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     Volume 7 Issue 47 | November 28, 2008 |

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Writing the Wrong

Not So Sweet Ash

Sharbari Ahmed

I was going to write an eloquent treatise comparing our man Barack to Mr. Abraham Lincoln and how he obviously is tearing a page out of the late President's book by welcoming vipers to his breast (Rahm Emanuel, the former Mr. Zion, and potentially Sonal Shah, whose family is associated with a Hindu fundamentalist organisation back in India). I keep telling myself there is a method here, a line of reasoning so transcendent it escapes a mere mortal like me.

So, instead I have chosen to write about Aishwariya Rai. The following is a reflection of how things were pre-Obama. I suddenly remembered it and had to look up the particulars on you tube.

It may not seem like a big deal but as a deshi-American trying to make films in Hollywood, it means everything.

On February 8th, 2005 I stayed up well past my bedtime to witness what I thought, as a South Asian American, was history in the making. Aishwairya the preternaturally beautiful Mumbai film star, was going to sit opposite David Letterman, the irrepressible demigod of late night American television.

I barely stayed awake during Letterman's top ten list--when Ash--as she is affectionately called by three billion people--sauntered onto the stage. She sauntered confidently, mind you; giving no warning as to the defensive exchange with Letterman that was about to ensue.

As she sat down in the celebrity hot seat, it was obvious that Ash was simply not used to dealing with the reductionist questions about our culture that we, as South Asians in the U.S., have had to field our entire lives. Yet, Letterman seemed really excited about her. He even said in his introduction that her fame goes to show how little Americans are aware of the rest of the world. He actually used her presence to make a commentary about America's self imposed cultural isolation. What seemed to get under Ash's radiant skin was Letterman's comment about the irony that she was the biggest movie star in the world and no one in American knew who she was. It's like the American media is scratching its head, wondering, “How did she stay under the we-are-the-world-media-savvy radar for so long? As sexy as she is?”

When Letterman asked her what it was like being the biggest movie star in the world, she called Letterman to task by suggesting she meant nothing to him.

By this time I felt wide-awake and fully aware that I was witnessing the PR equivalent to the Hindenberg disaster--a publicist's nightmare. A myriad of emotions ran through me. I felt at once uncomfortable, fearful and excited. I wondered who her publicist was and whether they would be able to find another job? I felt also, yes, I admit it, a bit gleeful, because quite frankly, Ash has no right looking that perfect all the time. But as the exchange continued my emotions became less base and more complex.

Though Letterman's questions about language and the correct name for Bombay (Mumbai, as opposed to Bombay, can anyone say Uuuma, Ohhprah from Letterman's Oscar debacle from years back?) were relatively innocuous, and Ash seemed to answer them well, if a bit snippily, it was the question about her living arrangements that sent the interview over the edge. Letterman commented about her living with her parents. He asked if it was normal in India for “grown children” to live with their parents. Because here, in America, that wasn't the case. Ms. Rai paused and then said, “Well, in India we don't have to make an appointment to have dinner with our parents.”

There was a confused silence followed by confused applause. I thought the applause interesting because I am convinced people were not entirely aware that they were applauding actual criticism of our way of life, which we have invaded, killed, tortured and re-elected to protect. The applause was an automatic response to a witty rejoinder, which is what one expects when watching Letterman.

Ashwariya's behaviour and responses were particularly conspicuous because the guest before her, actor Kevin James, had spent the whole segment making fun of himself and his portliness, solidly endearing him to the average American schlub. When Ash walked out, Letterman had already built her up to--forgive me--goddess status, and thus unwittingly put up a wall between her and the American public. He had described her as “the most beautiful woman in the world”.

Americans want to love their celebrities and if this woman was to be embraced by the American people she would have to appear to be a friend, a chum one could share a cup of coffee with, while looking perfect the whole time. Her discomfiture and defensiveness only added to the inaccessibility that Letterman in his eagerness to welcome and praise her had created.

The whole delightful ride ended traditionally, with a clip of the movie the star was there to promote. Letterman, now a bit abashed and uncharacteristically subdued, asked Ash to set up the clip for her upcoming film, Bride and Prejudice. Ash launched into a mini dissertation on American imperialism that, for the most part, was incoherent to me. The clip, which was poorly chosen, was played and further illustrated the now growing suspicion that Ash was never going to be the girl next door--unless you lived in Juhu.

I have known for many years that white America--sorry mainstream America-- is not ready to embrace a South Asian as the girl next door. I think this is because we still seem too exotic and casting agents still lack the imagination to view us as anything other than that. I deal with this all the time. When people ask me where I'm from, I say, “White Plains” They insist that I cannot possibly be from suburban New York, and “for sure not American.” I say, “Okay, well, Bangladesh…it's next to India."

"Ahhh! Okay", they say. "I know where that is. Did the tsunami hit that?"

The truth is I'm too tired of defending my Americaness.

But Ash, not schooled in American ignorance, does not have anything to prove. Based on her public appearances I think she has effectively alienated the American public, which is not hard to do. Given the past 'patriotic" climate we lived in, no amount of stunning beauty could overcome what people believed to be foreign disdain for the American way of life.

But Ashwariya's reputation is intact, because 3 billion people adore her. A number far greater than what the buxom Jessica Simpson garners. Speaking of garnering: I kept thinking of Jennifer Garner, the Alias star, who plays the celebrity game perfectly. Ms. Garner appears so accessible, like you can invite her over to decoupage your grandmother's lampshades or something. Can you imagine Ash trying to decoupage anything?

The truth is if I showed up at Ms Garner's doorstep and suggested we hit the nearest craft store because my dadi needs her walls stencilled, Ben Affleck would come charging out of the bedroom and tackle me. I would not have a chance to explain that when she was on Leno, she reminded me of my best friend from college and that I really felt I could talk to her about my low credit rating, or the strange rash shaped like Nelson Mandela's head that appeared seemingly overnight.

Americans take comfort from the blatant illusion that celebrities (and Presidents) are our friends. And, compared to the winsome Ms. Garner, Ash seemed so obviously out of reach. Her celebrity, therefore, provided no succour, no way to help an American fanaticise that they could break free from their mundane life and someday be her. Because believable fantasy is what makes a movie star in this country, the ability to convince the average person that never mind the special effects, or the perfectly toned abs, you and me, we're friends and someday I'll invite you over to my house and let you sand my hardwood floors.

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