Rai made her acting debut in Mani Ratnam’s Tamil biopic film, Iruvar (1997) alongside Mohanlal, The controversial film was a critical success and won many awards including Best Film award at the Belgrade International Film Festival,two National Film Awards, and two Filmfare Awards South. Rai appeared in dual roles, with one of her roles being a cinematic depiction of political leader and former actress J. Jayalalithaa. Following this, Rai made her Bollywood debut in the film, Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya opposite Bobby Deol, which released the same year; the film was unsuccessful at the box office. However, her third project Jeans (1998), a high-budgeted Tamil film directed by S. Shankar, was a commercial success. The film was also noted for the song “Poovukkul”, written by Vairamuthu, in which, she is compared to the seven wonders of the world and described as the eighth. The film was India’s official entry to the Academy Awards in that year.
In 1999 Rai starred in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam opposite Salman Khan and Ajay Devgan. The film had Rai playing a pivotal character, Nandini, who is forced to marry Devgan despite being in love with another man (Khan). As her husband tries to get her to her previous love, she eventually falls for him. Rai’s portrayal won her critical acclaim, with a review on Rediff.com stating, “Aishwarya looks beautiful as usual … This film will most likely draw her accolades from all over, may be even get her recognised as an actress the way Manisha Koirala did in Khamoshi. In many scenes, there is no trace of makeup and she looks very fresh” The film became her first box office success in Bollywood. Her performance in the film earned her a Filmfare Best Actress Award.
In the same year she appeared in Subhead Ghais Taalin which she played the role of a young village woman, Mansi, who becomes a big pop star after being hurt by her lover played by Akshay Khanna. The film was an average grosser in India but was a big success outside India, especially in the United States, where it became the first Indian film to be charted as one of the top 20 films on Variety’s box office list.Her performance in the film was praised with Rediff.com writing, “After being praised for her looks and acting talent in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Aishwarya has excelled in Taal. She looks ethereal and unlike the former film, has a very sober and soft role. Though she looks pained and tragic in most of the film, she does a good job of a woman who is very protective of her father and one who doesn’t think twice before rejecting a lover who has insulted her father. She received another Best Actress nomination from the Filmfare for her performance in the film.
In 2000, she appeared in Mansoor Khan’s Josh alongside Shahrukh Khan and Chandrachur Singh, in which she played a Catholic named Shirley who falls in love with the sibling of her brother’s enemy. The film was a commercial success.Later that year she appeared in Satish Kaushik’s Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai opposite Anil Kapoor. It was a moderate success and her performance earned her a Filmfare Best Actress Award nomination. Later that year she played a supporting role in Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein alongside Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan. The film was a major commercial success and became the second-highest grosser of the year, and it earned her a Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award nomination.Later that year, she starred in the Tamil film Kandukondain Kandukondain, alongside Mammooty, Ajith Kumar and Tabu.
In 2002, Rai appeared alongside Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, an adaptation of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novel by the same name. She played the role of Paro (Parvati), the love interest of the protagonist, played by Khan. The film received a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival.It became the highest-grossing film of the year in both India and overseas, earning a revenue of Rs 390 million domestically. Devdas won numerous awards, including 10 Filmfare Awards, and Rai received her second Filmfare Best Actress Award for her performance.
In 2003, she acted in Rituparno Ghosh’s Bengali film Chokher Bali, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel by the same name. She portrayed the character of a young woman called Binodini, who is left to her own devices when her sickly husband dies soon after they are married. That year she appeared in her home production Dil Ka Rishta with Arjun Rampal and Rohan Sippy’s Kuch Na Kaho alongside Abhishek Bachchan, neither of which fared well at the box office.
In 2004 she appeared alongside Martin Henderson in Bride and Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha’s Bollywood-style English adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. On Rotten Tomatoes the film has a rating of 64% based on 131 reviews. She played the role of Lalita Bakshi, the film’s counterpart of Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s novel. This was followed by Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khakee with Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan and Jayapradha. She played a negative role for the first time in her career in this film. In the same year she appeared in her second film with Rituparno Ghosh, Raincoat alongside Ajay Devgan. The film was highly acclaimed by the critics, with Rai receiving rave reviews for her performance.
In 2005 she appeared in Shabd, a film based on a love triangle, alongside Sanjay Dutt and Zayed Khan. The film was unsuccessful at the box office; it received average reviews from the critics. Her next release that year was Paul Mayeda Berges’s The Mistress of Spices based on the novel of the same name by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, in which she starred alongside Dylan McDermott. The film received negative reviews from critics and was also a commercial failure. The same year she made a special appearance in Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli in a hugely popular seven-minute dance sequence for the song “Kajra Re”, with Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan.
