Exclusive: catching up with Jazbaa star Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

The 41-year-old Bollywood actress, who hasn't been seen on the big screen since 2010's Guzaarish, tells The National about her much-anticipated comeback film, her career, and how motherhood has changed her.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan with her husband Abhishek Bachchan, far right, Amitabh Bachchan, far left, and Jaya Bachchan. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP photo
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I'm sitting on a yacht with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who is resplendent in a maroon Oscar de la Renta organza-and-silk taffeta gown. We have just watched footage from Jazbaa, her first film in five years, which she is promoting at Cannes.

“I might as well embrace the fact that everyone is calling this my comeback film,” the Indian actress tells me.

The former Miss World, who is married into the Bollywood's celebrated Bachchan clan – she is the wife of actor Abhishek Bachchan, and her father-in-law is none other than India's biggest star, Amitabh Bachchan – put her career on hold the moment she realised that she was pregnant with her daughter Aaradhya. She went as far as to pull out of filming Madhur Bhandarkar's social drama Heroine (2012), which finally went ahead with Kareena Kapoor in the lead role. As the years passed, many thought she had retired from the limelight, save for annual appearances at Cannes as part of her brand ambassador role for L'Oréal.

Aishwarya says she didn’t mean to spend so much time away from the camera.

"After having Aaradhya, I lost all concept of time. First I thought I hadn't worked for three years because that was when Guzaarish [2010] was released, and then I thought it was actually four years since I fell pregnant and then I realised it had been five years since I'd actually been on a film set."

She almost didn't do Jazbaa, which is due to be released on October 8 in the UAE. Director Sanjay Gupta had reached out to her about returning to the big screen by sending her ideas for the role. She liked what she was sent, but was too busy with motherhood and didn't respond for two months. Then Gupta decided to take another route – he approached her husband.

“When I met Sanjay later,” the actress remembers, “I said ‘thank you’ for checking [with Abhishek]. I thought Sanjay might have got the impression that I wasn’t interested, because I hadn’t responded.”

In her latest film, Aishwarya plays a single mother whose child is kidnapped.

“Prior to becoming mother, I had played a few mature roles and, of course, you do it to the best of your ability,” she says. “But today, having had the real experience, it touches a deeper core and it’s gut wrenching to act out. From the time that your baby comes into the world there is a switch in your head that says I’m a parent – it’s not something you think about, or learn through books. It just happens.”

When she got to her first day on the Jazbaa set, she says the sense of anticipation was incredible.

“Everyone was wondering what her first day back would be like. How will the first take go? It just went normally. So has anything changed in the years she’s not been in employment? “

The most challenging aspect of this film would be answering that question: I don’t feel change; there is a change in attitude when I go to work. I heard Abhishek say this a lot when we first got together, ‘once an actor always an actor’. Time can’t be a factor that takes that impulse away if your interest still holds. Am I still interested? Yes. That’s why I’m here in front of you.”

Five years may have felt like a blink of an eye for the actress, but for her fans – and colleagues – it seemed like a lifetime. "People around us were in so much awe," says Gupta. "I was in awe – after all, you are working with the Aishwarya Rai Bachchan."

The Aishwarya that we see in the footage is not the glamorous former Miss World and star of the red carpet, and reflects the first-look poster released last week, which shows the actress on her knees looking anguished, framed against the Mumbai skyline. Is this a change? Are we seeing the actress adapt?

Aishwarya baulks at the suggestion, arguing that her career has always seen her play a mixed bag of roles.

"I have been doing this all through my career, but somehow the glamorous image stands bigger, despite the fact that I've always been making different choices throughout my career. After doing the magnus opus that was Devdas, instead of doing the next big commercial film, I did Chokher Bali. After [commercial film] Dhoom I made [critically acclaimed] Raavan, and so I think I was always changing."

The actress has been wearing many hats at Cannes: the day we met, she was promoting her film, and two days earlier she had been on a UN gender panel, talking about the discrimination against women in the film industry. Then there is also her work with L’Oréal, plus she makes regular appearances at amFAR, the Foudation for Aids Research. This is her 14th appearance at the festival and it’s been a place of many memories, mostly good, apart from the year she was criticised for being overweight (she had given birth a few months prior).

“I’ve been fortunate with how wonderful my career and my personal life has been tied with coming to Cannes,” she says. “Coming here after the birth of my daughter, I realised that this was a statement in itself, giving voice to the ludicrous perception that a woman’s size should remain unaltered after motherhood.”