In an article published on the Guardian website today, Sarfraz Manoor drew attention to the recent controversy in India surrounding the body shape of one of its most famous female celebrities – Aishwarya Rai. Since being pictured in Cannes, she’s drawn an onslaught of criticism from Indian celebrity press, backed up by offensive videos, blogs and comments. The source of this fury is that she appears not to have shed the weight gained during her recent pregnancy; she gave birth six months ago.
Manoor quoted Show business columnist Shobhaa Dé as saying “Aishwarya is like a goddess […] She is held up as the ideal of beauty and so there is an expectation on her to look perfect at all times.” What makes this expectation so imperative that her failing to fulfil it would create such a furore? What does it mean when the popular opinion of a nation offers its critique of a woman’s figure?
In 1994 she was crowned Miss World. That India was in the midst of the economic liberalisation, begun in 1991, that aimed to bring the country fully into global economic markets, makes it easier to understand why she has become a more powerful symbol than your average movie star. She is even supposed to have been proclaimed “The most beautiful woman in the world” by Julia Roberts (herself).
We might consider that Rai’s body and beauty do not belong to her alone. Her beauty and her body shape are not just her own, but they ‘belong’ to the nation insofar as they represent it on the global stage. Her physical appearance has become irrevocably entangled with national pride. It is not a coincidence that she has been called the Indian equivalent of Kate Middleton.
In India this link between the nation and woman is particularly enduring in part due to the deification of the Nation as Mother India. Sumathi Ramaswamy has documented this in The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, a visual history of Mother India, or Bharat Mata. The female body has been used again and again to configure and refigure popular conceptions of the shape of the Indian nation. For instance Ramaswamy’s early research focussed on the way images of Mother Tamil have been used in the conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamil communities in South India and Sri Lanka.
What makes Aishwarya Rai’s case doubly interesting is that it is framed by her pregnancy. Bharat Mata and other feminine images of the nation have always been steeped in the symbolism of fertility, not least because of the ‘Mother’ epithet. In the poster for the 1957 Bharat Mata, the body of superstar of her time Nargis is clearly not the figure of the modern Miss World.
Whilst Aishwarya Rai is expected to fulfil an image appropriate for the representative of a nation, she is no longer expected to appear outwardly ‘fertile’. This points towards a broader question to do with modern femininity. The contemporary woman is no longer reduced to child bearer, and rightly so. However if Aishwarya Rai is not allowed to appear to have had children, and is compared in the Indian press to Angelina Jolie and Victoria Beckham, what is the ideal that has filled this vacuum?