Tabloid talk? Tak just grins and bares it
Scandal sheets are fixated on Bongkot Khongmalai's relationship with billionaire Dtac founder Boonchai Bencharongkul, but that has not caused her to shy away from discussing the relationship or from taking on the racy roles that have made her one of the Kingdom's most controversial stars
Titters and turned heads greet Bongkot "Tak" Khongmalai as she makes her way into a hotel where a press conference for the release of the second and concluding instalment of Jan Dara is to be held.
The attention isn't down solely to her bombshell looks or the film's surprisingly racy nature for a Thai production. Rumours are circulating that her engagement with Dtac founder and billionaire Boonchai Bencharongkul is on the rocks.
This is nothing new for the 27-year-old actress, whose romance with Mr Boonchai, more than 30 years her senior, has become the favoured fodder of tabloids ever since the unlikely couple announced their engagement late last year.
Tak's publicist clarifies that Mr Boonchai accompanied her to the hotel where the press conference is held. When the break-up rumours are put to her directly, Tak seems saddened, but only for a moment. "People ask me when we'll break up, well, how would I know? Do they [those questions] make me feel bad? Not at all," she says. "Why do they want to break us up? Is it because they hate me or they hate him? Or they just can't stand us being happy?
"He has been married many times before and I have been through failed relationships. We're both unlucky in love, I guess. I don't know what the future will bring. If we knew, we wouldn't all mess up our lives, would we? All I know is that these criticisms only help to make me stronger and more careful about our relationship."
One of the main criticisms Tak has faced, given the May-December nature of her romance with Mr Boonchai, is that her relationship is driven more by monetary goals than love.
Tak laughs off the suggestion.
"I don't have to answer that question, but I will because I want you to know what an incredible person he is to me. I love him because he's kind, decent, sincere and he loves me. He's very charming, romantic and smart.
"He's not an ugly guy at all. To be honest, I'm not beautiful if I don't put on my make-up," she says. "People say he's much older. Yes he is, but if you look at it another way, when I'm his age, I'll probably be wrinkly and fat, totally out of shape. People say he's rich and he is, but he worked hard for his fortune. That's something to be proud of and not something for the media to criticise me about."
All of the tabloid attention around her romantic life is undoubtedly frustrating for Tak, whose movie career _ very much alive _ often gets second billing.
"If this is as good as it gets, so be it. I think it's partly because I'm outspoken in person and partly because I often play adult roles and sometimes people assume I'm just like the characters I play.
"Several years ago I went to the Cannes Film Festival to promote Tom Yum Kung . I felt the professionalism and love of motion pictures among people in the industry. At the time I had released Ai-Fak [a 2004 adaptation of Kham Phiphaksa (The Judgement), by Chart Korbjitti, in which she plays a mentally ill woman prone to exhibitionism.] It's an intense role and I knew I would be criticised a lot, so I made a decision not to let that negativity bother me and to focus on my career, which I'm proud of. I've been able to put food on the table for my family by doing what I love."
Would she change places with other leading actresses, the media darlings or showbiz princesses?
''Well, when I was a little girl, I wanted to be Cinderella but I changed my mind quickly. Man, she gets beaten up pretty badly before marrying Prince Charming. That's definitely not me. I was raised to be tough.''
She is quick, however, to point that out that the on-screen persona she has taken on in her often racy films is worlds apart from her more prosaic everyday life.
''Playing a nude scene that tells a story doesn't mean I'm a bad person or a sex addict. I'm a serious actress, not a porn star. I'm not even sexy in person for crying out loud!''
That is highly debatable. Surely her knockout physique, the subject of countless loving close-ups in films and photo spreads in magazines is reason enough to contest that assertion.
''It's true!'' insists Tak, laughing. ''My fiance is sexier than I am in person.''
''I'm more like a hip hop girl. I don't normally wear make-up. I usually wear a T-shirt and jeans, which probably makes me unidentifiable in a crowd.''
Next month, Tak will appear in the conclusion to ML Bhandevanop Devakula's adaptation of the classic erotic Thai novel Jan Dara, playing Auntie Wad, the long-suffering wife of the titular character's father. The fates suffered by various members of the family take a toll on Wad, who observes their tragic ends and grieves alone.
''I like this character. She seems fragile on the outside, but she is very tough inside. In the end her perseverance sees her through. I would love to be like her,'' she says, praising timid Auntie Wad.
Tak, timid? Really?
''Nah, if I were her, I'd flee before the marriage.''
Tak made her big screen debut in Bang Rajan (2000) when she was only 15, and since then has regularly played older women in period roles, such as Pimpilalai in Khun Chang Khun Phaen, Somsong in Ai-Fak and Auntie Wad in the Jan Dara films.
''I don't feel typecast. I often play mature roles from different eras, but only because the scripts were great. I was a worrier, a lovesick wife, a doomed lunatic and a submissive stepmother,'' she says. ''My mum was critical. She said no man would want to marry me because of those roles. Luckily Pi [Mr Boonchai] came along and proposed,'' says Tak, smiling. ''She doesn't have to worry about that any more.''
Tak seems to come alive every time she speaks about her fiancé and agrees that their relationship has changed her outlook on life.
''It's different. I'm a very strong woman and I've been on my own for my whole life. Now that we're together, I've become more open-minded. We take care of each other. He makes me stronger and happier. He lets me be myself. I'm lucky.''
She says that despite Mr Boonchai's billions, it is the simple things he does for her and her family that mean the most.
''He takes my mum to the hospital himself when I'm at work. He has money and so can send anyone to drive my mum to see the doctor. But he accompanies her. He cares a lot about us.''
As for baby plans, Tak says they are not in any hurry. ''Maybe next year. I still want to work and put 100% into my career. He understands and supports my decision. He's also into art.''
Before motherhood becomes a reality, Tak plans to focus on another of her ambitions _ directing.
She made her directorial debut last year in Pai in Love and her second film, Angel, will open in May.
''Angel,'' Tak says, ''is a heartfelt and insightful story of the life of a bargirl.''
She's very keen on the script, which she says was inspired by the way Thai women are stereotyped in foreign movies.
Directing for her represents a more sustainable path for Thai women in showbiz.
''There's ageism, especially in Thailand, that results in good scripts not going to actresses over 30,'' she says. ''We're only sisters, mums, grandmothers or maids after that point. That's why I'm leaning towards directing and producing.''
Still, Tak plays a bargirl in Angel. Is she worried that will only reinforce the urge to typecast her?
''She's a bargirl. I must act like a bargirl. It's fun to be someone you're not. I'm working with what I've got,'' she says. ''Let's face it. People aren't going to want to see me in sexy roles not so long from now, so I might as well do them now.''
What does Mr Boonchai say when she leaves to go to work on a role like that?
Tak laughs, ''He simply says 'Have a good day at work, darling.'''
About the author
Writer: Kritini Upayokin