Is it possible that Bipasha Basu, Bollywood's paragon of sensuality, has decided to change her trump card from being a raunchy seductress to serious thespian? Or is her advancing age, 31, a deterrent for directors, who earlier courted her for sexy-young-thing roles?
Her latest outing, Aakrosh, a drama on honour killings in India, is her second issue-based film this year (after the Kashmir-militant drama Lamhaa), and sees her swapping her usual sexy designer gowns for a sari.
"Look, I am not trying to be a realistic queen of Bollywood or anything," Basu says over the phone from Mumbai.
"The beauty of an actor lies in whether she can play a glam doll to perfection and pull off a realistic character equally well. I think I have managed to strike a balance here… with some very smart choices."
In Aakrosh, also starring Ajay Devgn, Basu plays Gita — a battered rural woman trapped in a brutal marriage to an elderly man.
She is equally intent on shattering the widespread belief that her advancing age has anything to do with her recent career choices. According to her, the notoriously ageist Bollywood has grown up considerably in the last decade.
30 is the new 20
"Look at all those around me. I think Kareena [Kapoor] is 30, Priyanka [Chopra] is around 28 or 29. We all started around the same time and we are still around. Doesn't that count for anything? Age is not an issue in Bollywood any more. The typical old-school Bollywood thought that you are past your prime if you hit 30 is no longer the case."
She even touts the "30s are the new 20s in Bollywood" mantra, for greater effect.
"I think Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan, 37] broke another rule in Bollywood. She proved you can do exceptionally well even if you are a married woman. The trends in Bollywood and the world over are changing. In my eyes, 40-plus women like Halle Berry, Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts are still the sexiest girls around," says Basu, adding that she is dying to watch Roberts bring to life her "all-time favourite novel, Eat Pray Love".
"And personally, I think women look their best between 30 and 35 because we are so fitness-conscious and intelligent these days," she laughs.
These words may have sounded hollow if it had come from an actor of lesser stature. But from an actress who has more than 50-odd films under her designer belt and is all geared to cap off a decade in Bollywood this year, these thoughts gain a certain credibility.
She made her debut in 2001 with Ajnabee, a wife-swapping thriller inspired by the Hollywood film Consenting Adults. But it was her second film, Jism (Body), with her real-life boyfriend John Abraham, that fetched her the much-coveted "Bengali sex siren" tag.
"I accepted Jism at a time when mainstream Bollywood heroines were scared of playing negative roles and when being sexy was considered a taboo. In fact, some of the heroines then were so apologetic about their sensuality. I just didn't get it."
Basu even considers herself a harbinger of change in Bollywood. "I was tall, I was dark and I was doing a negative, seductress role. After Jism and Ajnabee, the bronze skin was accepted and heroines began taking on roles that required them to be in a white bikini on a beach."
For all those who are confused with Basu's "white bikini" theory, she is referring to the iconic scene from Jism where she is straddling her lover on a beach with the seductive song Jadoo Hai Nasha Hai (Is it magic or addiction?) playing in the background.
"After Jism, everybody asked me if I felt bad about being called a ‘sex object'. And my answer was simple — Why would I feel bad? It's a great adjective to have before your name. I think if I had not been sexy, I would have been boring."
So are films such as Lamhaa and Aakrosh a minor blip?
"Nowadays the producers and directors are gutsy enough to make films on realistic issues. So why shouldn't actors participate in this process? My character, Gita — who gets beaten up by her husband and has no voice of her own — made a lot of sense.
"She reminded me that I am lucky to be born as Bipasha Basu."
Five minutes with Ajay Devgn
Ajay Devgn is a man of few words and he doesn't let us forget it either. In our chat, the star spills the beans — albeit sparingly — on Aakrosh.
You enjoyed a dream run this year with Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai turning into a blockbuster. What attracted you to Aakrosh?
I play a law enforcement officer in Aakrosh. Though the film deals with a realistic issue like honour killings, it's an educative thriller. And working with director Priyadarshan was an added bonus.
You never play the quintessential Bollywood hero who runs around trees. Will we see you do such a role any time soon?
I try my best to avoid those running-around-the-trees roles. I don't think I can pull that off. I know my limitations.
You have always maintained a low profile. Will we see some change?
Not really. I prefer to let my work do the talking. When films are releasing, my producers often force me to talk to the press.
As Bipasha Basu caps off a decade this year, the actress tells us about her landmark films which turned out to be career-altering ones.
Raaz: "This was my second film and I can confidently say that this film got me interested in acting. For instance, in my first film, Ajnabee, I played a model-turned-actress who was intent on having a lot of fun. Raaz brought some focus into my life."
Jism: "I must say, with this film I put sensuality out there. After Jism, even the mainstream heroines were not scared of being sexy."
Corporate, Dhoom 2 and Omkara: "I loved the year 2006 because I was at my versatile best. If Corporate saw me tackle an ambitious businesswoman's role, I had a lot of fun with Dhoom 2 and Omkara."
Lamhaa: "This film is special to me, because we were shooting in a situation where we were not given the liberty of shooting on a location for more than five minutes, in Kashmir. It was scary and oddly liberating."
Dum Maro Dum: "The best is yet to come. This will be my next release. I play a flower child."
Don't Miss it
Aakrosh will be released in cinemas across the UAE tomorrow.