Pretty pictures

Posted on October 22, 2016

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On the great shallow pleasures of gawking at beautiful people on screen, and the problems when they pretend they’re otherwise.

When the minute-and-a-half teaser for Karan Johar’s upcoming Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was released in August, I froze at the thirty-second mark, the point where Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in a salmon-pink coat, turns to the camera and does that hair-tossing thing. Two seconds later, she does a salaam. It’s no mere salaam. It’s a salaam that says “I challenge you to find another person who’ll look this good doing a salaam.” Later, we see her with Ranbir Kapoor, ambling along in Prague or Copenhagen or wherever. She’s a vision in white. There’s no evidence she’s almost a decade older. Suddenly, Sarbjit and Jazbaa make sense. Who’s going to take you seriously when you look like this? Hence the screeching and screaming, the peasant clothes, the red-eyed acting. What irony! We buy tickets for her films because she looks the way she does, because beauty like this can only exist in the world circumscribed by the movie screen. And there she is, trying to prove she’s like the rest of us.

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Should movie goddesses (and gods) be allowed to play people like you and me? This isn’t a legal question. Who can stop them? And if they are convincing in the part, then isn’t the question moot? This is an ethical question. Is it fair? Is it in good taste? Because when an actress deglamourises herself, she’s essentially saying, “Look, I can be ugly too.” The most famous of these instances is probably Charlize Theron, the face of Christian Dior, transforming herself into the serial killer of Monster. A cnn.com puff piece cooed, “For actress Charlize Theron, turning ugly for her role in ‘Monster’ was reasonably easy: a little make-up to freckle her clear complexion, a set of crooked teeth to yellow her pearly smile and a diet of potato chips to bulk up her slender frame.” So they couldn’t find a chubby actress with freckles and bad teeth? Or consider thirty-three-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, having to play Edward Albee’s “large, boisterous woman, fifty-two.”

It’s easy to see why Taylor was cast in Woolf. Or why Priyanka Chopra was given “Oriental eyes” to play the title role in Mary Kom. The story isn’t just what’s in the movie. The story is also the “transformation,” the way the actress looks before and after the film, on red carpets. Searching for clips of Theron winning the Best Actress Academy Award for Monster, I landed at a site named stylebistro.com, which featured Theron in a slideshow titled The Best Oscar Gowns of the Decade. “Theron showed off her toned, tanned skin in a glittering gold Gucci gown (she’d just returned from a trip to Brazil). The actress looked ravishing as she accepted her Best Actress award…” If a plain-looking actress played this part, she’s just giving a performance. Theron is also giving the PR guys a great selling point.

Which is why it’s so wonderful watching Aishwarya in the Ae Dil… teaser. We don’t have to wring our hands about how a less glamorous-looking (and possibly more talented) actress was gypped out of a part, simply because she did not have the requisite star power, the same audience-pulling power. We don’t have to get offended by the pre-release publicity machine stories of how the poor thing “deglammed” herself, rubbed coal on her face and completely gave up conditioner to make her look like us. We don’t have to think about why charismatic but plain-looking actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui will never be cast in the Ranbir Kapoor role in Ae Dil…, though Siddiqui will be the first choice for the serial killer in Raman Raghav 2.0 – as though conventionally good-looking people cannot be murderers. With something like Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, we are just asked to bask in beauty. We watch the lushly mounted film to take a break from our homes. We watch these actors to take a break from our mirrors.

Which isn’t to say Ae Dil… may not have anything else going for it. It may turn out to be a really good movie. But the quality of a film is about depth. The attractiveness of its stars, on the other hand, is one of the great shallow pleasures of movie-going. I laugh every time I recall VA Smith’s Akbar, the Great Mogul (1542-1605) and its description of the monarch as “a man of moderate stature… His legs were somewhat bowed inwards from the effect of much riding in boyhood, and when walking he slightly dragged the left leg, as if he were lame… His head drooped a little towards the right shoulder… The nose was of moderate size, rather short, with a bony prominence in the middle… A small wart about half the size of a pea connected the left nostril with the upper lip…” Not quite Hrithik Roshan, was he?

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