Verve's undisputed power cover girl, India's highest paid, most in-demand actor; international face of the country; recipient of a myriad film awards and the big daddy of them all, a Padma Shri, reminds me of a little girl on a Ferris wheel - spinning ever upwards, almost out of control in the frenzy of her life. Today, she is closeted in her vanity van at N. D. Studio in Karjat with make-up artist, Ojas. She is busy putting on a face, which to me seems so unnecessary! Earlier, fresh countenanced, tired-eyed but oh so beautiful, she had made flash decisions on gowns (no saris); colours (out with that dull mauve) and silhouettes. The world's most beautiful woman (so says Julia Roberts!) standing there in black tights and silver-and-white tee, could have slipped into anything and looked like a million bucks. She is small, slim and graveeyed and I remember reading that these, her most outstanding feature, have been donated already to science. She was not in the best of moods, struggling to control diva-esque tendencies - probably triggered by yet another unnecessary controversy, this time at Cannes, hanging over her head like a cloud of bad hair. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is ready to shoot but only on her own terms. And, no, she has too much on her mind today to commit to a chat.

The wind blows dry and hot on director Vipul Shah's set of Action Replay, featuring a re-creation of South Bombay in the hip 1970s. Being India's foremost leading lady is hard work. Juggling schedules, make-up, costumes, cover shoot, camera roll - and they haven't even started yet; the shoot scheduled to finish at 5 a.m. and lead Akshay Kumar, nowhere in sight. (And, did I mention, there's no time here for an interview!) I realize later, when she does manage to squeeze in a conversation, that the country's most glamorous celebrity works her trim butt off - and she truly believes in what she is doing. And this could be key to understanding Aishwarya and her reality. She is an idea, a dream that somehow fits into society's fantasies about itself. But it is hard to overestimate her significance in the reels of Bollywood culture. She is famous and not just in this country, of all women perhaps only less so than Sonia Gandhi herself and daughter Priyanka.

Interviewing Aishwarya is like prying open a floodgate. Pinned down another day, she is ready to give it her all, while firmly guarding her privacy. "Each year I am thinking it (her schedule) will ease up. It is the choices I make and the filmmakers I work with who are extremely passionate about their craft, demanding, in a positive way, in terms of detailing, in terms of preparation, plans and discussions prior to going ahead with filming...that involves a lot of participation which I enjoy the most...along with the companies I am involved with in terms of endorsements...." By all accounts, the former model and Miss World (1994) today commands a price of Rs 6 crore a film, the highest paid to any female actor in Bollywood and takes home around Rs 1 billion from advertising assignments annually. Certainly makes it 'worth it'.

There is a collective intake of breath as she makes an entry in a clinging red Shahab Durazi gown with large shoulder bow, looking for all the world like a girl on her prom night out, all wrapped up and ready to go. I notice a photographer's assistant roll his eyes, blown away by her raw appeal. She is electric before the camera, her obvious fatigue dispelled by the lens. She trips, she turns, she pouts and through it all she chatters with celebrity cameraman, Atul Kasbekar. From Marathi jokes to football scores and cricket, she is game for it all. And as the mood gets intense, she is like an animal, each muscle and nerve twitching, contorting into herself, radiating energy so that every man and woman there can feel goose pimples rise - like a contortionist thrilling her audience. And then, with that famous giggle which really is not a giggle at all but a stomachturning sound, she is gone with a wave of her hand with the ring that she never takes off (there is a bangle too), and the heightened energy waves immediately ebb.

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