THE GOOD NEWS? AISHWARYA RAI IS ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR ACTRESSES IN THE WORLD AND THE KIND OF BEAUTY THAT EVEN JULIA ROBERTS ENVIES. THE BAD NEWS? THAT'S MAKING IT HARD FOR HER TO SPEND MUCH TIME IN HER HOMETOWN OF MUMBAI, THE NEW YORK CITY OF INDIA.


Recently, I went to a dinner party at the home of an Indian friend. The guests split themselves into two camps: In one room sat the Americanized second generation, in their jeans and T-shirts, eating samosas and talking pop culture; in the other room sat their immigrant parents, the women in saris and the men in finely pressed business clothes, playing parlor games from the old country. Bumping into some of those parents, in the kitchen or at the bar, brought on a mild form of anxiety for me. I was delighted to be in this home, warm and noisy with laughter, but I wasn't sure what to talk about, what to say. When I spied the film Devdas, the Titanic of Bollywood cinema, sitting on the video shelf, I casually mentioned to my friend's father that I was working on a story about the film's star, Aishwarya Rai. We spent the next hour in conversation.

For fans of Bollywood cinema - the old-fashioned song and dance of India - no name elicits as much praise as Aishwarya Rai. Her beauty is legendary, the kind of perfection poets go mad attempting to describe. Julia Roberts, not exactly a slouch herself, has called Aishwarya Rai the most beautiful woman in the world. Roger Ebert went Roberts one better. In a review of Bride and Prejudice, the forgettable 2004 film that marries Bollywood spectacle with English-language romantic comedy, Ebert called Rai "not only the most beautiful woman in the world but the second most beautiful as well." Rai has starred in more than 30 films and is the highest-paid actress in Bollywood. Largely unknown in the United States (but not for long), Rai is an international superstar, with 18,000-plus websites devoted to her. Telling my friend's dad I'd be talking to Aishwarya Rai was a bit like walking into a party in Jersey and casually announcing I'd be interviewing Madonna.

HOLLYWOOD LIKES TO think it has a lock on moviemaking, but the truth is that in many parts of the world, the Bollywood movie industry is as profitable, and as popular, as our own. With their elaborate song and dance numbers, romantic melodramas, swashbuckling adventure, and absolutely no sex, Bollywood films are products of a precynical age of cinematic storytelling. They are feel-good films and can last up to three and a half hours. Despite the international appeal, many American moviegoers wouldn't know a Bollywood film from an Egyptian educational movie.

If there is someone who can bridge that cultural gap, it is Aishwarya Rai. She has already made inroads to Hollywood. If her impossibly thick lashes are familiar, it may be because she is the new face of L'Oréal. She appears in a handful of upcoming American films, such as Provoked with Miranda Richardson, in which she plays an abused Punjabi woman. The 2007 film Chaos casts her opposite her favorite American actress, Meryl Streep. Time magazine recently named Rai one of the 100 most influential people in the world, alongside Condoleezza Rice, Steve Jobs, and Nelson Mandela, among others. She once taught Oprah how to tie a sari. If anyone can make that compelling television, it's Ash, as her fans call her.

With her crisp Queen's English and unparalleled beauty, Rai is the ideal person to give Americans a greater appreciation of Indian cinema. She is also the perfect person to introduce us to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the heart of Bollywood and her beloved hometown.

"Mumbai reminds me of New York City," she says. It has that same big-city buzz - bright lights, streets clogged with vendors and cars, constant motion, people of various backgrounds and languages. "Mumbai is much more cosmopolitan than the rest of India. Because it is the home base of Bollywood, it is also the most glamorous and productive city in India. Many Indians dream of living in Mumbai, making it the fastest-growing city in India."

Known for its vibrant, hectic street bazaars and modern crush of people, Mumbai may appear a lot like New York, but it also has an ancient hum. "Every Tuesday, hundreds of people walk barefoot to offer their devotion at the Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Temple, also known as the Ganesha Temple," says Rai, referring to the gorgeous two-century-old Hindu temple in Prabhadevi dedicated to Ganesha, the God of Wisdom.

That doesn't mean Mumbai isn't bustling with restaurants and bars. The city boasts the best nightlife in India. "Most clubs close at midnight, but there are a few spots that remain open all night long," says Rai. Trendy bars like the Olive Bar & Kitchen in the Bandra section of northern Mumbai cater to Bollywood hotshots and other elites, but Rai says the best spots can be found in the cluster of nightspots in Bandra and Juhu, where clubs like Enigma (inside the Juhu Beach's JW Marriott) attract a line of young people snaking outside on most weekends. It's those places, says Rai, where "you can feel the heartbeat of the city pulsating in the heat."