ABITING COLD evening in Ooty, wet wind, green sky, and a long wait. Young Katrina Kaif doesn’t seem worthy of the chase. You don’t expect confetti to have internal lives. And for all the recent hits and curious journey and growing talk of her as Bollywood’s ‘Number 1’, there is little to suggest Katrina is anything more than particularly pretty confetti.

The clipped, self-possessed 24-year-old in the untidy hotel room is almost a disconcerting surprise. Curled into the corner of a sofa, hair pulled back in a tight pony tail, Katrina exudes an aloof, slightly irascible air that is difficult to penetrate at first. She has just returned from a set on a windy mountain top — a shot that required her to wear a tiny cotton dress in a chill wind — and is nursing a bad headache. There is an assumption the conversation will be conducted in the midst of her retinue — her assistant Sandhya and younger sister Isabel: a star’s assumptive disdain for the scribe. (Sandhya later says that Katrina is so accustomed to being asked only a particular set of questions, she sometimes asks her to stand in with the answers while she does her make-up.) But when you insist, she asks them to leave. What follows is an intriguing mix of thaw and tight reserve.

Katrina came to India at 17 as part of director Kaizad Gustad’s film Boom: he had spotted her as a model in an ad in London. It should have been a grand debut, boasting as it did a cast that included Amitabh Bachchan, Jackie Shroff, Madhu Sapre and Padma Lakshmi. But, for all its apparent star and skin power, the film flopped badly. That could have been the end of Katrina’s Bollywood career — she was young, an outsider, and incapable of a word of Hindi. Instead, in barely six years, she has grown to be a commercial female superstar, moving from the anonymity of bit roles in Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi films to mainstream directors and producers like Vipul Shah, Rajkumar Santoshi and Yash Raj Films. She has learnt Hindi, taken Kathak lessons, and is spoken of in the same breath as Aishwarya Rai and Kareena Kapoor. Far from the minor-league deals of her early years, she now charges between Rs 2 to 3 crores for product campaigns and, at last count, signed a two-film deal with Studio 18 for Rs 6 crore. What explains this singular story? Who is Katrina Kaif off-screen?

It’s not very easy to piece that together. “I am a Cancerian,” she says, “and Cancerians don’t like discussing their private lives. I also don’t buy the argument that filmstars’ private lives are fair game for the public.” Even routine questions about parents and family are not easily lobbed. If you persist though — embroidering them with caveats and exit routes — they yield some answers.

One of seven siblings — six sisters, one brother, she exactly in the middle — Katrina was born to a British mother, Suzanne, and a Kashmiri Muslim father, Mohammad Kaif. “My father is not an influence, he was not part of our family; my parents separated when I was very young and I have never met him since.” Her eyes glaze over when you ask how old she was when he left; even his name has to be fetched off the Internet. The absent father, however, gave Kaif a lasting legacy — her striking looks, dark hair, dark eyes, and a strange sense of belonging to India, a country she had not even visited. He also left her with a penchant for older men. Sitting on a wooden pew in a make-believe church a day later, her guard somewhat lowered, she says ironically, “I am sure if some psychoanalyst lay me on a couch and probed hard and long, they could prove I was sad, but actually, at most, the lack of a father means I am drawn to older men, men who have lived life and have some experience.”

Her mother, Suzanne, had deeper impacts. A polyglot lawyer who knew five languages, she gave up a successful legal practice to devote herself full time to international charity work (she now works in Madurai with orphaned children). She had married again, but that did not last either, and as her work took her to far-flung places, the children followed — homeschooled for the most part by a series of tutors. Hong Kong, Japan, China, Ukraine, Romania, France, Hawaii, America, Poland, Belgium, Austria, South Africa, England: more than 13 countries in almost as many years. This could not have been easy for a Cancerian child “who loved to hoard everything, every marble, every doll, every string” — but Katrina remembers her childhood as a rich if faintly precarious affair. “We never lived anywhere for more than two years and we did not have a great deal of stability, or physical security and comfort, but we led a very culturally diverse life. That’s an unbeatable way to be prepared — I don’t think you can’t get a better education than that. I have seen so much and lived in so many cultures, nothing shocks me. You can throw me anysociety where and I will adapt,” says she. Her mother and she are obviously close — “The biggest thing I learnt from her is to be completely non-judgemental” — yet ask her for any tactile details of her childhood and she’s hard put to come up with answers. “I’ll have to ask my sister,” she says. “All I can immediately remember is being snowed in for months in Japan [she hates the cold], and being terribly sea-sick on a long ship-ride to Europe.”

None of this is expected material. In fact, there is very little that squares the Katrina off-screen with the one on-screen. Online, she is unabashed eye-candy, Kiss Me, Kiss Me: a bit role in Sarkar, a pretty prop in Welcome, some cool moves inRace, some razzmatazz in Singh is Kinng, more of the same in Partner and Apne. It’s only in Namastey London, that you get a hint there could be something more to the girl.

