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Aishwarya Rai, Queen of Bollywood, caps Berlin Star Parade

Aishwarya Rai is not exactly a household name in Western film circles, but just about everywhere else in the world she is known as "The Queen of Bollywood" and probably has a much larger and far more passionately devoted following worldwide than any of her Hollywood contemporaries. "Ash", as he is known affectionately to her Indian fans, is here today, Friday the thirteenth, on the lucky next to the last day of the 2009 Berlinale. The film she's here to accompany is the comedic competition entry "The Pink Panther 2", not to be confused with the Peter Sellers films of the same name- This is a successor offshoot with Hollywood comic Steve Martin now holding down the role of the famous bungling French detective Clouseau made famous by Sellers in the Pink Panther series of the sixties and seventies.
Following the early thrall over Kate Winslet, this has been a Berlin festival week marked by a succession of more or less second echelon Hollywood stars passing through to promote third echelon (i.e., piss poor or instantly forgettable) Hollywood films in one of the most flaccid competition agendas in recent Berlin history.
Among the parade of big-but-not-so-big, or, once-upon-a-time-big, but now getting a bit long-in-the-tooth Hollywood stars and semi-stars who have come through town this week, have been Jeff Goldblum, John Goodman, Clive Owen, Robin Wright-Penn, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore and Renée Zellweger, and now, with “Panther 2”, Steve Martin. Ash is, however, much more adulated and far more popular than any of the aforementioned in her home territory India and its neighboring countries, as well as in Asian diaspora communities all over the world.
Winner of the "Miss World" title of 1994, with her immense green eyes, silky black hair, and perfect everything else, Aishwarya has often been described as "the most beautiful woman in the world" (a description few would argue with), Ever since her breakthrough Bombay blockbuster musical “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam” (One from the heart), 1999, in which her singing and dancing were as important as her acting, she has been acclaimed as the reigning queen of Bollywood. Today Rai’s stature in the Indian film world is more like a living goddess than a flesh and blood dancing actress. Even though she has only a minor part in the present Pink Panther -- as a slightly villainous jewel thief no less -- her striking beauty and natural charm come through with such power that she steals every scene she's in without even trying and makes you keep wanting to see more and more of her. To put it bluntly she is the only reason to waste any of one's time on this overproduced but totally ineffective and unfunny slapstick Marathon. Loaded with big names -- Steve Martin, French action star Jean Reno, superstar French rocker Johnny Halliday in a cameo, Andy Garcia as an Italian sleuth, Alfredo Molina, and a small but juicy turn by Lilli Tomlin --one would think this couldn't miss, but it misses by a mile and its only saving grace is -- Miss Rai --wow, is she something! It's almost as if Kobe Bryant showed up for a few minutes to get a little workout in a schoolyard where nobody knew who he was -- and when he leaves everybody is saying, "Hey, who was that guy!" In any case, as far as star gazing this year in Berlin is concerned, Aishwarya Rai of India has put a sensational cap on what until now was rather a routine procession.

Ash is unfortunately not in "Panther" quite long enough to steal the whole show but, at the photo session which followed the screening and precedes every press conference, it was obvious from the unbridles wolf calls -- literally shrieks of horniness -- coming from a phalanx of case-hardened pro photogs, that the object of their lensing was not just some exotic looking Indian starlet, nor an ordinary movie star -- but a megastar and a mega-beauty of the first magnitude. Of course "Ash" is used to such open adulation and endocrine reactions from men, so she took it all in stride. The press conference was more or less dominated by questions directed to Steve Martin who is far better known to the European press, because most were unaware of the actress's stature in the Indian cinema back home. Therefore many simply did not realize what a coup it was for an unknown Norwegian director like Harald Zwart (43) to get a real megastar from Bombay to grace his film in a relatively minor role. French actor Jean Reno, no lightweight himself, seated beside Rai, summed up the professional reaction of the gold-plated Panther cast saying "we were all honored to be working with her". What else is there to say? -- since Ash speaks perfect, in fact rather posh, English -- (plus a few Indian languages. She has made films in Tamil as well as Bombay Hindi)-- but, when is somebody in H-Ollywood going to get smart enough to offer her a star vehicle in English. Not that she needs the work being one of the highest paid Bollywood stars. Ask not what your Hollywood can do for Aishwarya, ask rather what Aishwarya can do to put some new life into Hollywood! If you want to get a peek at Aishwarya Rai in her natural ecological niche doing her inimitable all around entertainment thing, rent a film like "DEVDAS" for openers.

Still to come, Andrzej Wajda's latest "Tatarak" and comments on other competition films.
Alex, Friday the Thirteenth in Berlin


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