Often cited by the media as the most beautiful woman in the world, Rai made her movie debut in Mani Ratnam's Tamil film Iruvar (1997) and had her first commercial success in the Tamil movie Jeans (1998). She gained the attention of Bollywood through the film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Her performance in the film won her the Filmfare Best Actress Award. In 2002 she appeared in Bhansali's Devdas, for which she won her second Filmfare Best Actress Award.
After a setback in her career during 2003–2005, she appeared in Dhoom 2 (2006), which turned out to be her biggest commercial success in India. She later appeared in films like Guru (2007), Jodhaa Akbar (2008), and Enthiran (2010) which were commercially and critically successful. Rai has thus established herself as one of the leading actresses in Bollywood.In 2009, she was honoured with the Padma Shri by the Government of India.