Rai in a different getup, as an old Dwarf, in the movie Dhoom 2
In 2006, Rai starred in J P Dutta’s Umrao Jaan, a second film adaptation of the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada (1905), written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. She portrayed courtesan and poetess by the same name from 19th century Lucknow. The film was a critical and commercial failure, and Rai’s work received generally mixed reviews. Critics particularly panned the film and Rai’s performance while comparing them to the acclaimed 1981 version by Muzaffar Ali, which starred Rekha in the title role. BBC critic Poonam Joshi wrote, “While only Aishwarya could emulate the grace and poise of Rekha, she doesn’t quite capture the intensity of Umrao’s abiding melancholy”, later commenting that “her incandescent beauty and artistry… does indeed keep the audience watching, though not necessarily emotionally engaged.Later that year she appeared as a master thief, Sunheri, in Yash Raj Films’s Dhoom 2 directed by Sanjay Gadhvi, with an ensemble cast of Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Bipasha Basu and Uday Chopra. The film turned out to be a blockbuster and became the highest grossing film of the year in India, earning revenues of over Rs 770 million domestically. The film also sparked a controversy for a scene containing a kiss between her and Hrithik Roshan. However, Rai’s performance in the film received mostly negative reviews with a reviewer on Rediff.com writing, “Ash’s character too is all gloss and no depth. You seldom feel any tension in her behaviour and expressions as she accompanies the master thief on potentially dangerous missions. Sunehri enters the film nearly 50 minutes after its opening in a disguise. In no time, she is wearing the flimsiest of clothes. Once she opens her mouth—and she does it two minutes after appearing in the film—she spoils the image. There is no sensuality anymore, and half an hour later, one wonders what made the master thief fall for her. Nonetheless, her performance earned her a sixth nomination for Filmfare Best Actress Award.
In 2007 she appeared in Mani Ratnam’s Guru as Sujata. Speculated to be based on the life of Indian businessman Dhirubhai Ambani, it was a rag to riches story about an ambitious small town man who ends up as the owner of the biggest corporation in India. The film was premièred at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, Canada, making it the first Indian film to have a mainstream international premiere in Canada. The film was critically acclaimed and performed well at the box office Critical reception for Rai was mixed. While Nikhat Kazmi from The Times of India wrote that she is “just okay and fails to register the growth in her character”, Rediff.com’s Raja Sen described it as “arguably her finest performance, visible especially when she takes over the film’s climax. Rai got her seventh Filmfare nomination for Best Actress for the role. In the same year she starred in Jag Mundhra’s British film Provoked as Kiranjit Ahluwalia, an NRI woman who killed her abusive husband after facing severe domestic violence, alongside Naveen Andrews and Miranda Richardson. Rai received mostly positive reviews for her portrayal. It was screened in the Marché du Film Cannes Film Market during the Cannes Film Festival in April 2006. During the screening, Ahluwalia sat next to Rai, reportedly holding her hand and sobbing during the most violent scenes. In the same year she appeared as a female Indian warrior from Kerala named Mira in Doug Lefler’s epic film The Last Legion alongside Sir Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth and Thomas Sangster. The film was a critical failure.
Rai at the Cannes Film Festival (2008)
In 2008, she starred alongside Hrithik Roshan in Ashutosh Gowariker’s historical drama Jodhaa Akbar, a partly fictionalised account of the life of Muslim Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, played by Roshan and his Hindu wife Jodha Bai, played by Rai. The film was a critical and commercial success, earning revenues of over Rs 590 million domestically. Rai’s performance in the film was praised by critics, with Rajeev Masand writing, “Aishwarya Rai is wonderfully restrained and uses her eyes expertly to communicate so much, making this one of her finest outings on screen”She earned her eighth nomination for Best Actress at the Filmfare for her performance. Later that year she co-starred with husband Abhishek Bachchan and father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan in Ram Gopal Verma’s Sarkar Raj, a sequel to his previous film Sarkar She played the CEO of a major power company proposing to establish a new power plant in rural Maharashtra. The film was a critical and commercial success.
In 2009, she appeared in Harald Zwart’s spy comedy film The Pink Panther 2 playing the role of criminology expert, Sonia Solandres. Like its predecessor, the sequel received negative reviews from critics and did a moderate business of $75,871,032 worldwide. In 2010, she collaborated with Mani Ratnam for a bilingual project, with both versions featuring Rai portraying a character based on the goddess Sita. Both films were shot simultaneously, with Rai’s role being one of the only roles which were played by the same performer in both versions. Upon release, it received mixed reviews from film critics. Though her portrayal of Ragini in both languages were praised, the Hindi Raavan alongside Abhishek Bachchan failed commercially, whilst the Tamil Raavanan, became a massive success. Despite the mixed reviews in India, various US media including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Hollywood reporters praised the Hindi movie.
Rai paired with Rajinikanth in the science fiction Tamil film Enthiran (2010), directed by S. Shankar. The film was released worldwide in 2010 as the most expensive film ever made in India and was claimed to be the highest-grossing Indian film with all its versions put together. She appeared in Vipul Shah’s Action Replayy opposite Akshay Kumar which received mixed reviews from critics. Rai’s final release in 2010 was Guzaarish, her third collaboration with both director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and actor Hrithik Roshan, respectively. The film tells the story of Ethan Mascarenhas (Roshan), a former magician who has been quadriplegic for twelve years and after years of struggle files an appeal to the court for euthanasia (mercy killing). Rai played Ethan’s strict, devoted and supportive nurse Sophie D’Souza. The film opened to positive reviews from critics, and Rai’s portrayal was praised by critics. According to Nikhat Kazmi, “Aishwarya is a stunning picture of fire and grace, walking away with certain scenes by her sheer vitality. In 2011, she received her ninth nomination for the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. As of May 2011, she is set to appear in Rajkumar Santoshi’s next film Ladies and Gentlemen along with Abhishek Bachchan and Madhur Bhandarkar’s next directorial venture Heroine