Bipasha Basu expects people to be shocked by her latest role. Usually, when actresses say they are going to reveal more of themselves than ever before, they mean in a physical, "tell-your-grandmother-to-hide-her-eyes" sense. In this case, though, it is the opposite. Bips, as she is known to her fans, is covering up. Breathtakingly beautiful even by Bollywood standards, she is an actress who has courted controversy. She once stripped off for an American television commercial, causing a minor scandal in her native India, has been photographed in an embrace with the Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, and has twice been named by an English newspaper as the "sexiest woman in Asia".
For her, going under cover is, perhaps, the last taboo. In Lamhaa, a Bollywood film to be released this week, she plays Aziza, a fiery, militant Muslim leader and a champion of the Azad Kashmir liberation movement. It is a challenging role that required passion and commitment on her part, and it reveals a depth to Bisu's acting not seen before. It is also a part that she nearly didn't land, a part that at one point she actually walked away from, and, ultimately, a part for which she had to overcome real fears for her safety.
Setting a film in the fraught, war-torn Kashmir valley was always going to be problematic. The picturesque region has been scarred by decades of insurgency, with militants fighting against India's control over the predominantly Muslim Kashmir. Up to 100,000 lives have been lost since 1989. In the words of Lamhaa's director Rahul Dholakia, the "paradise on earth has become the devil's playground". Trying to relate, without political bias, the impact of years of instability on ordinary Kashmiris was always going to be a tall order. Undaunted, producers are using the ambitious tagline "the untold story of Kashmir".
But was casting Basu a step too far, a move that risked offending millions of millions of devout Kashmiris? This, after all, is the woman who admitted she was "flattered" when Richard Gere called her "sexy and hot", and who appeared in steamy scenes on screen with her real-life boyfriend John Abraham in the 2003 Bollywood film Jism, meaning body. "I was a very different choice," admits Basu, 31, when I meet her in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. "Everyone had these questions initially about whether I would be able to pull it off.
"The directors and producers approached me and once I got the first script, I was honoured because this is something you get to do once in a lifetime. "It was tough at times shooting in Srinagar, particularly as a girl. There were times when it was really sensitive." Her character, she says, has "gone through a lot in life. She has been brought up in a certain manner and mindset. What she wants is freedom to express her mind, the freedom of living in her motherland peacefully.
"She goes through a personal struggle in the film. She believes in a set of political ideologies that she is born with and then she realises that is not the truth. "To keep her feet grounded in the world in which she exists, she needs to understand what it is all about. Her journey is about opening her eyes, which is tough." Basu is in Colombo to promote Lamhaa at the International Indian Film Academy awards, or IIFAs, the Oscars of the Bollywood film industry, which are watched by more than 600 million people around the world.
The location is an apt one, considering the theme of strife in the film. It has only been a year since the 26-year civil war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was ended by the Sri Lankan government, and while peace reigns, there is still a visible military presence on the streets. In the days before the awards, Bollywood stars have been lobbied to stay away by the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce
Association amid allegations of continuing discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils. While the reason for their absence is not clear, regular attendees such as Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai have chosen to stay away. Basu, though, is undeterred. She is full of praise for "this beautiful place where we can talk about our film. We are here to celebrate cinema, which knows no culture or colour, and we would definitely not give it a miss.
"We are here in a very peaceful manner to spread the message through entertainment." If she seems blasé about going into a volatile situation, it has not come easily. Lamhaa was riddled with problems from the outset, so much so that Dholakia joked that a film about the shooting process alone would make riveting viewing: "Parzania [his film about the 2002 Gujarat riots in which 69 people died] gave me diabetes and Lamhaa has given me high blood pressure."
As the crew was setting up for the first day of filming in Srinagar's fruit market in October 2008, the set was brought to a halt. According to the director, an irate crowd of thousands surrounded the unit and refused to let anyone leave for six hours. Kashmiris were agitated, fearing they would be unfairly portrayed. "The whole film unit was rounded up and blockaded. I was terrified but I'm used to hostile situations," says Dholakia. "The one thing that I asked of our captors was that no one touch any women on set, and they respected that. But Bipasha wasn't there at the time."
Although the police were called, the size of the crowd resulted in a siege until Dholakia finally placated the protesters by explaining more about the film's content. Basu arrived the next day and was overwhelmed by the tense situation and the crowds who gathered within minutes in the valley, curious to get a rare glimpse of a Bollywood actress in their midst. A few days later, shortly before her co-stars Sanjay Dutt and Anupam Kher arrived to film alongside her, she suddenly left without warning.
"A certain amount of security was promised but the first seven days were absolute chaos," she complained at the time to the popular Indian website, Bollywood Hungama. "There was disorganisation and a lack of security." It was only when Dholakia threatened to replace her that she agreed to return to Kashmir to resume filming between December 2008 and March 2009 with tighter police protection. Even then, action scenes had to be relegated to Manali in the Himachal Pradesh mountains in India and a Mumbai film set, to avoid riling Kashmiris.
The director readily admits Basu was not his first choice for the female lead. Fellow Bollywood actress Karisma Kapoor was reportedly signed up for the role but pulled out at the last minute amid fears of trouble, while Ameesha Patel and Sonam Kapoor were also in the frame. Dholakia, who had been unimpressed by Basu's initial lack of commitment to the project, was won over by the passion with which she then threw herself into the role.
"I chose her because she was willing to experiment, to come to Kashmir and shoot," he says. "She was aggressive and feisty at a time when there were girls too scared to do it. "Under those difficult circumstances, anyone would have been nervous to shoot in that place, so I understood her anxiety. Everyone had problems going into a very hostile situation. "She was extremely hardworking, did her own research by meeting a lot of the common people, the Kashmiris on the street, and read a lot of background material. I never expected her to be as dedicated or as involved in the character and subject matter, or to be as intense as she is in the film."
He adds Basu managed to pull off both action sequences and emotional scenes with the same aplomb, saying: "She was absolutely the right choice." Film insiders say that after a series of roles in which she played a sex symbol, Basu was desperate to prove her worth as a serious actress. She says: "I guess Rahul identified the strength of character Aziza has with me and thought I would pull it off. "Even when I was wearing a shalwar kurta, he would tell me: 'Don't walk like a girl, walk like a man' because Aziza is very soldier-like and has been trained in combat from childhood.
"It was tough at times but the second time we went to shoot, we got total support locally and it was safe and secure. "We really enjoyed Kashmir for the beauty, we enjoyed interacting with the kids on the road, the food and the culture. Going out on Dal Lake was stunning and when it snowed one day, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. "There were some fantastic actors on board but it was the situation in Kashmir which made a real impact on me. It really hits you when you see the reality, the mindset of the people...I took all of that away with me from the experience and I hope that is what people understand from the film, that everyone has a right to live fearlessly, wherever they are in the world.
"Lamhaa is a film which echoes the sentiments of people from this community." For the actress better known for her dance routines in the film Bachna Ae Haseeno, or for playing a femme fatale in Ajnabee, her 2001 debut film, there were difficult scenes, which were in marked contrast to her previous roles. In one, she faces a ritual humiliation in which she is stripped of her Islamic garb and paraded through the streets with a face blackened by her female peers for a perceived betrayal.
"It was like a personal humiliation," she says. "I could really feel what happens when so many people outdo your personal strength and weaken you in front of others." Quite a world away from the woman whose usual epithet in the Indian press is "dusky and sexy". Much has been made of the fact her Bengali heritage gives her a slightly darker complexion than some of her fellow actresses. In a nation obsessed with fair skin - India spends Dh735 million annually on skin-lightening creams - commentators make pointed references to her colour, despite her winning the title of India's most desirable woman in a contest run by the TV channel Zoom two years ago, and Asia's sexiest woman from the UK newspaper Eastern Eye. In reality, she is luminous in the flesh, all honeyed limbs, endless legs and showstopping looks. As she walks into the room in a thigh-skimming, pink silk one-shouldered frock (the abayas have clearly been consigned to the wardrobe), heads turn and there is a tangible awed hush following in her wake. She appears to take it all in her stride.
"Dark, dusky, sexy, these are things I am going to be all my life," she shrugs. "I always say I would love to be a sexy grandma." Her voice is startlingly deep and gravelly, as if she has just chain-smoked 20 cigarettes, although she says she has never smoked in her life and even demanded that her partner, the actor John Abraham, give up. "I said, 'I cannot be with a smoker', so he quit." In fact, for one who has built a career on her looks, looking after her body has become something of a fixation. She has spent the past six years perfecting a fitness regime, which culminated in a DVD called Love Yourself - Fit And Fabulous You. Together with a line of workout gear she is designing with Reebok, she has become something of a pin-up girl for the fitness industry.
"My health is very important to me. I really strive to stay healthy and looking good is a bonus. I like my legs best; I definitely inherited them from my mother, who is a great believer in the 'love yourself' philosophy. "There are no shortcuts to being healthy, though. Anyone who lives a disciplined lifestyle is less stressed. The benefits of healthy living are so huge, you just get pulled into it."
Her beauty routine, she says, involves using natural products on her skin such as honey and turmeric. "I have a very beautiful mother and hope I will age gracefully like her," she adds. Basu describes herself as practical and says a simple family life disconnected from the film industry and the middle class values she grew up with keeps her grounded. While she declines to comment directly on the clinch with Ronaldo, she says Abraham perfectly complements her with his sense of adventure. "He is not perfect but I do not look at any other men for anything."
