When, at just 20, Kareena Kapoor leapt into the collective consciousness with her debut role in Refugee opposite Amitabh Bachchan’s son Abhishek 15 years ago, she had a fairly good idea of what was to come.

A Bollywood blue blood after all, Kareena belongs to a family that has been on top of the movie business for four generations. Fame, success and glamour had been her constant companions, not part of a wish-list. But not one to rest on her DNA laurels, Kareena decided to firmly establish her credentials as a star who can hold her own. A decade-and-a-half later, with Bajrangi Bhaijaan breaking all box office records, this 34-year-old has proven beyond doubt that her talent is her own, not an inheritance.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan grossed more than Rs41 billion (Dh2.3 billion) in just nine days and her previous film, Singham Returns, was the top earner in 2014, so Kareena is sitting pretty as the undisputed queen of the box office.

But over the years, Kareena’s priorities have changed. From focusing on being the darling of the masses, she now believes that straddling the two very separate worlds of blockbusters as well as critical acclaim is possible. ‘I think commercial success as well as critical success is important,’ she says in an interview with Friday. ‘But making a good film is more important. And that’s what we have here.’

Kareena is referring to Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a story revolving around the life of a little mute girl from Pakistan who loses herself in India with no idea how to find her way home. She finds an honest do-gooder – played by Salman Khan – who takes it upon himself to unite the girl with her family. Kareena plays Salman’s love interest in the film, a role that she agreed almost immediately after she was offered it. ‘It’s the story that matters,’ she says.

‘Bajrangi is such a different Salman Khan film. When you usually see a promo of a Salman Khan film, what strikes you first of course is the humour, then the action, and the type of mindless comedy that people love. But this is the first time that I’ve seen a Salman film where in fact the story has more prominence, even more than his performance, or the music. It’s really the story.’

And that apparently is what drew Kareena to it in the first place. ‘I play the role of a school teacher from the old part of New Delhi,’ she says. ‘When Salman’s character lands up in Chandni Chowk with this little girl, my character helps him to get to Pakistan and pushes him to make the right decisions. She’s the voice of reason, because Salman’s character is a little slow-witted.

Happy to be the co-star and not play the title role, Kareena reiterates that after 15 years in the industry, all that she cares for is the quality of the movies she makes. ‘I am now interested in doing good films only,’ she says. ‘I’ve always wanted to be known as a star actor. Yes, I wanted to be a movie star but I also wanted to be know as a good actor. I wanted to enjoy my stardom, but I was ready to work for it. So I have enjoyed mixing things up, working in the commercial blockbusters at the same time as doing different films like Chameli and Omkara, both critical successes that earned me awards.’

While in Chameli (2003) Kareena played the role of a prostitute with great conviction, in Omkara (2006) she teamed up with acclaimed director Vishal Bharadwaj to recreate Shakespeare’s masterpiece Othello. Kareena’s portrayal of Desdemona helped her rake in most of the prestigious awards that year, including the Filmfare Best Actress (Critics) Award.

But in spite of her critical success, she still enjoys the fame and adulation that comes with being a superstar. ‘I love being glamorous and I love to dance to catchy numbers on screen!’ she says. ‘But not just that. I have always wanted a balance between the two. So, it’s been a conscious decision that I will do both serious films as well as blockbusters, kind of mix up the two.

‘I certainly don’t want to be typecast as doing only commercial films or only women-centric films. No. I want to work with all the Khans. I want to work with everybody. The journey has been actually quite amazing because I think god has been kind to me.’

A far cry from the ambitious 20-year-old who walked out of what was to be her and superstar Hrithik Roshan’s debut vehicle Kaho Na Pyar Hai (Tell me you love me) after shooting for three days, to star in what she felt was a better bet, Refugee with Abhishek Bachchan, she has always been ambitious.

‘Even when Bebo [Kareena’s pet name] was a kid, she wanted to be an actress,’ said senior journalist Indu Mirani in an interview some years back. ‘She used to hang around the sets of [actress and elder sister] Karisma Kapoor, who is six years older. She was obsessed with losing weight even though she was only 15 and very slim. She looked stunning even then.’

Though she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Kareena was not the bratty star kid she was made out to be by the media. ‘With popular actors – Randhir Kapoor and Babita – as parents and the legendary actor, film-maker Raj Kapoor, as her grandfather, the fraternity and the media assumed that Kareena will come with a lot of diva-like attitude,’ says Indu. But she proved everyone wrong with her subtle yet powerful performance in her debut film Refugee, which earned Kareena her first award.

