Behind her glass-encrusted table, she presides. Slices of sunlight flatter the face that's as enigmatic as her photo-spreads in the glossies. Her lashes are as still as a row of commas typed on a page. And when she husks in her lowest register, everyone snaps to attention.

Meet Rekha. As she glides from childhood recollections to her well-kept health and beauty secrets, she fascinates, as always...

Congratulations on winning the Lachhu Maharaj Award for proficiency in Kathak.

Thank you. But boy, was I completely blown out of my mind? I mean, of course I was deeply touched by the honour, since I'm not a Kathak dancer. Lachhu Maharaj's wife, Rama Devi, who's 83-years-old, travelled all the way from Bombay to Lucknow to present the award to me on his birth anniversary. I was a state guest, I was treated like a queen.

Was there a sense of d_j vu, going back to Lucknow, after those Umrao Jaan days?

You can say that again. I was going back after 18 years. For Umrao, I'd travelled by train. So much has changed.

But strangely, the scent, the feel was intact. In my acceptance speech, I even said that it was as if Muzaffar Ali would say at any moment, "Shot ready hai" I savoured the splendour of Lucknow once more with sheermal kababs, chikan kurtas, ittars and all! We had dinner at Muzaffar's kothi which was straight out of some bygone era... it was as if time had stood absolutely still.

And then I saw this Kathak recital by a fifth generation offspring of Lachhu Maharaj's family. She was just five-years-old. But she stunned me with her artistry, especially the jugalbandi with her father. That was truly a humbling experience.

Now tell me, is it true that you're extremely upset with Sawan Kumar Tak's controversial Mother `98.

Certainly not. I had a blast doing the film. Given a chance, I'd do it again. Only I'd hope to do a much better job.

The more controversies the film generates, the better its chances at the box office. Remember all that publicity helped to draw the crowds for Kama Sutra. In any case, hits and flops don't bother me. I will go on doing the best I can.

Every time a film of yours is about be released, speculation is rife that it's your comeback film.

That's true. Every time a film of mine does well, it's called Rekha's comeback. It happened to me when Khubsoorat was released. When Ghar happened.

Again when Judaai and Baseraa were hits, they said I was back. It was the same story when Umrao Jaan, Khoon Bhari Maang and Phool Bane Angaaray were released. By that logic, I must be the most in-demand comeback artiste.

For me, comeback would mean something like Premnath's in Bobby or Al Pacino's in Scent Of A Woman. Now that was dhansoo. Taking a break for five years or having a hit after ten flops is no comeback. Of course, there are always certain exceptions like you-know-who.

Are you conscious about your good looks?

I hope not! But I'm certainly aware of the fact that people associate good looks with me which I'm grateful for.

Cliched as this may sound, that is still not the complete me. I'd like to believe that I'm still evolving into a beautiful person.

What does beauty mean to you?

Anything that is pure and simple, truthful and genuine, unique and gentle, consistently caring and selfless. Someone who has unflinching faith, tolerance and unconditional devotion. These are some of my ideas of beauty.

Everyone still talks about how there was a metamorphosis in Rekha after love, work-outs, and your fitness regime in general.

Let me put it this way. You can become a Jack of all trades. But to be a master, you have to persevere. There's no easy way out. I realised that my body is the temple of my existence.

I realised the importance of a nutritious diet. You needn't diet. You can live it. Regular exercise is almost like an education. You've gotta make the rules, you stick by it. And try not to hurt anyone.

It's believed that you don't relax. That you don't ever chill out.

My idea of chilling out is eating at proper hours, getting enough sleep. I don't feel the need to party after ten in the night. What's the big idea of having a terrible hangover or puffy eyes on the next day? I'm far more excited over-seeing a new leaf bursting out of my bonsai. That's my kind of celebration. Waking up in the morning, drinking eight glasses of water, avoiding overcooked food, eating before eight o'clock.Call me weird or whatever, I don't feel deprived of anything at all.

What about the accusations that you're trying to live up to the reclusive Greta Garbo myth.