Of her roles, she says she is not restricted to one genre and is willing to play anything from the "girl next door to the village belle or a diva". "If I like the story and like my part, then I do it," she adds. Basu was born in New Delhi to a Bengali Hindu family and brought up in Calcutta with her two sisters. She began modelling as a teenager and after winning a contest, was flown to New York at the age of 17.
Three years later, while still an unknown, she made the ill-fated decision to appear topless in an American advertisement for a lottery, with the slogan: "All you need is a dollar and a dream", perhaps appropriately, considering her fierce ambition. The ad recently resurfaced on YouTube. Basu was at first aghast but then defiant: "I was young and naïve. Today, as a mature woman in India, I would never do such a shoot. It is a beautiful ad though and I am proud of the way I look in it - and John told me I looked really hot."
While her obvious sex appeal might have filmmakers rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of box office returns, there is at least one Kashmiri who will be less than thrilled. Asiya Andrabi, 46, the leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat or Daughters of the Faith, a Kashmiri women's militant brigade, was among a number of people consulted by the producers making Lamhaa. Like the character Aziza, she has been in the frontline, spending years in jail and has agressively targeted women who appear unveiled in public. Clad in a niqab, she and her followers have tarred film posters in Srinagar of women less covered than themselves.
But Andrabi complained that the director had reneged on a promise to show her the script and was appalled at the thought of being depicted on screen by a sex symbol. She threatened legal action, claiming a portrayal by the actress would be incompatible with her values. Dholakia says: "There were rumours Bipasha was playing Asiya but that is all they were. Her story is very different and nowhere near the character Bipasha is playing.
"I met Asiya myself. She invited us to her house to have some tea and I became a fan of hers. There she was, in full niqab, quoting from the Qu'ran in Arabic, talking in fluent Urdu and then turning to someone who had just walked in and speaking in flawless English. "She did send a legal notice but it did not affect us because it was related to her. When we decided to make this film, we knew there would be problems; you cannot make a film on Kashmir without problems and at the time, there was a lot of hostility to Indian people coming into the valley to shoot.
"As filmmakers, we want to push the envelope a bit and break boundaries, not create them." For Anupam Kher, who plays a powerful separatist leader with dubious connections, the role has caused him some anxiety as he fears the Kashmiris he grew up alongside could feel betrayed: "Someone has to portray a negative side of the right situation. I did it with passion because I wanted to show the ugly truth."
Whether Kashmiris will actually get to see the movie is another matter. Of the three cinemas in Srinagar, the Broadway only managed to stay open for a few years, the Regal was subjected to a grenade attack the day it opened in 1999, killing one cinemagoer, and the Neelam, the only theatre still in operation, is on the brink of closure with audiences of fewer than 20 a day. It is a far cry from the 1960s and 1970s, when Kashmir's sylvan meadows, pine forests and snow-capped mountains were a draw for directors such as Yash Chopra, Rajendra Kumar and Ramesh Sippy.
When violence broke out in 1989, Bollywood's finest gave the valley a wide berth, choosing instead to move their units to Switzerland. Directors are slowly creeping back to the region, lured by cheaper filming rates and a ready-made set on their doorsteps. But few films have sought to tackle the political issues which have divided its inhabitants. Sanjay Dutt tried a decade ago for Mission Kashmir, in which he played a policeman trying to crack a terrorist cell. He says: "The last time I shot in Kashmir it was really troubled. We could not complete the shooting." Showkat Motta, the editor of Conveyor, a news magazine published throughout Kashmir, says: "Kashmiris have reasons to be sceptical whenever any Bollywood director ventures into the valley. "Most play to the gallery, unlike Hollywood, where many directors tend to go against the tide on issues like Vietnam or Iraq. Movies such as Roja and Mission Kashmir show Kashmiris as terrorists and bloodthirsty. "After the outbreak of armed conflict in 1989, all the cinemas downed shutters. The Neelam, Broadway and Regal reopened but the latter two closed a few years later because of a poor response. "On any given day, between 10 and 20 people visit the Neelam, which resembles a military camp. It is down to a combination of political, social cultural and security issues, plus the invasion of cable TV and DVDs, which has led to the decline of cinema in this part of the world, while movies are still considered taboo in some Muslim societies, including Kashmir." That has not stemmed the cast and crew's enthusiasm for Lamhaa amid high hopes it will start a new dialogue on the contentious issue. "I think we are looking at next year's big winner," Dutt says somewhat prematurely, while presenting the best film award at the IIFAs. But will Kashmiris warm to the first portrayal of a female militant in their midst, particularly by such an unlikely candidate? That remains to be seen. As a finale on the IIFA awards night, Basu takes to the stage in a sparkling black bikini top, barely-there skirt and knee-high boots, proceeding to gyrate with half-naked dancers in a performance which would do Beyoncé proud. She might want to be taken seriously with Lamhaa but one suspects the old Basu is only a dance routine away.
Lamhaa will be released in the UAE on Thursday July 15, a day ahead of its Indian premiere.