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Orient Express

india Updated: Nov 13, 2006 18:33 IST

Two screen queens, two of a kind. Call it pure coincidence that Aishwarya Rai and Zhang Ziyi shared the opening date of their latest films in Delhi’s cineplexes — November 3 saw the release of Ash’s Umrao Jaan and Ziyi’s House Of Flying Daggers. But there is more in common between Ash and Ziyi than their shared tryst at the box office .

The highest paid female stars of their countries, the divas symbolise glamour in their respective national film industries. Both embarked on the path of fame early in life. If Ziyi was just 11 when she became a part of the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy, Ash was turning heads as a model while still a teenager, before finally winning the Miss World crown in 1994.

The divas have both been the chosen endorsers of Coca Cola in their countries. The two made it to Time’s list of ‘100 Most Influential People In The World Today’ and shared the cover in the April 2005 issue of the Beijing Review, China’s leading weekly magazine.

In 2003, Ash became the first Indian actress to be made a jury member at the Cannes Film Fes tival. In May 2006, Ziyi became the youngest Chinese personality to sit on the Cannes jury.

Ziyi courted worldwide fame for her films earlier than Ash, with home grown commercial hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002), Purple Butterfly (2003), House Of Flying Daggers (2004) and 2046 (2004).

Bona fide Hollywood studio deals came to her by way of Rush Hour 2 (2001) and, more recently, the Oscar-nominated Memoirs Of A Geisha.

Ash’s blockbusters such as Taal (1999) and Devdas (2002) created ripples in the Indian diaspora. These films whetted her hunger for global stardom. A Hollywood agent and several Cannes red carpet strolls later, Ash was being offered ‘international’ projects. By 2004, Hollywood was still some distance away, but she was on the world map with Bride And Prejudice , Mistress Of Spices and Provoked.

Though the films did not hit the bullseye, Ash’s frequent trips to the Riviera paid off. Coming up are a few true-blue Hollywood projects. Doug Lefler’s $67-million period epic, The Last Legion, costarring Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth, has elicited mixed responses at advance screenings. The film opens worldwide next year.

Ash co-stars with Meryl  Streep in a Canadian production, Chaos, and is all set to be wooed by Brendan Fraser in Roland Joffe’s forthcoming Singular ity. A script with Will Smith is also being considered. The ethnic edge Significantly, both the actresses attracted foreign media attention for their intrinsic ethnicity. Not for once did either of them try to become an uberwesternised phenomenon.

Ziyi’s forte has been martial arts — that one-point formula that sweeps global audiences when it comes to anything that represents chopsticks cinema. Interestingly, while most of her starring roles have been all about chops, kicks and gravity-defying stunts, Ziyi has never actually trained in martial arts — in fact, many of her stunning moves are improvised dance moves.

Similarly, Ash has primarily ridden her very Indian image in her west ward sojourn. It raises the ‘quaint quotient’, making her an automatic choice for the role of exotic rebel queen Mira in Lefler’s The Last Legion. In Joffe’s Singularity, too, Ash plays an Indi an character.

At 27, Ziyi may have a few years’ headstart over Ash, who has just turned 33. The challenge for both Asian stars remains the same, though — in a white man’s world, the two are out to give glamour a whole new complexion.

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