Bollywood Rivalries E01 : Aishwarya rai and Sushmita Sen – Bollywood’s Love Affair with Beauty Pageants

femina Miss India 1994

The year was 1994. Miss India was gearing up for its 31st edition. The organisers were super excited, after all, Aishwarya Rai, one of the most sought after models of the early 90s, was going to be a contestant. Up until the night of the gala event, it was almost certain that Aishwarya was going to be crowned the winner. Even though, she was the most talked about contestant that night, Aishwarya only managed to finish second. Sushmita Sen, a teenager had done the unthinkable! Sushmita not only did upset Aishwarya Rai at the beauty pageant but also consolidated her domestic triumph by winning the Miss Universe as well. Aishwarya as the 1st runner up at Miss India’94 ended up participating in Miss World and she too won the international pageant. It was a rare occasion that India had won two of the most coveted beauty pageants in the same year. The media lapped up the Indian wins like crazy and Aishwarya and Sushmita, both, became the epitome of Indian beauty. This also marked the beginning of their much talked about rivalry which continued for decades as they eventually ended up in the same profession – “Acting”.

Start in Bollywood

Sushmita Sen jumped into acting almost immediately after her Miss Universe win. Bollywood, too, was eager to launch her, after all she had beaten Aishwarya Rai, someone who already had plump movie offers before Miss India. Sushmita was signed by Mahesh Bhatt under Vishesh Films, and the movie was called Dastak (1996). Vishesh Films wanted to encash Sushmita’s popularity, so much so, that they based her character in the movie on her real self. Yes, the movie though fictional, revolved around Sushmita Sen- the Miss Universe. The movie did not fare well at the box office and the media focus then shifted to Aishwarya Rai and her much awaited movie debut.

Aishwarya Rai made a rather delayed Bollywood debut, at 24, with the Bobby Deol starrer, Aur Pyar Ho Gaya (1997). The movie sank without a trace and all of a sudden, the media frenzy around her and Sushmita dwindled. Sushmita had just one release in the two years after the Dastak debacle, the forgetful Zor (1998). Aishwarya Rai, too had to wait for two years for her next movie, Aa Ab Laut Chalein (1999) with Akshaye Khanna. Both Zor and Aa Ab Laut Chalein were resounding flops and Aish and Sush both were now struggling make a mark in Bollywood. But things were about to change, for the better, for both of them.

Bollywood Success

The year 1999 was as remarkable as 1994, for both Aishwarya and Sushmita. Again a co-incidence of sorts. Both of them delivered their first super hits in 1999 and consequently substantiated their places in Bollywood. Aishwarya Rai became a phenomenon with the release of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali which also marked the beginning of her long creative partnership with the director and her love affair with her co-star Salman Khan. Sushmita Sen, on the other hand, played a supporting albeit pivotal role in David Dhawan’s blockbuster Biwi No. 1 (1999). Both of their films had Salman Khan as the lead actor, again a major co-incidence, also something that made their rivalry meatier. Aishwarya further consolidated her success with the average fare Taal (1999) whereas Sushmita delivered another hit the same year, again in a supporting role in Sirf Tum (1999). Both Taal and Sirf Tum had superhit soundtracks! While Aishwarya being the leading lady in Taal featured in almost all songs, Sushmita was the part of the mega hit Dilbar Dilbar in Sirf Tum.

Both Aishwarya and Sushmita were rewarded for their perfomances in 1999 at various award functions. Aishwarya won the Best Actress (Popular) award at the 2000s Filmfare Awards (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) and Sushmita Sen was awarded the Best Supporting Actress trophy for her performance in Biwi No.1.

Hits and Misses

After her stupendous success in 1999, Aishwaya Rai was touted as the next numero uno Heroine in Bollywood. She had multiple movie offers as the leading lady of which Humara Dil Aapke Paas Hai (2000) and Devdas (2002) were major hits. She also had an extended cameo in the Aditya Chopra directed blockbuster Mohabbatein(2000). Sushmita Sen on the other hand struggled to make a mark post her success in 1999. She also had an added disadvantage as she was now only seen as a supporting actress and struggled to get leading roles in Bollywood. The limited offers she accepted as the leading lady, all flopped at the box office. Only her multi-starrers like Aankhen (2002) and Main Hoon Na (2004) could do well. Main Hoon Na, a movie she bagged because of her past collaboration with Farah Khan in the song Dilbar Dilbar, proved to be her biggest commercial success thus far.

After the success of Devdas, Aishwarya, too had a string of flop films (read Nine). Also, Rani Mukerjee and Preity Zinta gave her stiff competition and bagged most of the the big budget movies of the era. Aishwaya also dabbled into production with Dil Ka Rishta (2004), which too was a resounding flop. After a lull of 3 years, Aishwaya found some respite with the back to back success of Dhoom 2(2006), Guru (2007) and Jodha Akbar(2008). The success, however, was short-lived and all her movies post Jodha Akbar did not do well at the box office and she took a break from Bollywood in 2010. She did make a comeback with the Sanjay Gupta directorial Jazbaa (2015) and the biography Sarabjit (2016) but both the movies did not do much for her. Although, she did have an extended cameo in the successful Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), her next release Fanney Khan (2018) proved to be a box office disaster and Aishwarya did not sign any movies post that. On the other hand, after her initial win over Aishwarya Rai at pageantry, Sushmita Sen could not match up to her rival’s success as an Actress in Bollywood. All her movies post Main hoon Na and Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya (2005) flopped badly at the box-office and she did not sign any film post No Problem in 2010. However, her recent outing on the OTT platform, Disney+Hotstar’s Aarya, has won her immense praise and proven her mettle as a performer.

Personal Life

Soon after the release of Guru (2007), Aishwarya Rai married her co-star Abhishek Bachchan in one of the most sensationalised weddings in Bollywood. The media just went bonkers and covered everything from the pre-wedding Pujas to Aishwarya’s traditional Kanjeevaram Saree. Her daughter Aaradhya was born in 2011. When Aishwarya has had the most conventional personal life an actress could ask for, Sushmita Sen has been a complete non-conformist. For starters, she adopted her first daughter Renee in 2000 and became a single mother at 25. She adopted her second daughter Alisah in 2010. Additionally, she has always been the more outspoken one between her and Aishwarya, and has never shied away from talking about her relationships. Sushmita has always been the more candid of the two and is probably one of the most honest celebrities as far as personal life is concerned.

Today when I write this, both Aishwarya and Sushmita are on their break from Bollywood. Both of them have had their share of ups and downs in their careers but all through, they were trailblazers. They were the first ones to make Miss India mainstream and inspired numerous other girls like Priyanka Chopra, Lara Dutta, Dia Mirza, Neha Dhupia, Celina Jaitley who followed their footsteps in Bollywood after their respective Miss India wins. Even after 28 years of their Miss India win, their rivalry is still talked about and they will always remembered by the masses, mostly simultaneously, as the first ones from the pageantry world to successfully cross over to Bollywood.