Try as I might, I can’t understand why Deepika Padukone got such a bad rap for wearing a sari at the Cannes Film Festival. The sari itself was faultless, a tasteful creamy white affair with gold embroidery, designed for her by Rohit Bal, and worn daringly low on the waist to showcase her washboard stomach. The choli was a skimpy, shimmery little thing that made the most of her perfectly chiselled arms and shoulders. And the entire ensemble looked just about perfect on the tall, willowy Deepika. She looked sexy, elegant, dignified and sophisticated, all at the same time – a feat almost impossible to pull off on the red carpet.
Well, at least, that’s how it seemed to me. But given the kind of criticism her appearance attracted, mine was clearly a minority opinion. There were those who were unhappy with the choice of sari (too drab, too understated), others who found fault with the blouse (too short, it made her torso look abnormally long), her jewellery (she had worn it for another function earlier) and the hair-do (the prim bun made her look much older than her years). But mostly, the critics couldn’t understand why she had chosen to wear a sari when she had the perfect figure of carry off a gown.
Well, call me insular or just plain jingoistic, but the sight of an Indian actress walking the red carpet in Cannes wearing a sari made me feel rather proud. What a welcome change from the usual parade of Indian stars and starlets (i.e. everyone from Aishwarya Rai to Mallika Sherawat) who insist on wearing Western-style long, clinging gowns, slit to mid-thigh, and slashed low at the neck, whenever they attend any international event.
In the case of Aishwarya Rai, the oft-cited excuse is that she appears at Cannes in her capacity as L’Oreal ambassador and that the brand decides what she should wear. Hence, the sweeping, floor-length gowns, the elaborate up-dos for her hair, and the joint appearances with American celebrities like Eva Longoria.
But everyone thought that things would change with Freida Pinto, the unlikely star of Slumdog Millionaire. Here was a sweet little girl-next-door type who had gone international. And maybe she would take Indian style international with her. No such luck. Unlike Deepika, Freida chose Galliano over Gudda, wearing Dior at most of her red-carpet appearances and for fashion magazine covers.
But perhaps when you are trying to break into Hollywood, it makes sense to play down the exotic Indian angle and play up the international beauty bit. You need to show directors and producers that you can carry off a thoroughly modern look; and you can’t do that in an Indian outfit. Hence the recourse to such labels as Armani and Chanel and the refusal to wear a sari, I guess. (And it did work for Pinto, who was signed on for a Woody Allen film.)
But that’s exactly why I would award Deepika Padukone full marks for choosing the sari over a gown. I am sure that she wouldn’t be averse to a role or two in a Hollywood project either, but did she let that stop her from going all traditional on the Cannes red carpet? No way.
And how very nice it felt to see a young Indian girl taking pride in being Indian on an international platform! To see her walk the red carpet wearing a traditional sari in the traditional way and looking absolutely smashing in the bargain.
But perhaps this little vignette reveals a bit more than just Deepika’s wardrobe choices. Maybe it suggests that the Indian stars of this generation have finally found the chutzpah to be confident in their own costumes on the international stage. They no longer feel the need to fit it by wearing identikit gowns that you can’t tell apart from all the others on the red carpet.
They are now happy to be themselves, secure in their own skins and sexy in their own saris. Sure, they may want to conquer the world, but they want to do so on their own terms. They may want to go international; but they still want to look Indian while they do that. Think about it.
While Preity Zinta and Bipasha Basu choose to wear Western designs at film events even back home in India, the younger stars are falling back on the glamour of the sari. Kareena Kapoor has made the chiffon sari with halter-neck blouse her signature look. Priyanka Chopra is happy to repeat her Desi girl style at all award functions. And now you have Deepika Padukone strutting her stuff in a sari in Cannes.
Yes, our Indian stars are still intent on conquering the world. But this time round, they are confident enough to do so dressed as Indians. How could that make you feel anything but proud?
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami