Anyone who grew up watching Bollywood films in Thailand in the 1970s and '80s got to see a lot of pretty Hema Malini, dancing from one hill to another and never getting the slightest bit tired. More than anyone else, she showed Thais that music and dance are the heart and soul of Indian cinema.
Bollywood's changed a lot since Malini's time, but her passion for film and dance has never waned, she told The Nation in an exclusive interview on her first visit to Bangkok in three decades.
The last time she was here it was for the Thai premiere of "Prem Nagar" in 1974. This time the occasion was the Bangkok International Film Festival, which was highlighting India's greatest movie of all time, "Sholay". It also gave Malini a chance to promote her "come¬back" movie, last year's "Baabul".
Malini's heyday may have passed, but at the film festival she found herself mobbed by fans, both Thai and Indian. To them she remains a timeless legend and beauty.
Dressed in a creamcoloured sari that allowed her wavy, long, dark hair to shine, Malini responded with a cheery smile.
"I really love you all for giving me love and affection over the past many years. The first time I was here, I was shocked to see that so many people knew me."
"Baabul" is the story of Millie (played by Rani Mukherjee), the daughterinlaw of a progressiveminded Balraj Kapoor (Amitabh Bachchan). When she loses her husband in an accident, Balraj goes against tradition to lift Millie from her despair by finding her a new love.
"The main story is about getting your daughterinlaw remarried so she doesn't suffer in solitude for the rest of her life," Malini explained. "It's necessary for a woman to live with a man."
"Baabul" is one of the many films that Malini has both produced and acted in. She's worn many other hats as well, including those of a mother of two and a member of parliament.
Of all her roles in life, though, acting and dancing have been her spices of choice. Her idol when she was young was Vaijayantimala, the first actress from south India to make it big in Bollywood. She was also a classical dancer.
"I always wanted to be an actress and a classical dancer at the same time," Malini said, but she refused to name her favourite. "God blessed me with the ability to do both. That's the job I've been sent for, I would say. Both of them give me immense pleasure. I'm happy with the dance, while acting is won¬derful."
Lately she's been working on the script for a movie she will produce and star in with her daughters, Esha and Ahana.
Count on more fascinating dance scenes. Crediting yoga, Malini remains as energetic and full of life as she was in the '70s - though she did decline to demonstrate some classic Bharatnatyam moves.
It was a bit of a disappointment for the fans, who know that Malini regards Bharatnatyam as an almost religious ritual, since it's based on themes from Indian spiri¬tual epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It celebrates Hindu gods such as Durga and Lakshmi.
Her daughters are classical Odissi dancers. "Both are very good. I have a guruji [teacher] for them. We all do this classical dance as well."
Bharatnatyam dancing was featured in many of Malini's films in the 1970s, before Bollywood started importing Western styles. Malini could dance for hours on end, but, she laughs, "if you ask me to do that today it's impossible, because I have too many things on my hands".
Dance is still integral to Indian films, of course, even if the forms have changed. "From classical dance we are now going to rock 'n' roll, more Western influences," Malini said, while acknowledging former Miss World Aishwarya Rai as one of the younger actresses who's also a talented dancer.
As for acting, she said she doesn't see it as a challenge.
"I take whatever comes my way. I never took on anything as a challenge. I accepted whatever came to me - the success, the failure and then the receding stardom. Everything I took naturally.
"It's very important for an artist to under¬stand this, because the No 1 position is not with you forever. You have to get down one day. You have to learn to accept that fact. That's so important. That's why I'm content with whatever has come in to my life.
"But TV is a bit difficult for me. TV takes a lot of your time. It's almost every day [of the year] that you have to be busy in front of the camera, whereas for film you have to work for just 20 or 30 days and it's over."