Aishwarya Rai is the worldwide face of India's film business, and, if no less an authority than the US television show 60 Minutes is to be believed, it's the most beautiful face in the world. Now she's going international -- and bringing Bollywood with her.
Since 1994, when she won the Miss World pageant, she's starred in more than 30 feature films, more than 50 music videos, and, in a country where women still lag men in most aspects of society, she commands the equivalent of more than $15 million per film, according to her agent, making her far and away the highest-paid actress in the country.
With India conquered, she's now going global (see: http://www.aishwaryaworld.com). She just began making her first US film -- a Roman epic produced by Dino Delaurentis and starring Ben Kingsley. And then there's Oprah. After seeing the 60 Minutes story, the undisputed queen of American television brought her on to do a full show, putting that face in front of millions more potential fans.
Here are excerpts of our conversation with her:
Forbes.com: So, is there any truth to the rumor about you being an upcoming Bond girl?
Rai: Oh, that's a rumor! That rumor should get a lifetime achievement award, man! At the time that it started, there wasn't even a script, there wasn't a James Bond.
It all started, supposedly, with some people who had come down to India to meet me regarding it. But that was the time when I met with the accident, so the meeting didn't really come about. But it managed to make it to the headlines! [laughter]
How about the set conditions on an Indian film production? You were injured a while ago...
Well, yes. Things are changing, fortunately, more in recent years here.
I mean, you've had a long career...
Yes, this is my tenth year now, so things have changed within this span of time -- so drastically that when I look at the work done when I just joined, it's like, "Oh my God!" So much has changed in these ten years. You get to see how you're part of the process of change within the Indian film industry. That's all positive, that's all a good sign.
We've found ourselves very often saying that we were toughened. We can work in any conditions in any part of the world [laughter], because we've kind of worked in such dire situations. It's incredible training, because you don't get so easily thrown or unsettled in situations.
What was the first sense of the superstardom that you experienced when you were in India? Was there a drastic change?
[Laughter] Oh yes, after Miss World. It's such an intense experience, and everyone kind of gets into it with such. . . fervor. And for me, it was just. . . I was a student, and I had done a couple of modeling assignments, and so I just participated in Miss India. Only after having won Miss India did I know I had the opportunity to go to Miss World.
But in terms of my approach, when I went for it, I was like, "Oh, wait a minute, this is my one chance, and I'm representing my country." You go around not with just your name but with your country's name around you.
So to me, in my head, that was huge. That was like, "Hey, I'm not going to participate in the Olympics, so here I am, representing my country!" And that means a lot to me.
Absolutely. Like it or not, if you're spearheading that, you're representing your country as well.
Yes, and that's something I want to do. That's what I found myself doing then too -- representing the Indian person or the Indian woman at the age of 20, 21.
In terms of being a woman in India, what is your opinion on the treatment of women in business and otherwise?
Society has been defined a certain way from time immemorial for all of us. We all know the kind of eases and the trials that we could all be faced with -- in any strata, in any profession. So, I think rather than feeling persecuted that you're meeting up with a challenge simply because of the gender you belong to, I think it's important to face the challenge for what it is and have your convictions together.
It isn't always easy, and, thereby, I think the biggest strength lies in one's ability to say "no."
What advice would you give aspiring professionals?
My biggest concern is always the students who are working toward a certain career -- when they limit themselves to just that one option. They need to know that the world is huge -- it's an ocean, and there are so many options. It's not the end of the world if they don't get to pursue an apparent childhood dream.
That's really important, because you find a lot of kids who believe that they want to become a doctor or an aeronautical engineer or something, and if they don't manage to make their degree, that's the end. They feel so defeated, which is very disheartening. It's sad to know that people let themselves be limited by these aspirations.
Oprah Winfrey recently asked you to be on her show. What was that like? She is the first African-American woman to make Forbes' World's Richest People list.
I know, I know! She is a fascinating lady, and I've always enjoyed watching her on tele. This came about so quickly, and it was a pleasant surprise. I was really, really happy to meet her, because I think she is incredible.
Apart from her incredible achievements, also for her -- as a person, as a woman, and the difference she makes by touching so many people's lives. You respect the fact that, OK, that is her business, and she's done an incredible job. That's wonderful!
And her, I mean, even when I met her -- the warmth she exudes. Her personality is just wonderful. I was just so happy to meet her. She's an inspiration.