From then on she has managed to stay on the path of success, while never letting it take over her sense of balance. Whether it is her friendships or her commitment to loved ones, she is known in the industry for standing by those who matter to her.

For instance when Abhishek Bachchan recently tweeted a message marking 15 years since Refugee was made, describing Kareena as his all-time favourite co-star, it made her very emotional.

‘I don’t think I can share the bond that I share with Abhishek with anyone else,’ she responds. ‘There was a certain rawness and nervous energy we both had back then, and we both went through and experienced a lot together. Though we were both star kids who had lead privileged lives, we were both nervous. After the initial hesitation, we got along famously. We were literally like brother and sister, even though we were romancing each other on screen. It was really weird. But I think Refugee will always be the biggest landmark of my career.’

Not surprising, considering that Kareena is known to be very loyal. ‘As a person she’s very nice, loyal, friendly and very emotional,’ said Indu. ‘She doesn’t throw starry tantrums.’

That is one of the reasons she’s worked with almost all the heroes in Bollywood.

‘Yes, that’s true!’ she exclaims. ‘I’ve worked with Anil Kapoor in Bewafaa (Unfaithful) and now I’m working with his nephew Arjun Kapoor (in R Balki’s untitled project). I don’t know how that happens. Even [husband] Saif tells me it’s quite remarkable how I’ve done that. I played Anil Kapoor’s wife and now I’m playing Arjun’s wife so I hope that with god’s grace I am always able to work extremely hard, look great and feel great. And who knows, I might just be romancing some of the other young boys in the next few years!’

While the allusion to her age is apparent, her fans don’t seem to think that Kareena is in the senior category. In fact, there are often comparisons drawn between her and Alia Bhatt, 12 years her junior. In fact, Alia says she’s thrilled to be compared to her.

“I think that it’s always nice [to be a role model for a young actor],’ says Kareena. ‘In every generation they’ve pitted me against every actor and now I’ve become used to it. Earlier it would annoy me but now I’m fine with it. Also, Alia is spectacular and she’s a wonderful actress. I don’t know how annoying it is for her to be compared with me all the time. But she’s great and we’re really good friends and we got to spend some time together during the shoot of our upcoming film, Udta Punjab [Flying Punjab]. We didn’t really shoot any scenes together in the film, but were on the set together so we had some lovely times.’

In fact, Kareena is really looking forward to Udta Punjab. Starring opposite her ex-love Shahid Kapoor for the first time after they broke up many years ago, the film explores how substance abuse is taking a toll in the northern Indian state of Punjab. ‘I think it’s a brilliant film, and it’s going to be quite path-breaking in its [own] way,’ she says. ‘Again, I’ve gone by the story, but I also have a wonderful role in it. It’s about drug abuse, and I play a doctor who is the conscience and the backbone of the film.’

Kareena also consciously chose the film ‘because it is so different from Bajrangi Bhaijaan’, she says. ‘So you’ll see me in a completely different light. And after that I go back to another very different film, Balki’s untitled movie. I’m very excited about that because I think it’s a very special part, of an independent working woman. It’s a modern love story that’s quite original. I don’t know how people will receive it, but the role is wonderful, and that’s all I am really bothered about at this stage of my career.’

In this comfortable space that she’s carved out for herself, Kareena eschews the trappings of stardom. She’s more of a homebody after her marriage to Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan in 2012 and likes listening to old songs and watching old movies. ‘She likes the element of grief and sadness in these films,’ said Indu. ‘She likes to wallow in them. She’s not the type to move on. She thrives on melancholy.’

That probably is the reason why she’s still sentimental about ex-flame Shahid Kapoor, who told her about his impending marriage before announcing it to the world.

Her own two years of marriage have settled her, she says, though she and Saif are not ready to start a family yet. ‘All I can say is I recommend marriage,’ she says. ‘I think I’m looking better after my marriage than I was earlier. I’m feeling better and it’s about making things work. Everything requires work. You have to work at it, whether it’s your career or your job or even your relationships,’ she says. ‘ I believe what is most important is that you have to enjoy whatever you’re doing. Most people are unhappy because they don’t enjoy their job, or they are unhappy in their marriage. If you are happy in what you do, life just flies by.’