Embracing the desi boho
With the festive season right around the corner, Bollywood actress Aditi Rao Hydari talks about her journey to becoming one of the most promising faces of traditional Indian couture
Plain sari, hair neatly tucked, minimal makeup. When Bollywood audiences saw Aditi Rao Hydari for the first time on the big screen (she had made her debut two years ago with the Tamil film Sringaram) grinding spices and lip syncing to Genda Phool in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Delhi 6, the suggestion that this petite, light-eyed beauty could actually be a fashionista in her own right would've seemed a little exaggerated.
Today, Aditi Rao Hydari is living out this fantasy on the cover page of every top glossy magazine in India and at every public appearance she makes. The fashion police are yet to mark her negatively. In short, Aditi - in the popular imagination, at least - comes across as a fashionista who can do no wrong, when it comes to making an impactful style statement.
While there is enough and more room for experimentation in Aditi's wardrobe, the actress is known to pull off traditional Indian couture in a way only she can. In fact, many fashion insiders have termed her style as being 'desi boho' - essentially combining traditional Indian outfits with more contemporary styles. The transition has been phenomenal and one that has not gone unnoticed by the who's who of the fraternity (she created quite a stir last year when she became the face of designer Anita Dongre's collection, Love Notes). "A few years ago, people would come up to me and say, 'You look so good in person, but it does not translate in your public appearances.' Now, I feel the way I am as a person translates perfectly because I have a stylist (Sanam Ratansi) who gets my vibe," she says. "I like different kinds of clothes. I am very deeply rooted in tradition, but at the same time, I have this bohemian streak. So, I pretty much dress according to what I am feeling at the moment. The thing with Indian clothes is that they often tend to get associated with 'dressing up', whereas, for me, I would like to wear Indian outfits as effortlessly as I would a pair of jeans." A prospect she looks forward to with greater eagerness as the festive season nears. "I obviously like to go completely Indian during Diwali. I love lehengas; I like wearing anarkalis. However, I have never worn a sari for Diwali. I guess I have yet to get reacquainted with wearing saris."
Today, a chunk of any conversation around Aditi, who hails from an illustrious family (her maternal grandfather J Rameshwar Rao was the Raja of Wanaparthy, while her paternal great grandfather Sir Akbar Hydari was the prime minister to the Nizam of Hyderabad), either revolves around her impeccable style or her porcelain skin and roses-and-peaches complexion.
Things are roses and peaches on the work front, too. Earlier this year, the actress teamed up with noted filmmaker Mani Ratnam for Kaatru Veliyidai, a romance set against the backdrop of the Kargil war of 1999, with Aditi's performance getting a vote of confidence from critics. Just last month, the actress played the titular role in Omung Kumar's Bhoomi, a film that also marked Sanjay Dutt's return to the big screen, where she essayed the role of a victim of physical assault. Come December, and Aditi will be seen sharing screen space with the likes of Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor in what is the singularly most awaited film of the year, Padmavati.
A Mani Ratnam film, an author-backed titular role and (not to mention) the plum prospect of being directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in his magnum opus. It must feel pretty darn awesome to be in Aditi Rao Hydari's shoes right now. And she doesn't deny it either.
"It was actually interesting for me, because I wrapped up Mani Sir's film and went straight to Sanjay Sir's sets," she says. "What was interesting was to see how these two directors, who breathe, eat, live and sleep films, create cinema that's beyond their years. Layers keep peeling off every time you watch and re-watch their films."
As an actor, Aditi draws a neat distinction between their crafts. "I often joke that Mani Sir is microeconomics, while Sanjay Sir is macroeconomics. With Mani Sir, drama unfolds between characters. With Sanjay Sir, the canvas is larger than life. With the former, you are sprinting; with the latter, you are running a marathon." And yet, the real pleasure of working with both filmmakers is their ability to portray beautiful women with all their complexities and ambiguities. "Both have these beautiful, quite often vulnerable and delicate characters, who are also strong. They know what they are doing. The way these filmmakers project women is really special."
This is not an actor singing odes to two veteran filmmakers. In Bollywood, like in any other show business, the spotlight on beauty often tends to eclipse the talent, a perception that actors such as Aditi, who has proved her mettle with some fine performances in films such as Yeh Saali Zindagi and Kaatru Veliyidai, among others, cannot afford beyond a point. However, she has learnt to read between the lines. "Someone who only harps on, 'Oh, you are too pretty to play this part' is, according to me, making excuses. Having said that, there are other people for whom beauty is part of the talent. Beauty adds to the talent and talent adds to the beauty. A pretty face is boring after a point. A pretty face becomes something more because of its uniqueness, its ability to transform. I feel people like Mani Ratnam really understand women in that sense. They don't think beauty and talent are mutually exclusive. They don't think vulnerability and strength are mutually exclusive."
Navigating the ways of Bollywood comes with its own set of rules - some that are meant to be broken, and some that are to be followed. Aditi is not unaware of the challenges, neither is she oblivious to the recent heated debate in Bollywood - revolving around the privileges enjoyed by star kids in comparison to those of outsiders - thanks to actress Kangana Ranaut, who made headlines when she appeared on the talk show Koffee With Karan and called its host, filmmaker Karan Johar, the flagbearer of nepotism.
In the past, Aditi has been forthright about talking about the perils of making it on her own, though she gives the debate a more refreshing perspective. So, what are the larger problems of an outsider in the industry? "I see you're not using the word that shouldn't be used - the 'N' word," she jokes. Nepotism, it is. "I learnt this from my mother: rather than crying about what you don't have, put your energy into what you do. The fact is that I am privileged in my world. And films are not really my world. So, I feel it is natural for people to help their own people. It's a human instinct. It does not happen only in the film industry. When the head of a business hangs his boots, his son takes over."
That said, she does wish the industry could offer more lucrative opportunities to outsiders so that they too could hope to grow and improve upon their craft. "You may be talented, but you may not necessarily get the best first break, and then it's easy for people write you off. So, outsiders may not have the best opportunities to showcase their talent in comparison to the kids from the industry. That's the only difference. Having said that, you do find your groove eventually. I can crib about a number of people who have not cast me or chosen someone else over me, but I would rather be loyal to those who have backed me."
The 'process', she admits, is likely to be slower for someone like her. "Today, I know there is no one recommending my name, there is no producer making a film for me. Like even now, after Bhoomi, if I had my machinery behind me, someone would have announced a big project with me. But I know there is no announcement waiting for me. People might appreciate my performance, but I am not even certain whether I will win any awards for it, because there is a machinery behind that too. Of course, it is disappointing because you want those awards, you want that big break, you want those plum projects. But you keep faith and hope that with every film, you get a better opportunity."
For now, the actress wouldn't mind a little celebration. After all, 2017 has been an important year with the magnum opus Padmavati wrapping the year, hopefully, on a positive note for her. On the other hand, there is palpable excitement about Diwali. "I like to go home to Hyderabad and spend Diwali with family," she says. "We don't light firecrackers, but we light diyas and everybody is made to sing shlokas. And when I am in Bombay, I usually like to go to Diwali parties there. They actually feel quite special."