Aishwarya Rai Bachchan: Working with Mani Ratnam is like going back to school

The actor who was in Chennai recently reveals that she is a part of the screen adaptation of the acclaimed filmmaker’s magnum opus, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, which also stars Vikram and other leading actors in Tamil cinema

July 27, 2019 08:24 pm | Updated April 21, 2020 04:16 pm IST

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

“Make way for the female cop,” says Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, even as her bouncers try handling the 200-plus crowd assembled in front of the Longines Store in VR Mall, Anna Nagar.

“I think she wants to take a picture with me,” she says, even as the cop, sporting a sheepish smile, ambles forward to pose with the actor.

Around 22 years ago, in an office in Chennai, Aishwarya says she sported a sheepish look herself, when she came face to face with Mani Ratnam for the first time.

She was introduced to him by Rajiv Menon. Cinematographer Menon was good friends with Ratnam, who was already making waves in Tamil cinema then.

“I had worked with Rajiv on a number of ad films, and during one of the shoots, he shared the music of Roja, ” she recalls, “This was even before its release, and I fell in love with the tunes. He (Rajiv) knew how big an admirer of Ratnam’s works I was, and when he told me that I was being approached for a film, I thought he was pulling my leg.”

But he was not, and Aishwarya did come to Madras to meet the man behind the films that fascinated her.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Mohanlal in a still from ‘Iruvar’

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Mohanlal in a still from ‘Iruvar’

“When I walked into his office, he shared some ideas he had about Iruvar . He had the grace to ask me if I’d do it, when it was a yes even before I walked in. Listening to him back then was like sitting in front of a teacher; I just knew that it was the perfect place for me to start my work as an actor,” says Aishwarya, adding, “I didn’t have any previous training. No one in my family has ever had any links to the film industry. I was nosediving into it and, when I met Mani, I knew this was where I had to start. I sort of felt like I belonged.”

A return to Tamil cinema

That sense of belonging has lasted for more than a couple of decades.

Over the years, Aishwarya Rai’s life has changed quite a bit — she moved from Tamil to Hindi films, became the reigning star of Bollywood, got married, had a daughter and is now staging a comeback.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a still from ‘Raavanan’

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a still from ‘Raavanan’

But one thing has remained constant over the years: her admiration for the man who started it all — Mani Ratnam.

This is probably why she is choosing to return to Tamil cinema. The actress will be a part of the filmmaker’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan.

It is speculated that she will play the antagonist in the screen adaptation of the historical Tamil novel by Kalki Krishnamurthy. It is also rumoured that names like Vikram, Karthi, Jayam Ravi and Amitabh Bachchan, among others will be part of this big budget production.

Ask her about it and she says, “All I can say is that I’m doing the film. I am on this journey with Mani, and it will be an honour to be a part of anything he chooses to do.”

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan at the VR Mall in Chennai

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan at the VR Mall in Chennai

Like most of the filmmaker’s earlier projects, this film too is shrouded in secrecy with little known about its actual shoot dates. “I don’t think it will be fair to override his wishes and speak about the project. Even though there’s warmth in our professional relationship today, it’s his wish to share details with the world whenever he chooses to,” she adds.

If she does embark on Ponniyin Selvan soon , it will mean a lot of homework, not just in terms of character study but also in the Tamil language. Will that be difficult? “Working with him (Mani) is like going back to school, and whatever you’re saying goes with the territory,” she says guardedly.

From the scrapbook

In Bollywood, Aishwarya has teamed up with many filmmakers — the last few years saw her in films like Fanney Khan, Ae Dil Hai Muskil , Sarabjit and Jazbaa — but in the Tamil film industry, her films have only been with three men: Mani Ratnam, Shankar and Rajiv Menon.

“I haven’t really explored beyond,” she says, adding that she is blessed to have worked with the best names in the industry.

She has high regard for Shankar, who cast her in a twin role in Jeans (1998), and then again as Rajinikanth’s heroine in Enthiran (2010).

Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a still from ‘Enthiran’

Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a still from ‘Enthiran’

“He’s a visionary,” she says, “The scale he gives in his stories is amazing, and his films have always been a technical learning for me. He just goes out there and gets it done!”

The other film Aishwarya fondly recalls is Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), which she describes as “evergreen”. Though Aishwarya was paired along with Mammooty and Abbas in it, she distinctly remembers Ajith, who played an aspiring filmmaker in the film.

“He was so warm and an incredible professional. I’m so happy to see the kind of success and love he is enjoying from his audience. He deserves it. Though I didn’t do many scenes along with him, I met him on the sets. I also remember meeting his family during the film’s making. If we ever cross paths again, I’d love to congratulate him on his deserved success,” she adds.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Tabu in a still from ‘Kandukondain Kandukondain’

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Tabu in a still from ‘Kandukondain Kandukondain’

Her dream is to someday do a biopic on an inspirational woman, but she is not ready to reveal how it is, just yet.

“There are some names I’d like to play but I won’t mention it. If I take a name, a script will be written and the deed will be done. So, I’d rather explore ideas people share with me. That will make my journey as an actor varied and exciting.”

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