Aishwarya Rai at Cannes: A fading story


UNDERSTATEMENT I Aishwarya Rai at Cannes: A fading story

Fluorescent lilac lips, deep blue eye shadow and an insignificant assortment of gowns at Cannes Film Festival 2016 should be some of the reasons why we must rest our case(s) on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Especially her fashion sense. Talking about her wardrobe, either a sum total of disasters or some great stuff punctuated by pieces that she should not touch with a bargepole may be an annual bitch fest for us, “the trolls” as she calls us, but at the heart of it trembles a fading story. A rant that has worn itself thin as the most beautiful Indian actor (hopefully that moniker still holds) walks for the 15th year at Cannes.

Aishwarya has looked drop-dead gorgeous in some years at Cannes and in others a lovely but fussily frumpy star in need of style rescue. In all these years, right from the first time ever 15 years back when she paraded a Neeta Lulla wardrobe, most of it that looked like a cross between “high street couture” and confused casuals, to her gradual evolution to Elie Saab gowns and Armani Prive dresses (with a blingy Tarun Tahiliani gold sari, a cloistered Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla Anarkali and other horrors in between) to her lilac lips this time, it has been a well-documented journey. Memorable for the scathing reviews her clothes have generated in India and elsewhere; memorable indeed but mostly for her forgettable sense of dressing.

And the sheer irony of it all, one of the world’s most beautiful women with access to the world’s best designers keeps getting it wrong at least fifty per cent of the time on the red carpet.

This year, the golden-brown long jacket ensemble by Rohit Bal that Aishwarya wore while being photographed against a poster of her film Sarabjit was clunky in look and cluttered in pattern—not great for her body type. Both the colour and the silhouette marked a definite downslide in her appearance quotient. Then came the fluorescent lips which only highlighted that downslide. If bold, unconventional makeup is her way of finally “experimenting”, it was a regrettable one. A simple cotton sari with an edgy plait, perhaps a rose tucked into it might have been more interesting.

Details apart, trolls like us who harm—as I am told—the reputations of designers and celebrities with unreasonable rants need to pause and rethink the Aishwarya Rai Bachchan at Cannes trail. Is she even a fashion story or is it just another bad year for Ms Rai Bachchan and she will return fabulous yet again next time and we are killing time by being mean? Aren’t we running out of adjectives too? Gorgeous, stunning, ravishing… or that other phrase with no meaning—“safe choices”. What’s safe? How is poor dressing safe? But then this is the only grid of assessing Aishwarya we have familiarised ourselves with and it is crumbling fast. Pretty much like her Cannes clothes choices. If she appears repetitive and boring (with her diva poses, flying kisses or hands on her hips), so are we. We tell the same old story year after year with the same words.

She is now a mature actress given the films she chooses to do and the way she looks. No shade of blue or purple can alter the sobering effects of age, alas, and that’s something Aishwarya and her makeup artists should have known better. All the same let’s not forget to add that Richa Chaddha looked a phenomenal fashion disaster too in her gold lace-net sari, red lips and blingy earrings. Another irony—a majority of Indian designers make hundreds of versions of “occasion wear”, as part of this flourishing industry. Yet the stuff that gets worn on the international red carpets by a majority of our stars who choose Indian designers if at all, is well, an occasion to mourn it.

So let’s find another reason to talk about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan with no mention of her clothes and makeup. Now what other reason can there be? That’s a challenge Ms Rai Bachchan might want to be more bothered about. Shrugging off the trolls may not help there.

It piqued my interest enough to spend some time looking up versions of lemonade and assorted summer drinks that are being smartly appropriated by posh restaurants. They never make it to ‘Incredible India’ tourist attractions. The tamarind and berry pulp shikanji—called the shikanji Bin—is in fact a super seller at Soda Bottle Openerwalla restaurant—an urbane version of Bombay’s old Irani cafés.

So, when I spotted a roadside cart selling what else but “Modinagar shikanji” not far from the mall where its fandom was being spread, I stopped to chat with the seller. He showed me his jar of spices, nothing great—the usual white salt, black pepper powder, a pinch of mango powder and cumin. However the “jadoo” (magic), said the 22-year-old Bitoo, who had quit school after the seventh class, lay in the proportion of the spices that his father mixed at home. Bitoo, like the owner of Chaayos, didn’t belong to Modinagar but was making a business out of someone else’s brand. I tried to repeat Bitoo’s magic at home. It didn’t work. My father had never taught me how to make lemonade.

The crucial difference between foods that remind us of home, mother, family, hometown, culture or community and drinks that may do the same is the aroma. Food is about a certain smell, which gets entwined with a thousand memories. A drink may tickle the same neurons in the brain, but you must first sip something to trail it back to an anecdote or the memory of your mom.

Scorching Indian summers can also be about discovering long-buried memories around summer coolers. The Punjabi mango panna, the Parsi Raspberry soda, the North Indian jal jeera (water with cumin powder quite literally), kala khatta—a black-red, sweet and sour sherbet, khus (vetiver) syrup, the terrific thandai (translated as coolant) made from pounded dry fruits to be mixed with milk or water or the heavenly sweet sugarcane juice served with a few drops of fresh lime juice and a pinch of black salt. Most of these can be made with traditional home recipes, yet most of them are also sold in packaged bottles or in powder forms by food and drink companies. Sugarcane juice is a hot seller in some restaurants, but nowhere does it taste as good as it does at an Indian street vendor’s. And no, you can’t make it at home.

What you can rustle up at home is a vast variety of buttermilks or curd-based Indian smoothies that have localized versions from Chennai to Gujarat and Maharashtra, and their packaged versions can’t recreate the original flavours. Or the thick sweet Punjabi lassi—sold in plus-sized, red-clay glasses in Old Delhi. As filling as a large dessert. Packaged drinks may have saved us from entirely losing our cuisine and culture peculiarities but perhaps they have also made us complacent.

Sindhis also make a fragrant homemade drink with jasmine flowers dipped in sugar syrup. Mixed with ice and water, for us it would herald the onset of summers, underline the season of potato chips left to dry outside in courtyards, ripe mangoes and water-based pickles. I wonder where I lost all those delightful little aspects of daily life. Did they just fall off? That loss hurt me in my guts when I heard the girl in the mall gush about Modinagar shikanji.

I shared these scraps of loss with my driver, who belongs to Odisha. What summer drink do you like? I asked. “Bel sherbet,” he said instantly. Bel is a local fruit. “It’s available at roadside carts in Delhi but I stopped having it after you warned me about typhoid. Now my wife gives it to me as a welcome drink when I go home,” he said smiling.