Each May, when the International Cannes Film Festival rolls around, two things are absolutely certain: 1) cosmetics giant L’Oreal will send its Bollywood-plucked global ambassadors to walk the festival’s red carpet, and 2) the women–Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor, and L’Oreal newbie Deepika Padukone–will be pitted against each other by everyone from the Indian media and the fans to “sources” close to the actresses themselves.
And to that, I have just one thing to say: can we collectively agree to stop pretending that Aishwarya Rai has any competition on the Cannes red carpet, from national or international celebs?
On May 19th, the oft-proclaimed ‘Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ wore a dramatic blue Michael Cinco gown that left the fashion world with its jaw on the floor. The gown, reminiscent of Cinderella’s iconic dress from the 1950 animated Disney film, needed no embellishments; with straight hair, understated diamond earrings, and simple makeup, the actress let the dress do all the talking.
And talk it did. Within hours, almost every international online portal, from Vogue to the Huffington Post, had declared the dress the red carpet moment of the year, giving the 43-year-old superstar the fashion accolades so often denied to her from the press back home. With all due respect to Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor, who are beautiful and fashion-savvy women in their own right, Aishwarya has proven her movie star mettle for sixteen consecutive years, and to suggest that any up-and-coming actress is in her league does everyone involved a disservice. The truth is, they’re not even playing the same game.
Our mistake is pretending this has anything to do with just being pretty, or having an enviable waistline, or wearing a beautiful dress. Cannes is full of pretty, tall, thin women in beautiful dresses. What is more important, and less easily explained, is the intangible X-factor that some women–like Aishwarya–have. It’s this unfathomable quality that propels them to global stardom, and keeps them there while their contemporaries fade away. It’s what separates them from women who may have better bodies, or more symmetrical faces, or a keener eye for fashion…but who are considerably less memorable. And what will we remember decades from now? The beautiful gown, or the woman wearing the beautiful gown?
Noted British film critic Peter Bradshaw once said that Aishwarya was far and away the most beautiful and glamorous star he had ever seen in the flesh, “far more hypnotic than people like, say, Nicole Kidman or George Clooney,” whom he had also stood in the presence of. Her very aura, he added, left everyone in the vicinity in a slack-jawed daze. This quality landed her on the Cannes red carpet sixteen years ago, ten full years before Sonam Kapoor would join her there, and it has kept her in the global consciousness despite never having built a significant international film career. It’s what made her beauty not just remarkable but legendary, and it has paved the way for other Indian stars like Sonam, Deepika, and Priyanka Chopra to leave their own mark on the world of international art and glamour. Regardless of what you think of Aishwarya, there is no disputing that the warm embrace given to her in the West and her successful association with global brands like L’Oreal and Longines has opened doors for other actresses in an industry that is notoriously unkind to non-Western stars, and women of color in particular. Would these actresses have had the same international opportunities had Aishwarya not gone first? There’s no way to know for sure, but having shouldered the majority of the criticism, jealousy, and bitterness that comes with being the first poppy to grow taller than the others, it’s almost insulting to insinuate that Aishwarya should still need to prove herself among these women who, quite frankly, may never have gotten the exposure and opportunities they currently enjoy without her contributions. Sonam and Deepika are no more competing with Aishwarya than Jennifer Lawrence and Elle Fanning are competing with Marilyn Monroe; the fact that they happen to be working, and walking, during the same era is irrelevant. The future is bright for both young women, but Aishwarya’s place in history has already been cemented.
The notion that Aishwarya’s appearance in the blue Michael Cinco ballgown was anything less than stunning demonstrates not only questionable taste in fashion, but an inherent disrespect for the name she has made for herself on the world stage, a disrespect that is sadly par for the course from the Indian media. But news outlets can continue to write condescending articles about how Aishwarya “got it wrong” again at Cannes this year; glam fans around the world, on the other hand, blissfully unaware of the driving desire to find something about Aishwarya to criticize year after year, will continue to look upon her with awe. Because true blue movie stars like Aishwarya Rai come around once in a lifetime, and if her home industry won’t celebrate that, there are millions around the world who will.