Just as she has made it through life and death scenes on the big screen, Bollywood star Preity Zinta has survived terrifying experiences in real life, testifying against a mafia don and surviving the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Throughout it all, the 31-year-old actress has managed to keep the dimpled, chatty girl-next-door image that she rode to fame. But it has been eight years since Zinta's debut in ''Dil Se,'' or ''From the Heart,'' and now she wants to erase the image that has made her famous before her characters become caricatures.
''I'm sick of it. I'm sick of being bubbly. I'm sick of being talkative and I'm sick of being cute,'' said Zinta, her trademark smile missing, but her dimples making a fleeting appearance. ''That image has stuck with me,'' she told The Associated Press in an interview. ''I mean, you evolve, you know?''
Zinta is hoping her role in ''Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna,'' or ''Never Say Goodbye,'' slated for release later this year, will help her find a new public image. The movie has drawn a lot of attention in Bollywood, largely for its star-studded cast which, along with Zinta, includes some of the industry's biggest draws, such as Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee.
The actors have been tightlipped about the plot, saying only that it's about relationships and marriages not being as perfect as they appear. Zinta said she plays a ''very ambitious magazine editor.'' Zinta has a reputation for choosing roles that go against India's traditional mores, even if she has smiled her way through them.
She played an unwed mother in ''Kya Kehna,'' or ''What Can You Say,'' in 2000. In last year's blockbuster ''Salaam Namaste,'' or ''Hello Hello,'' she played a woman who defied her family and moved in with her boyfriend before getting married. ''I always look for something interesting,'' she said during the interview at her office in a Bombay suburb last month.
Apart from her reel-life, she has also made headlines - but not the sort most actresses make. Zinta was a star witness at the 2003 trial of a movie financier, Bharat Shah, who police suspected had links to Bombay's mafia. She testified about threats she had received from a gangster thought to be tied to Shah.
Several other movie stars who were also allegedly threatened retracted statements they gave to police, fearing retaliation from gangsters. Zinta's testimony was supposed to remain confidential, but word of it leaked and the news was splashed on front pages across India. Shah was eventually found guilty of withholding information about the mafia but not of being directly linked to the mob.
Zinta, meanwhile, was given police protection and forced to stay out of the public eye for about two months. ''My life was a living hell,'' she said. ''I think I aged 10 years then.'' She never planned to be actress and stumbled into Bollywood when a well-known filmmaker spotted her in a soap advertisement while she was studying for a postgraduate degree in criminal psychology, Zinta said.
She insists the ad was just for fun. ''I never thought I'd be an actor - ever,'' she recalls. ''I had never gone to film school or done a dance class.'' Instead, she's learned by trial and error while appearing in more than 20 movies. Along the way, Zinta has become one of India's top actresses, but she says it was her role in the mob trial and the loss of friends to the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 that has given her a sense of perspective.
Zinta was fast asleep in a beach-side villa in Thailand when the killer waves struck and says she still remembers being awoken by the thundering noise of water smashing everything around her. She ran and survived. Friends who had traveled with her, however, did not make it out - something she does not like to talk about. ''The people I went with were some friends I had grown up with. I'd known them all my life,'' she said before changing the subject without saying how many died. ''It really made me think about why everybody around me went and I didn't,'' Zinta says, covering her eyes. More than half of about 5,400 people killed Thailand were foreign tourists.
Since then, Zinta says she's taken life slower - or example, she only made one film last year instead of working at the breakneck pace most Bollywood stars put up with. ''I'm more grounded now. I've started doing fewer films. I've started meditating,'' says Zinta. ''I want to live my today because I may not have a tomorrow.''