She stands with a warrior-like attention in front of the camera. Her face a smorgasbord of emotions. The director shouts "Action!'. Just then, her eyes turn luminous and her body glows like the core of some radioactive material. She's pure magic! Yes! Kajol's back where she belongs. It's her world. And the rest are outsiders, mere visitors in her universe. Marriage and domesticity haven't doused the fire within. And thank God for that. Right now, Kajol is generating heat for Rahul Rawail's Khatta Meetha at a synagogue in town. She mesmerises one and all. Director Rahul Rawail isn't untouched either. "Perfect!" he yells dazedly. The last shot has been canned. And she yelps in happines, "Wow! I can't believe that I'm being being let off so soon. This is great." Then looking at me, " Let's get out of here and have fun." She suggests that we go to a quiet place for our interview. Snap! Pop! crackle over then to Franjipani, at the Oberoi Hotel. Kajol's presence spreads over the place like wildfires. People stop in their tracks to stare. Naturally, Kajol doesn't even notice. She's busy making small talk with me on assorted topics. Right from her weight problem, her hair style, religion, the Art Of Living to finally to her role as a producer. Her Kajolesque cackles can be heard a mile away. Really, in a world of labels, Kajol has defied categorisation. Forever defying established boundaries to emerge on the top. And just when one thought that wedding wows had sapped her ambitions, she's back with a bang. Raju Chacha, her first film after her marriage is all set to release. And Kajol understandably is agog with excitement. Raju Chacha, she tells is story about kids and monsters. "It's for people of all ages," she smiles childlike. "How many times as a kid have you wished that there was someone to slay your demons? Raju Chacha is that hero. He's surreal. He comes when you need him the most. In a way, Raju Chacha is a fairy tale story. It's about the kids and about the people who surround them."

But what is she doing in a film that obviously doesn't have a masaledaar role for her? Would she have done the film if it wasn't a home production? Ask her this and she says earnestly, "When I heard the script, I loved two-three scenes in the film very much. I told Ajay categorically that only I would do the film. So if you are insinuating that I'm doing the film just for my husband, it's not true. I'd have done it regardless of who was making it." Sipping slowly on her glass of water she continues, "Okay, so I don't have a central role. But I was sure that Anil would make a better film than what he narrated. Besides, I love my character in the movie. She isn't completely me. But she's someone I'd respect if I met her in real life." She denies the rumours that Ajay Devgan is ghost-directing the film. She snaps, "Please don't take the credit away from Anil. He's done a good job. Since it's a home production, Ajay did take a lot of interest in the goings on. But apart from that he left Anil to do his own thing."

The next minute she talks excitedly about her new production company. She reveals that their portal cineexplore is on line. Besides their production company will go public soon. "The portal takes into account every aspect of film-making," she informs. "We are the major stockholders of the portal. Basically, my role is that of a supervisor. I just have to overlook the proceedings. We have our hands in everything. We are making software for TV, music videos. And we're planning to launch our film in January. And I'm enjoying my role. I love going to the office. The past year has been very educative for me." She tosses details as if she were tossing an exotic salad. Her face a map of expressions. But I want to know what brought her back to the movies. There was a time after her marriage when she refused to sign any project. "I never left movies," she corrects me. " I signed Khatta Meetha before my marriage. Yes, I did take a much-needed eight-month break. I felt that I'd got lost in the trappings of stardom. It was necessary to get in touch with my real self. A year before my marriage, I'd literally lived out of my suitcases. I'd more drycleaning labels on my clothes than my clothes itself. "I remember, I got greedy and signed five films simultanesously-- Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dushman, Ishq and Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain. That was the giddy limit. I had to get out of it." Kajol had often mentioned in the past that she wasn't particularly enamoured by her profession. She often spoke of quitting films. Does that still hold true? She replies, "I always loved acting. I'm attached to my work. If I give a shot, it has to be the best. It's the frills associated with the profession that I absolutely abhore. I hate politicking and manipulations of any sort. If I were a producer I'd take a person only if he was good and not because he sent me Diwali gifts or a bottle of Champagne. No, I'm not quitting films. But I'll definitely take things easy. Today I can pick and choose."

Mention Karan Johar's Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam and her face lights up like the Diwali lamps. "The minute we gave our first shot, Karan, Shah Rukh and I rushed towards forward to embrace one another. It felt as if we were continuing with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Nothing had changed. It felt great to be back with friends." Continuing with the topic, she says the movie is about relationships between these six characters. "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam is amind-blowing script. And before you can ask me, there's no hint of Kuch Kuch Hota hai in it. Karan has matured tremendously as a director and a person. And it shows in his film." She mentions how Hrithik Roshan was just an assistant to his father in Karan Arjun and now he's become such a huge star. Quiz her about the new generation of actors and how she feels about them and she retorts, "What do you want to say that I've become old? But it's great to work with Hrithik and Kareena. They are professionals and extremely talented." She isn't bothered by the influx of new actors. She maintains, "There's enough work for everyone around. I've never compared myself to anyone else. I was never bothered about what the other actresses were upto. It's nice to see young blood come in. They are really confident of themselves. Kareena has a very interesting face. Really, she's the best of the lot. (Laughs) She reminds me of my debut days. There wasn't much hype about me though. I was supremely confident to the point of being arrogant. I was never intimidated by anyone. Even at 17, I knew where I was going."

