Often cited by the media as the "most beautiful woman in the world", Rai made her acting debut with Mani Ratnam's Tamil film Iruvar (1997) and had her first commercial success with Jeans (1998). She earned public recognition with the Hindi films Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Devdas (2002), which fetched her two Best Actress awards at Filmfare.
After a series of unsuccessful films during 2003–2005, she appeared in the blockbuster action thriller Dhoom 2 (2006) and subsequently featured in such films as Guru (2007), Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Enthiran (2010). She received critical acclaim for her performances in films like Chokher Bali (2003), Raincoat (2004), Provoked (2007) and Guzaarish (2010). Rai has thus established herself as one of the leading contemporary actresses of Indian cinema.
Rai was born in Mangalore, Karnataka to a family belonging to the Bunt community of Tulu Nadu. Her father, Krishnaraj Rai, is a marine biologist, while her mother, Brindya Rai, is a writer. Her elder brother, Aditya Rai, is an engineer with the merchant navy and the producer of the Hindi film Dil Ka Rishta (2003, starring Rai). Born to a conservative household, she was raised as a Hindu, a religion she continues to practice.
Soon after Rai's birth, she came back to Mumbai where her parents were settled for work, and she attended Arya Vidya Mandir Secondary School. While studying in the ninth grade, she appeared in her first modelling assignment for Camlin Pencils. After graduating from secondary school, Rai attended Jai Hind College for a year, and later passed high school from DG Ruparel College. While at Jai Hind, photographs taken by her English professor (an amateur photographer) were published in a fashion magazine. She was subsequently spotted and cast by advertising agencies for several television commercials. In 1991, Rai participated in and won a supermodel contest (organised by Ford) and was eventually featured in the American edition of Vogue. After abandoning an idea to pursue a career in medicine, Rai enrolled for a course in architecture at the Raheja College of Arts. However, she dropped out of college to pursue a full-time career as a model.
In 1993, Rai gained public recognition for her appearance in a Pepsi commercial with actor Aamir Khan. The following year, Rai participated in and stood second at the annual Femina Miss India contest (losing out to Sushmita Sen). Rai eventually won the Miss World pageant of 1994 held at Sun City, South Africa.
Following a successful modeling career, Rai made her acting debut in 1997 with Mani Ratnam's Tamil film Iruvar, a semi-biographical political drama, featuring Mohanlal, Prakash Raj, Tabu and Revathi. The film was a critical success and among other awards, won the Best Film award at the Belgrade International Film Festival Rai featured as Pushpavalli and Kalpana – dual roles; the latter was a fictionalised portrayal of politician and former actress Jayalalithaa. Due to Rai's weak Tamil-speaking skills, her dialogues in the film were dubbed by a dubbing artist. That same year, she was cast as Ashi, a naive teenager in her first Bollywood film – Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya, a romantic comedy opposite Bobby Deol. The film was a commercial failure, and reviewers were critical of the film and Rai's acting ability.
Rai next appeared in the 1998 big-budget Tamil romantic drama Jeans, directed by S. Shankar and co-starring Prashanth and Nassar. Rai played Madhumita, a young woman who tra
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Rai has been in a notable relationship with Salman Khan, following which she married Abhishek Bachchan in 2007. Her off-screen roles include duties as brand ambassador for various charity organisations and campaigns. In 2009 she was honoured with the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award given by the Government of India. Rai has been appointed as goodwill ambassador for UNAIDS in 2012. In 2012, she finally accepted the second-highest Order Of France, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.[15