Aishwaryaa on the apple box…

by Shobhaa De

A ravishingly beautiful young woman  with fresh mehendi  drying on her palms, walked upto me at a high profile wedding in Udaipur recently, and whispered, “I am Aishwaryaa…!” It took a while to click. She wanted to take a picture . I assumed she was the bride’s  best friend. The next afternoon, as I was leaving the lobby of a hotel, a lady  sweetly introduced herself with a cheerful , “Hello! I am Mrs. Rajnikanth… you met our daughter Aishwaryaa yesterday!” Goodness! I mean… really? How did I not connect all the dots? We spoke briefly and promised to  catch up later at night during the wedding ceremony at the spectacular Jag Mandir. Chances of running into one another in a 1000 plus crowd, appeared a bit remote – but – voila! There they were!  Aishwaryaa, a picture of beauty and grace in a cream-coloured saree, her amma, beaming with pride and joy in a bright Kanjeevaram, accompanying them were Aishwaryaa’s two boys. “We meet again!” I exclaimed as I greeted the beauteous Aishwaryaa, who blushed and tried to distract me from paying any more compliments! Mother and daughter mingled unobtrusively amongst all the high profile guests from India, Nepal and across the world.There was zero attempt to seek extra attention or get preferential  treatment. Such a contrast to the huge police escort, personal security guards and a large entourage that accompanied Bollywood star Salman Khan, who arrived at the venue, stayed for just about ten minutes and caused maximum havoc! I marvelled at the modesty and genuine humility of these two ladies who were there minus the slightest fuss. I mean – they were Rajnikanth’s closest family members! Rajnikanth’s!!! Rajnikanth , who occupies a galaxy of his own! I asked them about  Salman’s dramatic entry and they smiled, answering simply, “We don’t need all this…!”

Frankly, nor does anybody else! That’s the difference between a down-to-earth upbringing, education and class.

Aishwaryaa Rajnikanth Dhanush grew up with a legend. She sent me her first book with the intriguing title, “Standing on an apple box.” And I read it in one go. It is a sensitively written account about her growing up years and the subsequent transition from initially being labelled a superstar’s daughter, later, a superstar’s wife, to the person she is today – an award-winning director, a writer and a UN appointed advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment in India. It is a commitment she shares with her mother, who has been working tirelessly to establish child rights and protect missing/abandoned children. Observing their interactions, it was obvious to me that Mrs.Rajnikanth is a strong life force in Aishwaryaa’s life. So many times during that enchanted evening, Aishwaryaa explained to me patiently, “I don’t do that in front of amma – out of respect.” And ‘that’ was a perfectly harmless activity, trust me! Her chapter titled ‘Childhood friends’, opens with these telling lines, “You don’t need to be a celebrity child to know the dangers of having the wrong friends or the pleasures of a good one. As kids my  mother surrounded my sister and me with people she trusted, so nobody could take advantage of us.” I sense her mother continues to play the protective, ever-vigilant  watch-dog role even today! Which is endearing on one level… but – come on, Aishwaryaa is a mum of two herself!

There is something very vulnerable and fragile about the woman who is busy passionately pushing the  causes she believes in, like the ambitious trilogy Aishwaryaa has undertaken which follows the lives of unsung heroes in the movie business – stunt choreographers, junior artists and back up dancers. She admits her appa did not want her to be in the movie business having seen its ‘dark side’. But here she is, teasingly saying, “Little did he know my sister and I didn’t want to be among the ship’s crew, we wanted to captain it!” Am I surprised? Naah. Aishwaryaa is a New Year baby – a Number 1. Natural born leader. Destined to lead and succeed, no matter what the challenges may be. She credits her parents over and over again in the book for shaping her values, “My parents and grand-parents never let me feel inferior because I was a girl child…. my sister and I were brought up to be independent.” Combine that with her disarming confession that the first time she acquired a designer hand bag was when her husband Dhanush, went to Bengaluru and bought her a Louis Vuitton. As Rajniikanth’s daughter, there was no such indulgence! I found that extraordinary, having watched countless Bollywood brats who wouldn’t dream of buying a single non-branded accessory. Poor, insecure creatures.

We said our goodbyes in the lobby of the hotel the next afternoon as we rushed to catch our respective flights. Aishwaryaa was pretty designer-ed up this time and looking like a tiny, exotic bird behind the latest reflector shades. We hugged and kissed… and she bent to touch my feet! I grabbed her just in time and said, “Stoppppp!” She is the one on that apple cart, remember? I am a mere movie-goer in a darkened theatre, fascinatedly staring at the big screen waiting for the stars to weave their magic and cast a spell.