Bring her back to Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam. I'm curious to know about the vibes between Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan on the sets. She answers, "There was nothing wrong with them. They were very comfortable with each other. There were no cold vibes, no sulking. If I hadn't known about what had happened before, I wouldn't even have noticed them. Shah Rukh as is his nature went out of his way to make Hrithik feel comfortable." Talk about Shah Rukh Khan and how can you forget the intense chemistry Kajol and he share on screen. Is it the same in Karan's film? She tosses aside my query as if it were a candy wrapper, " "Frankly, this chemistry thing between Shah Rukh and me has been blown out of proportion. We were just lucky to do some good films together. Besides we are so comfortable with each other that it shows on screen. Shah Rukh is a wonderful co-star. I can talk to him about anything under the sun without worrying that I'll be misundertood. That makes it easier to emote on screen." Besides the three films, Raju Chacha, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and Khatta Meetha, Kajol hasn't signed anything else. It's time to take things easy. She's done her share of running from studio to studio. Now she's in a position to pick and choose. And that's exactly what she's doing. "My main criterion for signing a film is my interest level in the project," she explains. "Whether it works for me at the gut level. Because I've regretted whenever I've gone against my instincts and done a film." So how did she justify doing Khatta Meetha, a story that has been done to death? Defending her choice she says, "So what if it's done to death. I was kicked by the idea of playing a double role. Dushman was hardly anything. Because the twin sister dies early in the film. Here there are lot more interactions between the twins. And how does it matter that the subject has been done to death. I've never done it. I want to experience it." Does it go to her head that she's called the best actress in the country? Giving me a steely stare she says, "I know I'm good. I wouldn't be her otherwise. But I don't agree with the hype. I feel people tend to exaggerate my abilities. My advantage is that I've played characters close to my heart. I've never played anything alien to my nature. People come up to me and say that I'm the best actress in the last 20 years. Of course, I like hearing it. But how can you compare a Nargis to a Nutan? Or even me to my mom? Every actress has her own charm."

Opinions about Kajol swing from demanding and difficult. She's been labelled a firebrand often enough. Apparently most film- makers shiver at the thought of even approaching the cat-eyed actress. Rajiv Rai for one wasn't particularly comfortable with her. "What nonsense?" she emits a snort. "If that was the case he wouldn't have approached me for his next film. It's another matter that I refused it for whatever reasons."
Then thinking seriously about the firebrand tag she states, "See, I've always been a confident person. Out here the term firebrand is often wrongly used. An intelligent person is often labelled a firebrand. I'm well-read, intelligent. So why should I try to hide it. If that makes some people uncomfortable, it's their problem. At the same time, if someone gives me wrong vibes, I won't ignore them. If I dislike a person, I don't hide it. I rather be open about it than bitch behind their back." She sips on her coffee. She's getting restless. "Are we through? she asks with a frown. What without even mentioning her marriage! Before she can dismiss me tersely I adroitly swerve the conversation to her personal life.

The matters of heart bring a soft glow to her eyes. "I would recommend marriage to everyone," she says with a twinkle in her eye. "It's the best thing that has happened to me. My life was directionless for a while. Marriage has given me purpose. It's amazing how time has flown. It's going to be two years. But I still feel like a newly wed. "But it's so important to get the right man. With the right man, you don't mind the violation of your privacy. You love sharing your bedroom, bathroom. Otherwise things can turn disastrous. I've seen too many marriages break up just because the two individuals weren't compatible with each other." Giving a discourse on her pet topic these days, she says, "You cannot go into marriage thinking that you have the option of divorce. You have to constantly work at it. Believe me, my marriage is for keeps. I'll give my 200 per cent to make my marriage work. Which is another reason why I've cut down on my assignments. I spend more time at home with my husband and his family." Insiders say that she gets along very well with her mother-in-law None of the tu tu main main in her life. "Ajay's mother is genuinely a nice person. It's not difficult to get along with her. She's so caring. She never treats me like a bahu. I'm genuinely fond of her." Kajol says reveals that marriage has settled her. "I've mellowed. Maybe because I've slayed my demons at last. I'm certainly at peace with myself. I've grown to this point. I guess you settle down with experience and age. At 16, I was reckless. Looking back, I don't know why I was so confident. I guess it had to do with the way I was brought up. (Laughs) Probably in her womb, itself she'd started telling me that it was okay to be myself. That she'd love me regardless of everything. Previously, I was cocky. Today, I feel settled. Marriage has a great role to play in it."

So far so good. But every silver cloud has a dark lining. In this case it's Mahima Choudhary. How does she handle rumours about Ajay Devgan and Mahima Choudhary being an item? Without a flicker of emotion she says, "I haven't heard anything. Frankly I don't believe in those rumours because I know the way this industry functions. There has to be something really rotten about our relationship for Ajay to do something like this. I know my husband. He'll never do anything to hurt his family. His every action and word suggests that he cares a lot about me. I trust Ajay completely. You cannot continue a marriage without the basic trust. Frankly, I don't care for such talk." Another rumour that has dogged Kajol eversince she got married is the talk about her pregnancy. "Oh, God!" she exclaims. " The media has already got me pregnant about four times already. I'm sure they've decided their gender and named my children as well. Every time, I put on some weight, it's said that. This Indian lady in London really took the cake. I was shopping for some clothes for my four year old godchild. When this lady came to me and said,`For your child.' I just gave her a cold smile. I wanted to know where I had hidden this four-year-old child." Then with a soft smile she continues, "I've been wanting a child since I was twelve. At 12, I was told that you have to be atleast 16 to be a mother. At 16, I was told to wait till 18. I wanted to adopt. But the law weren't conducive for a single woman. Really, when I get pregnant I won't deny it. I'll probably crow from rooftops. But I object to people questioning me about it. It's a highly personal matter."

As the cafe empties out, there's just one last question I have to ask. Does she regret giving up her career to tie the knot just when she was right at the top. She shakes her head, "No never. I'd be disappointed if I was competing with someone. I'm not standing with or against anyone. Acting is not a race or contest to me. I know a lot of people were shocked by my decision. But it was the right thing for me to do at that time. I've never been ruled by box office ratings."
Amen to that.

Anuradha Choudhary