NEW YORK: It’s when I start reading Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth Dhanush’s captivating, gem of a memoir ‘Standing on an Apple Box’ (HarperCollins India, 171 pages, Rs. 399), on the train back home to Connecticut, I realized that the interview I had with her earlier in the evening in Manhattan was echoes of lessons and love she had gleaned from people in her own life. It resonated in the book too, gives her guidance in her own daily life.
Most people recognize the elegant and soft-spoken Aishwaryaa as the daughter of the inimitable superstar Rajinikanth, and the wife of one of the leading actors in Tollywood, Dhanush. They got married when she 22, have two sons. She’s directed a feature film, ‘3’, starring Dhanush; is a Bharatnatyam dancer, and last year was appointed UN Women’s advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment in India. She’s now working on a biopic on an Olympic paraplegic, which will go on the floors later this year.
On Thursday, she gave a fine dance rendition at the United Nations. I caught up with her on Friday. It was only when I read the book I realized that she’s also doing discreetly a four-year program in criminology from a university outside of India, the first year of which she’s finished. She didn’t mention it in the interview – and it’s easy to understand why.
In one of the chapters, she recounted how the paparazzi hounded her after she took an exam at a college in India. Stymied in her ambitions to be a lawyer, Dhanush took inspiration for her current program from a relative who finished a Ph.D. at the age of 80.
In the interview, Dhanush spoke earnestly about women’s issues, and in particular, about awareness for cyber security, and the critical need for girls in rural India to get an education. She also spoke about creating more awareness of crimes against women in India after the Nirbhaya incident; opined that social media has helped spread that awareness. Unlike the growing movement in the US to make women’s marches and issues a soft political power, she’s against it, though.
“I want to create awareness of how careful they (girls) need to be when they post a selfie or give out personal information online, not to be out there because of peer pressure and to think of the dangers and hazards they could be putting themselves into,” she explained.
Dhanush added: “I also harp on the fact that girl children should be educated. In the rural areas they don’t go to school, they don’t study.”
In the memoir, Dhanush amplifies on that vein of thought: “I believe that education is the greatest gift one can give to one’s own self-worth. There is no satisfaction like it, especially if you are passionate about it.”
The memoir, as one might well expect, has some terrific anecdotes about Rajinikanth, gives insight into the simple, uncomplicated, loving family man and father he is at home; a man who always kept family foremost in his life, never got swayed or went astray by his wealth and fame.
The book is also about Aishwaryaa’s mother, mother-in-law, her grandparents, children, brother-in-law, her friends, sister, fervent fans of Rajinikanth, family vacations (on a trip to Paris she goes out wearing a lungi of Rajinikanth), the tough lessons she learnt on the sets of the movie industry, going to the disco for the first time on her 18th birthday, accompanied alas, her entire family – a move orchestrated by her protective father; the love between her and her mother-in-law; the wonderful affection between her father and his son-in-law.
‘Standing on an Apple Box’, with a foreword by another star child Shweta Bachchan Nanda (Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter) is written in a simple ‘Malgudi Days’ type manner, with short, succinct chapters. It’s poignant and memorable. Most of all, it makes one fall in love with Rajinikanth, the father.
In the chapter ‘My Father, the Superstar’, Dhanush details an incident when she was about five years old. Appa, as she calls Rajinikanth, saves her from touching the blades of a rotating table fan, and then scolds her, angry perhaps at his own inattentiveness which led to a near tragedy. Years later, Rajinikanth told her that the moment had a huge impact on him.
Dhanush writes: ‘He was struck by the innocence of a child who can forget a frightful scolding and love unconditionally. Most of us would not have recognized this life lesson, but Appa with his innate sense of empathy and humility made this simple episode a learning experience. Many of us would have given the child another lecture on staying out of trouble and spoilt the moment; I know I would have been tempted to. But not Appa. There is, I have always felt, a deep vein of innocence in Appa that helps him to recognize it in others.”
Years later, Rajinikanth came and asked Aishwaryaa if he could take that moment from her childhood for a scene in a film, which he later did.
I asked Dhanush why was Rajinikanth popular even in places like Japan.
She smiled, thought for a moment, and then said in an even softer voice: “I think it is his simplicity and keeping it real. The people can relate with that. The man has not changed in so many years.”