You said it. It's a myth. It has flogged by individuals whom I'm not easily accessible to. Angoor khattewali baat hai. You must understand that it's physically impossible for me to reach out to every one individually.

Kya Greta Garbo? See me swabbing the floors at home and you'll know I'm a far cry from Garbo. In fact I've lost two inches doing housework. Housework gives me great pleasure. Like my body, it's my mandir, too.

What about your preoccupation with make-up and glamour?

Preoccupation? Puhleese. It happens to be my occupation. After all I've been an actress for 27 years. So I better be good at make-up and know how to conduct myself in front of the camera. It has become my second nature. To be called glamorous is an enviable compliment for anyone my age.

What about liposuction? Quite a few surgeons have claimed that they have done your face-lifts?

I wish I could meet all those surgeons. Every once in a while, some doctor claims to have done some operation on me.

I'm not a lippo girl, I'm a hippo girl. That's because I have big South Indian hips. And I've let them be that way. I'm realistic, I will never try to drastically cut down my weight and look like an anorexic fashion model.

Once I saw an Oprah Winfrey show where the entire process of liposuction was shown. Gawd, the blood scared me. The side-effects are also supposed to be scary. I seriously believe one shouldn't tamper with what nature has blessed you with. I'm against nips, tucks and face-lifts. You should never be a slave to technology. And please, I'd like to get married and have kids even when I'm 60. So why should I abuse my body right now?

I really don't think there's any right age for creating art or creating babies. Forget biological clocks.

Believe me, you're looking great.

Well what can I say? Should I be flattered? I sure do feel great. I know I look good in a sari but not in jeans. If I apply myself, maybe I'll look great in jeans too. But that would require plenty of dedication and devotion on my part. I have an A-line figure, it suits me to be plump. I like being voluptuous.

(Laughs) At least it suits me to say so. I have a small face. So if I lose weight drastically, I'll look haggard. Either way, it's not medically advisable to lose too much weight after the age of 40.

So no face-lifts. But do you dye your hair?

I'd rather die than dye. I haven't even thought of highlighting my hair. It takes a lot of guts to do that. Everyone seems to be doing that these days. Once I wore short wigs for a photo-session. (Laughs) And whole lot of heroines thought I'd cut my hair and so they trimmed their hair, too.

Look buddy, I'm a pucci south Indian. I swear by channe ka aata, Shikakai and oil massages. I believe in growing old gracefully. Luckily for me, good skin and thick hair runs in the family.

What about the criticism that you're obsessed about looking your best in every frame. Even in a death scene you won't allow a single strand of hair to be out of place.

I think that's an unfair charge. See if I'm playing a sadaa suhaagan in a typical South Indian commercial film, then my mogra, lipstick and sindoor had better be in place. Remember, there's something called continuity in the movies. I won't go out of my way to look ugly just in the name of realism, or at the cost of the character's continuity. On the other hand, if I have to play a kamaati, I'll go all out for dark make-up and all. Like I did in Imaan Dharam. Or the no make-up look of a deprived housewife in Aastha.

You can't deny that you continue to influence impressionable minds.

That's nice to know but... I don't think one should be a slave to fashion or ape someone blindly at all. One should create one's own style. Why are Armani's clothes classic and original? Because they truly are. Anyone trying to ape Armani will look pathetic. One should discover and celebrate one's own unique style, whatever that may be.

Are your directors in awe of you? I can't imagine KC Bokadia, T Rama Rao or Sawan Kumar Tak telling you how to improve on your performance.

It's always been like that with me. Everyone leaves me to interpret my roles. Including Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra. No one showed me how to act. Except of course Mohan Sehgal for Sawan Bhadon.

You've worked with different generations of directors from the '70s to the 90's. How have you coped?

I've had an opportunity to work with the best directors. Yet, I feel sad that I haven't worked with, say Mani Ratnam, Sooraj Barjatya and Shekhar Kapur.

I've absorbed the best out of all those I've worked with. That's because I've no ego hassles about working with a 20-year-old making his first film. I loved working for the first time with Mira Nair in Kama Sutra. She knew exactly what she wanted from me. We struck an immediate empathy. (Laughs) Shabana Azmi teases me about my impeccable English in the film.

