gill was someone who had exercised considerable power on this emotional man. When father Suresh Oberoi first heard about his son's obsession with Aishwarya, he shook his head and told a good friend in a comprehensive character analysis, "From the frying pan into the fire."
Though Salman has clearly come across as the stalker in the relationship, Aishwarya's conscious influence over him, or any organic man for that matter if she kindly chooses, cannot be underestimated. It is said that she never liked the fact that Salman Khan was his family's breadwinner. He was also putting his money in projects starring his two brothers. Another story of a pretty woman asking her lover to leave his family. When she punished him occasionally for not complying, through silence and withdrawal, it was enough for Salman to go crazy."She drove him batty," a film producer says.
Salman's brother Sohail Khan, though he may not be gifted in the shedding-the-light department, gives rare perspective on the tumultuous relationship, "Now she weeps in public. When she was going around with him, when she used to visit our home so often like part of the family, did she ever acknowledge the relationship? She never did. That made Salman feel insecure. He wanted to know how much she wanted him. She would never let him be sure of that." After one public spat between the pair, they were soon spotted kissing near Navi Mumbai. The lovers were back.
There is no doubt in the minds of most film people who care about such matters that it was Aishwarya who messaged Salman and told him that she was shooting near Pune with Shahrukh Khan. That's how Salman found her there and dragged her away. Shahrukh, who came in the way to rescue his co-star, was abused too. But the point here is that Aishwarya did choose to leave the sets and sit in Salman's car despite Shahrukh's requests and even warning that if she left she would be kicked out of the film. She did and was thrown out of the project. Many months later Salman banged at her door for six hours till his hands bled. She said she didn't hear him, though the neighbours had got up and called security. According to Sohail, "Aishwarya was in constant touch with Salman till recently on the mobile and that's what upset Vivek."
At what point does the sweet persistence of love become stalking? Perhaps when the woman decides to give a name to it. Aishwarya's Salman-bashing press statement may have been a favour returned to Vivek. But while she was lying feebly in the Hinduja hospital like a victim in the eyes of the nation and was eventually discharged with a red scrawl on her foot, "No more of this", Vivek was taken to the final frontier in SMS jokes. "Suresh Oberoi has a heart attack. Vivek doesn't call the hospital. He calls a press conference."
When Aishwarya says in her statement, "The Salman chapter was a nightmare in my life and am thankful to God that it is over", it comes across as perfectly understandable today but why did she issue it now? Was she merely clarifying her personal life—something she has never done before—or letting everyone know that she will not act in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Bajirao Mastani starring Salman, or was she using the general population to make Vivek Oberoi feel reassured? Her public outcry may have been to guard both her personal and professional interests in yet another careful manoeuvre by an ambitious woman.
Says film trade analyst Komal Nahata: "She did lose two big projects directly or indirectly because of Salman. Shahrukh's Chalte Chalte and Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani." Though Bhansali has chosen to stick with Salman, Aishwarya was clearly his first choice to play the lead woman. She fit perfectly in the role of a courtesan about whom published lore says she was so fair that you could see the red of the paan slip down her translucent throat. But ignoring an old piece of advice that you should never fall in love with a colleague cost her a priced role. Adds Nahata: "Producers were certainly getting wary of Aishwarya because they were never sure when Salman will come and disrupt the shooting. If he created a scene, a film crew could easily handle it by themselves. But if the heroine chooses to sit in his car and go away in the middle of a shoot, how do you stop her? She had to do something about this image and she did."
Aishwarya's break from what she calls "dignity of silence" makes it clear to producers that she shall not drive away with a dangerous man into the sunset again. The future is in view and a woman is at work. She has reached the pinnacle of Hindi filmdom today, commanding Rs 1.5 crore per film, but she is closer to the end than the beginning. She is touching 30 now. Rakesh Roshan once said, "She looks too old for Hrithik."
She herself has become selective. "I am choosing to do the kind of films, roles and directors I want to work with." These turbulent times have also brought along some good things. She is cast in Rituparno Ghosh's Chokher Bali, which in general opinion may fetch her what is called critical acclaim. She is "in talks" with a casting agency after an offer to become the next Bond girl. "Early stages," her secretary Hari Singh says while adding that there were "international endorsement offers too". She has been chosen to be on the jury at Cannes. No Indian actress has been there before. Meanwhile, she is shooting for Rajkumar Santoshi's Khakee and Samir Karnik's Kyon...Ho Gaya Na.
Despite her debatable talents, she will be counted among the few women who enthralled us during our times. Says Subhash Ghai, who directed one of Aishwarya's first hits, Taal: "She's among the top 10 heroines ever in Indian cinema. A rare feature is that she's loved by both men and women." He describes her professional aggression and ambition "as a natural character of today's actors". She's known to sideline other girls in her film. In Josh, she took away songs that Priya Gill was supposed to dance to and rehashed the script to give herself greater prominence. That's how it became a story of a brother (Shahrukh) and sister (Aishwarya). Ghai says: "It's a business move. At some point in their careers, stars become business products and they fiercely guard themselves."
Devika Gidwani, director of De Beers Diamond information centre, says of Aishwarya, who endorses the Nakshatra range of jewels: "We wanted a girl who is Indian at heart but also modern. There was no one we could think of but Aishwarya. She is very professional. She may have had her personal troubles but she never let it interfere with her work. If she is excited with a concept, she goes all out for it. She gets very charged by a good idea." When Gidwani is asked if working with Aishwarya can be a bit intimidating at times, she says, "I would put it this way. She knows her mind. She cannot be pushed around." But for the moment she is another vulnerable girl in her mother's arms, suffering from hurt, anger, humiliation and hope. Must have been in love.