Abhishek and Aishwarya as I know them by Subhash K. Jha ...

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By Subhash K. Jha, IANS

Marriage of the year? Looks more like the marriage of the century. I

cut through the appreciative screams to a flashback nine years ago at a

function to facilitate Anup Jalota where I saw Abhishek Bachchan for the

first time.

He was with his mother, the ever-attentive son listening closely to every

word she said. Abhishek sat a row behind where I was placed along with

one of my magazine editors.

To say that Abhishek was the cynosure of all eyes would be no

exaggeration. Everyone at the function was whispering about his debut in

films and his association with Karisma Kapoor.

I asked my editor-friend for an introduction. But to my puzzlement, he

ignored the request. It took me years to realise that journalists guard their

star contacts in Mumbai more fiercely than housewives protect their

recipes.

Today, I'm proud and happy to say I'm very close to all the

Bachchans, and Abhishek is like a sibling, while the protective colleague

has vanished.

The lesson of humility that I learnt from such experiences is also an

essential part of Abhishek's character.

There isn't a vain bone in his body. Abhishek is naturally and irreversibly gregarious. He gets annoyed when I call him the male Rani Mukerji just as he calls me 'uncle' to annoy me.

We are more chums than two guys separated by a generation. Unlike some other stars who try oh-so-hard to be friendly, Abhishek needs to make no effort in that direction. Of all the youngsters that I know in the film industry, Abhishek is by far the most affable. He reaches out instinctively. He loves coming into contact with people from the film industry and it shows in his attitude.

He makes it a point to be friendly even to those whom he hardly knows. My friend Sanjeev Kohli, the CEO of Yash Raj Films, says, "The Bachchans have many huge achievements to their credit. But I feel Abhishek is their greatest achievement. He generates only goodwill."

I'll have to go with that. There's something enormously positive about Abhishek. The quality transmits itself effortlessly to the person in front of him.

Anyone who tells you that Abhishek is vain or arrogant about being a Bachchan, is a liar. Neither proud nor modest about his tremendous pedigree, Abhishek would have been who he is regardless of his surname. That mischievous glint in his eye often manifests itself in harmless pranks.

He can make you squirm with his jokes. Once, in front of his dad, he suddenly turned to me to ask, "Who's a better actor Amitabh Bachchan or Naseeruddin Shah?"

It was my turn to tell him to shut-up. Over the years that I've known this Bachchan kid, we've established a comfort level that goes way beyond an ordinary journalist-actor relationship.

But he loves the company of his friends - men and women - of which he has quite an impressive roster. You can often catch him with either a bunch of them or with one of them at home at a restaurant having a ball.

But there's a bleeding heart under that prankish, mischievous front that understands a friend's predicament immediately. Once when at 2.30 a.m. a very drunk very badly behaved male superstar was giving me major grief I ran into Abhishek in a hotel lobby. "What happened to you?" he asked immediately.

I told him. In no time at all Abhishek led the sizzled bratty superstar away from me. I breathed a sigh of relief, thanking the stars above for stars like Abhishek down below.

I don't think being a Bachchan was a problem for Abhishek even when he didn't have a big success like "Dhoom" or hugely lauded performances like "Yuva", "Phir Milenge" and "Guru" to his credit. It was people around him who presumed Abhishek would've tonnes of attitude because of his surname.

But I know better. There's no better son, grandson or friend in Bollywood. I've seen him being equally attentive and gentle in all three roles and I'm sure there can be no better spouse than Abhishek either.

Unlucky is the girl who loved and lost him. She'd have not only got the most caring and charismatic bachelor to be her husband but also the most devoted (not to mention famous) parents-in-law in India.

I guess we are all born with our own karma. Some of us find the happiness we deserve. Today, I see Abhishek dancing at his own wedding. He thinks he's the luckiest guy on earth.

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Indeed Aishwarya Rai has come a long way. Her climb up the steep ladder of stardom has been focused, determined and surprisingly free of compromises.

Let me put it bluntly. Aishwarya never plays up to any of her heroes. I've seen the kind of leeway leading ladies allow the big guys just to remain in their good books. I've seen Salman Khan pushing, pummelling a very hot and very sizzling leading lady right in front of me in my hotel room in Mumbai.

Aishwarya doesn't believe in compromising with her conscience to remain successful. She fought on a matter principle with the mighty Khan triumvirate. First, of course Salman Khan, whom she categorically told to get off while he still ahead.

Then there was a difference of opinion with Shah Rukh Khan, which cost her precious films with India's biggest superstar. Finally, she opted out of Ketan Mehta's "The Rising" with Aamir Khan while Rani Mukerji and Amisha Patel hopped, skipped and jumped all around the Khan-driven project.

There are definitely issues larger than co-stars that occupy Aishwarya's mind. She's out to make a place for herself among the all time greats. In her quest for the crest she's unstoppable.

Co-stars are definitely a problem for Aishwarya. But if not the Khans then chalo, Martin Henderson hi sahi.

And if not Bollywood then Hollywood here she comes! Clearly, cynics can go climb up the nearest wall.

They adore her in the Britain. Hundreds of SMS messages from all over the world clog her cellphone. Once the darned instrument simply collapsed!

"Good it was my phone, and not me," she jokes.

Even if London's The Observer critic Philip French finds Aishwarya "incredibly beautiful" Indian critics have been left largely cold by her performances. This is in direct contrast to the way we generally react to our stars acquiring global popularity.

Om Puri and Saeed Jaffrey were two actors whose career back home in India acquired that extra edge after they appeared in British and American films. Not all of the work that they've done abroad is pivotal, let alone exemplary.

Aishwarya is incapable of spewing malice or turning a situation to her own advantage. Her magic mantra in life is, "I'll never do anything to compromise my family and my principles."

No one knows about the threats and humiliations she was subjected to just because she said no to a certain relationship.

"All I know is, I've survived, and I'm moved on."

Aishwarya is perfectionist. In a world where actresses generally believe in a chalta-hai attitude and run for marriage the minute the opportunity shows up, she strives to be the first real female superstar from Bollywood. What's wrong with that?

Aishwarya doesn't talk to the press as freely as some of her colleagues, who love to spread themselves out thinly on the satiny pages of papers and magazines. Many of the most powerful stars in Mumbai have eaten crow and patched up with the very magazines that have hurt them and their images the most.

Not Aishwarya. The magazines, which have been the nastiest to her, are still smarting under the snub she has so effectively delivered them. They've tried every trick in the book to make her speak. When they've failed to move her into submission they've damned her dreams.

She's done it. And how! The nay-sayers thought she couldn't. I suspected she could. In the right hands Ash is always ready for and up to challenges. I've seen the performances Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon, Rituparno Ghosh and above all Sanjay Leela Bhansali had got out of her in the past.

Yes, given a chance she could have herself a histrionic blast. The only problem is the beauty. So overpowering is her image as the country's No.1 brand ambassadress that we tend to discount if not entirely dismiss her bravura attempts to get into character.

Now as she sits over a volcano of praise she can afford to smile.

"This whole beauty thing is so redundant. It's the people around me who have a problem with my looks. It's they who allow 'it' to come in the way of assessing my performances sincerely."

Once a look of haunted pensiveness passed through her immaculate face.

"People said I giggled too much. What was I supposed to do? Cry and show my bleeding heart in public? To hide what I was going through I had to laugh my way through the crisis."

Today, she's laughing all the way to being the daughter-in-law in the country's most famous celebrity home.

How does Aishwarya Rai Bachchan sound?

(Subhash K. Jha can be contacted at [email protected])