When Mira met me for the first time, she was under the impression that I couldn't speak English. I think she was pleasantly surprised. In retrospect, I think I've earmarked a niche for myself. But believe me, I've never got meaty roles or great songs. Shabana and Smita got the plum roles. Hemaji (Malini) got the best commercial films and songs. I just did whatever I got to the best of my abilities - whether it was a Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Silsila or Umrao Jaan.

Did you decline Kalpana Lajmi's Darmiyaan because you didn't want to play a mother of a grown-up?

Look, I played the mother of a grown-up way back in 1975. If I were to be offered Darmiyaan today, maybe I'd do it.

But at that time, I was going through a phase. I wasn't sure. I was also worried about my image - whether my fans would take it personally. After all, it was the story of an actress.

What sort of roles are offered to you these days?

I'm afraid not very exciting ones. I know I'm not getting any younger. I don't kid myself, imagining that there's an entire queue of directors waiting outside my house. I woke up and smelt the coffee long ago.

Can't you make your kind of films?

Unfortunately I don't have an RGCL to back me.

Something like ABCL, you mean?

Whatever. Then I'd make ten films of my kind. The audience is also willing to experiment. Ten years ago they weren't so adventurous. Today they want Indian cinema to be on par with world entertainment. I have reached a stage, where I'm open to exploring my persona as an actress. When papaji (Raj Kapoor) was ailing, he told me that just when he was all charged up and raring to go, death was catching up on him. Isn't that ironic?

Have you gone through any important turning points?

The turning point in my life happened somewhere in the beginning of the '80s, when I was confronted unawares by death snatching away an integral part of me. But before I could feel dead and mourn the loss, a miracle happened!

God poured life back into me, by returning the very source of my existence on a platter. That one moment changed the entire course of my life. Trust me, there was no looking back after that - no more doubts, no more fears. Only faith and more faith.

Where is Maya headed from here?

Well, there's so much to do. God has been extremely kind to me. I've had my share of pain and happiness. I'm still getting my market price despite 10 flops. I still get tons of fan mail every day. Magazines still want me on the cover. Seriously, there are no regrets.

Why do you shy away from television? Apparently you refused to appear on Simi Garewal's show.

I'm a very shy person. Unlike what has been insinuated, it's not a strategy to retain my aura. I'm not trying to live upto any mystery woman image. The mystique of leading ladies went away with Suraiya and Madhubala.

I'm far too much of a fun-loving person to be a recluse. How will I continue to educate myself if I alienate myself from people?

It's easy for everyone to accuse me of leading an ivory tower existence. Nothing can be further from the truth, though. As far as your question about being doing TV goes, I'm not so sure if I can articulate all my thoughts. Only when I'm confident about that, I'll venture into TV.

Come come, you're being modest.

Nahin re baba. If people don't find me commonplace and still want to reach out to me, someone up there certainly likes me.

Maybe I've connected with everyone. They know I'm just like them, warts and all. I'd rather be a character with flaws than be flawless with no character.

Your life appears to be laced with all the ingredients of a Jackie Collins novel. Have you ever considered writing your autobiography?

I haven't read Jackie Collins novels. But I believe they're pretty controversial and steamy. (Laughs) Sometimes I really wish my life were as exciting as people think it is. Let me also add that my private life is mine alone. I don't want to bare it for discussion and dissection. Because my life can be misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Other individuals are involved, too. I don't want them to misinterpret my intentions. Biographies and autobiographies are written about legends and great souls. I'm just a human being, quite an ordinary one at that.

No, it has been an extraordinary life.

That's your perception. You're entitled to it. Well, I'm not ordinary if you go by the experiences I've had in my life. My face is like a mirror. It's a reflection of all that I've believed, learnt and received. I've endured, fought, I've been taught many many lessons in my journey through life.

What has been constant has been the love of my family, fans and loved ones. That I've got in abundance.

Lastly what keeps me going is my faith in the Unknown Force. That fascinates me. Then I'm glad just to be ALIVE.