OFF-LINE, SHE is exactly the opposite: very pretty but underplayed, unglamoured and adult — almost intimidatingly so. Katrina started working as a model when she was 14, after she was spotted by a scout at a beach in Hawaii, and has been working ever since. Friends like Bosco, her choreographer; Rocky, her designer; and Reshma Shetty — owner of Matrix, the agency that has handled her since she first came to India — attest that Katrina is by nature lowprofile, gentle and intensely private. “We often laugh that there is a planet called Katrina she lives on,” says Shetty, “she is so tuned off from what others are saying and doing and wearing and signing.”

A single dynamo then seems to drive Katrina and her choices: the need to make money and forge stability. “She wants to be the man in her family,” says Shetty. “She wants to secure things for her siblings. She understands that there is a limited run that actresses can have and she is determined to make the most of it. Everything is planned out.” Katrina agrees. “It takes intelligence to recognise that cinema is just cinema. My mother never planned materially for the future. But I feel the need to stabilise myself. I need physical security — I can’t roam around and say, oh, we’ll all be fine. I need to work on building security for my sisters for sure. I could not go to film school, but I want to ensure my sister can.”

Until Boom, Studio MGM defined cinema for Katrina. Gone with the Wind, El Cid, Ten Commandments, Casablanca, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Charlton Heston: “My mother didn’t allow us anything more contemporary — she thought they would teach us bad values.” The cinema she would now love to make are films like Veer Zaara — intense love stories, period dramas, and sweeping romances a la Sanjay Leela Bhansali. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Imtiaz Ali and Anurag Basu, whose sensibility she feels very close to. But for all that, there isn’t the slightest embarrassment or apology for the films she has been starring in.

“I love comedy films. I love playing these light characters. It gives me a chance to be a teenager and have all the fun I missed out on. I feel old because of all I’ve been through, but I am just 24. I never had any boyfriends when I was young, I was gangly, all arms and legs, and then I started working. I like being carefree now. I love the songs! In any case, it takes intelligence to understand every career path is different. I was an alien here, yet I was certain I wanted a mass audience, distributors and producers to bank on me. To get there, if I have to do films that involve four songs and not playing a character that will go down in history, so be it. At 40, when my career span is done, I don’t want to say, I don’t have a house and I don’t have any money, but it’s okay because I didn’t play any so-called bimbo.”

Stardom has brought many panaceas. Three years ago, Katrina bought herself a house in Bandra; a year later, she bought one in London. Most recently, she has bought herself a Porsche. Points of arrival — or as she puts it, “the sense that you stand somewhere, not nowhere.” But stardom has also brought fresh set of pressures: the irascible edge, the panic of 360 degree demands, the sense that everything will be sucked out of you. “Everyone reacts differently to this pressure. I don’t react very well, I get frantic, I snap, I feel the stress very easily. People might think, what a difficult woman she is, and I feel like saying, no, no, no, this is not me, I’m just under too much pressure.”

None of that shows as Katrina gets out of her make-up van, a manicured 5 feet 9, and steps into the red slush of Ooty. Shot done, Katrina horses around with co-star Ranbir Kapoor, laughing, kicking his shin, ducking his retaliations. The missed adolescence. There’s something mildly fake about it, but you could be wrong.

A minute later — away from the crowd on the make-believe church-pew — she’s slipped into her older skin. “I believe very strongly in God, I am in a really good place today and I feel he has watched over my journey and given me so much.” Probe her for more essential DNAs and she says, “I have seen so much, I feel old. The other day, a friend was going through a problem and asked me, ‘how long does it take to get over being heartbroken?’ And I really wanted her to understand my words — I wanted the words to have meaning. I said, ‘I have been in a position where I felt I could not live without something, I would not be able to breathe without something — and everything has changed.’ I said, ‘Just understand one thing — you will be surprised how quickly everything can change in this world.’ There’re no laws, no logic. I have seen unbelievable things happen: when I came here, I had nothing. But everything has changed — that is pretty incredulous in itself.”

In all of this, conversation about Salman Khan, Katrina’s tumultuous superstar boyfriend, sits like an unopened box between us. But no embroidered question is going to yank that open. It’s the mix of thaw and reserve that seems quintessentially Katrina. What you are left with then, is stories of her focus.

That Katrina is in the blush of first success is incontestable. Whether she has the stamina and talent to last the course remains to be seen. But, as Vipul Shah, who has directed two of her biggest hits, Namastey London and Singh is Kinng, says, “More important than talent is passion, ambition and focus — and Katrina has that more than any of her peers.”

And that is what stops her from being just so much confetti.