The following year she won Miss World.
“That contest is seen as a bit of a joke in the west but Rai winning really mattered to India,” said Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cinema at the University of London.
“Most of the films she has appeared in – with a few exceptions – have been critically trashed,” said film critic Mayank Shekhar. “Her prime talent – if not her only one – is that the west perceives hers to be the most beautiful face to have come out of India.”
“She is an icon because of her extreme beauty,” said novelist Kishwar Desai, “and also because she has broken through to the international market and that means a lot to Indians.”
The criticism of Rai’s post-pregnancy figure has been fierce . “Aishwarya is like a goddess,” said Showbusiness columnist Shobhaa Dé. “She is held up as the ideal of beauty and so there is an expectation on her to look perfect at all times.”
One website posted a video, complete with elephant sound effects, entitled “Aishwarya Rai’s shocking weight gain”, which has been seen more than 500,000 times. “She is a Bollywood actress and it is her duty to look good and fit,” suggested one commenter. Another added: “She needs to learn from people like Victoria Beckham who are back to size zero weeks after their delivery.”
“There is a glorification of motherhood in India and Indian cinema,” said cinema professor Shohini Ghosh. “But people are confused because they don’t know whether to glorify Aishwarya in her new motherhood or lament that she is not looking like a runway model.”
“The role models being held up are Angelina Jolie and Victoria Beckham,” said Dé. “But our body frames are different – we have wider hips and curves – so this whole business of looking desperately skinny two weeks after giving birth is a western import.”