The Bets On Aishwayra Rai

Although Indians obsess endlessly about cricket, Bollywood movies and stars, politics and potholed roads, the level of preoccupation rises sharply during the monsoons when the situation worsens. Right now it’s at a fever pitch over a series of subjects, but clearly in the lead is the possible pregnancy of one of India’s most beautiful actresses.

It is Bollywood’s Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World who has adorned the covers of several top foreign magazines in addition to Indian ones, who has the tongues wagging the most and has the gossip news rolling out of the newspaper kiosks. Aishwarya, fresh from striding across the red carpet at Cannes, appears to be pregnant, much to the chagrin of at least one film director who had cast her in a glamorous role in the long-awaited movie “Heroine,” and had no idea about her biological status. The movie has now been put off indefinitely.

There had been considerable speculation about Aishwarya’s condition in the past, but this time the news has been confirmed by the most reliable source used by the information gatherers – the celebrity Twitter account of Aishwarya’s father-in-law, the actor Amitabh Bachchan, who proclaimed himself ecstatic about the prospective new arrival.

There has been no denial or an indication that the account has been hacked. Aishwarya’s husband Abhishek Bachchan, an actor himself, is also reported by the media to be happy with his wife’s condition, telling the fan magazines he’s “on top of the world” and that the couple hopes to have two children.

The Indian paparazzi mob their favorites for the latest updates, feeding pictures to mainstream newspapers that carry exhaustive color supplements that feature this kind of stuff. Aishwarya’s stunning strapless deep blue-and-white floor-length gown at Cannes ranks right up there with the western paparazzi’s chase for Carla Bruni’s baby bump close-up, or for Pippa Middleton’s sheer dress from the back at Wimbledon, where the newly crowned Dutchess of Cambridge’s sister was crowned by the paparazzi for having what has been called in the UK the Rear of the Year Award, supplanting J-Lo.

Aishwarya isn’t alone. Bollywood produced a staggering 1,288 feature films in 2009, with a vast number of actors and actresses delivering up a steady diet of gossip for the masses of newspaper readers. Today there is feverish speculation about the marriage of number one actor Salman Khan, well into his forties and a bachelor to boot, which is taking top priority. Khan, revered by many for his playboy lifestyle, has delivered some of the biggest Bollywood hits “Ready” and “Dabangg” in the recent past.

It helps matters for the paparazzi that Salman’s bevy of beautiful ex-girlfriends includes the present top heroine Katrina Kaif and, at one time, Aishwarya herself. Many tales can thus be easily spun around Salman and his girls, current and past that range from spats, breakups, quarrels and more.

When Aishwarya’s pregnancy became known, reporters in the gossip trade zealously sought Salman’s opinion. The actor subsequently told television channels that he was very happy for the couple and wished them well.

Gossip extends to politics as well. Today the eye is on Congress party scion Rahul Gandhi, also in his 40s and single. There has, however, not been much to write about the young Gandhi, except for his regular dashes from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh, a state that he fancies politically. Yet, Gandhi, a young face of Indian politics is always under scrutiny and his marriage plans are speculated upon intensely and endlessly.

Yet, one benchmark of true interest in any episode is India’s big satta (or illegal gambling market) where presently wagers are being put on the gender of Aishwarya’s yet-to-be-born child. Some reports suggest that a few satta operators may have even approached Aishwarya’s doctors discreetly to inquire about the status of the fetus -- boy or girl -- to fix deals.

India’s satta market is usually the most active when the cricket team is playing matches, but picks on other matters when the going goes quiet, to keep clients glued and revenues coming in. These matters range from results of elections in states or the center, cabinet reshuffles, important legislative matters including no confidence motions, executive appointments, date of arrival of monsoon and multiple other combinations.

In cricket, the bets are not just on wins and losses but on a myriad of individual scores and performances. Such is the level of money involved that several international players have been banned and prosecuted for match-fixing and the more difficult-to-track “spot fixing.” The Indian cricket team is playing a test series in the West Indies, a period of relative disinterest that isn’t keeping the bet money flowing.

Consequently, the bets are being placed on Aishwarya, although the results will only be out in November when the actress is reportedly due to deliver. Money will certainly change hands but there is no doubt that nothing sells like gossip news, anywhere. The satta market thrives on it.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)