Why sky is the limit for Alia Bhatt

Alia Bhatt’s 23 years belie her emotional depth and effortless authenticity as an actor

Image: Rohan Shrestha

“One more thing,” Imtiaz Ali interjects as we start to wrap up our chat. We have spent about 20 minutes on the phone, the busy sounds of Patna Sahib, the famed gurdwara in Bihar’s capital, forming a backdrop to our conversation. But the filmmaker wants to make his last point. “I have to say this. Today, I woke up with this thought: Where are the Alia jokes now?”

Ali is, of course, referring to Alia Bhatt’s ill-fated 2013 debut on Koffee With Karan during which she blithely said that Prithviraj Chavan [then chief minister of Maharashtra] was the president of India. “There were so many jokes about her lack of general knowledge. I really admire how she dealt with that,” says Ali. “She has risen above.”

So much so that the joke is now on them.

Alia, still, may or may not know who the president of India is. But she knows what she has to: Acting. From the time of her 2012 debut in Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year (SOTY), where she played an effervescent young college girl caught in a love tangle, she has been careful about choosing roles that reflect “who I am”. “As actors, we have the liberty to be other people. So I decide who I want to be, like a kid in a candy shop… sometimes you pick the right candy.” Apart from the forgettable Shaandaar (2015) with Shahid Kapoor, Alia’s candy-hunting instincts have not failed her.

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Alia Bhatt’s stature as an actor has grown since making her debut with Student Of The Year in 2012.

We meet her on the Monday after her Dear Zindagi release weekend. It is her third triumph of the year, after Udta Punjab, in which she played Bauria, a Jharkhandi hockey player dealing with the harsh reality of the drugs-torn north, and a softer part in the family drama Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921). The box office jury on Dear Zindagi is still out but the verdict on Alia’s portrayal of a conflicted, complex urban woman, who seeks therapy to find some answers, is in.

Critics can’t stop singing paeans to her authenticity and talent. Her superstar co-actor from Dear Zindagi, Shah Rukh Khan, even admitted on national television to having “learnt so much” from his younger colleague while Ranveer Singh, who partnered her in a light-hearted MakeMyTrip ad campaign, took her aside at the Global Citizen concert in Mumbai last month to “express his admiration for her”. “I had to pour out whatever I felt because I saw Udta Punjab and Kapoor & Sons pretty late. I felt I owed it to her as a fellow artiste to tell her how much she inspired me,” he tells Forbes India. “Her talent blows my mind. She’s so effortless… she’s as natural as breathing. As young as she is, the sky is the limit for her.”

More than that, she is, as Ali puts it, an actor who is a star.

The sniggers have faded and look who’s laughing now.

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Back from an overnight trip to London, Alia greets us cheerily outside her new house in Juhu, across the road from her parents’ home. For anyone hiding under a rock for the last five years, one look at Alia and they’d think college kid, fresh, pretty, likeable. Her petite frame is in workout gear, hair in a loose bun, and she’s profusely apologetic about some confusion over where we were to meet. She walks us up to the family apartment—from which she has since moved out—and seats us in father Mahesh Bhatt’s den.

Fifteen minutes and a quick shower later, she emerges in pyjamas and a white T-shirt, hair still wet, make-up free and bright-eyed even after an exhausting run of promotions.

She requests her help who has brought us our tea to make her some dahi-chawal, then sits cross-legged on the couch and waits patiently for our first question.

Unfortunately, we bring up age.

“I don’t ever look at my age as a point of conversation at all,” she says pointedly. “I don’t think that just because I am 23—or just because anybody is young—that it’s not normal to achieve so much.”

But her age is a talking point. Even through the course of the 40 minutes we spend with her, there is evidence of a girl-woman, placed suddenly and prominently in a grown-up world, still finding her voice. Also, quietly, perhaps sub-consciously, grappling with the eccentricities of fame.

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She has since come up with remarkable performances in diverse fi lms like Udta Punjab (2016) and Highway (2014).

Alia, the person, is far younger than Alia, the actor.

This is because Alia, the actor, belies her age.

“At 23, to be able to do such diverse roles...,” Mahesh Bhatt says wonderingly, while talking to Forbes India over the phone from Maldives, a few days after our meeting with Alia. He is on a “much overdue” holiday with wife Soni Razdan, Alia and her sister Shaheen.

While Alia may not consciously plot and plan her career trajectory, she made a concerted decision, soon after her glamorous turn in SOTY, to find a role that spoke to and of her. “I felt like with my first film, I was being misunderstood,” she says. “I felt people were going to think that I am some baby doll. But I am not. I wanted to break that [misconception]. I didn’t know how. But I was clear I wanted to.”

She must have wanted to strongly enough because a few nudges from the universe later, Imtiaz Ali and Highway (2014) came knocking. Their arrival proved to be a game-changer.

“As luck had it, Imtiaz came to me with Highway, and it was honestly a no-brainer for me, because even before reading the script, I wanted to work with him. It was like—I have to work with this director but I have to read the script and I really hope I like it.” Once she read it—and Ali says the drama, where Alia’s upper-class Veera Tripathi gets abducted on a Haryana highway, was merely half-written at the time—Alia knew: “This is it. This is my opportunity.”

An opportunity she may not have got had it not been for fellow industry insider (and her favourite actor) Ranbir Kapoor. Ali was looking for a slightly older girl—in her mid- to late-20s—in what he considered to be a marriageable age. “But Ranbir told me to meet her anyway because he felt she would be a very good actor. I respect his judgement, but I thought that bahut chhoti hai, mere kisi bhi role me fit nahi hogi,” he says. After he met her, he realised she wasn’t “that small but something between a child and a woman”.

He then changed his specifications for the role. “I was very excited about this animal that would fit into the character and give it various dimensions. And that is only possible when somebody has emotional depth—and emotional depth can vary with time but it does not completely change in any person with experience.”

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Alia continues to experiment with different roles, like that of a complex woman who opts for therapy in Dear Zindagi (2016)

This ability to empathise with the human situation has taken her from the rough rides of Highway to heroin-trafficking in Udta Punjab to the therapist’s couch in Dear Zindagi. The common thread in these performances has been her authenticity, a realness, that is inherent.

“I will never recover from an incident in 1998,” Mahesh Bhatt says, responding to a question about the origins of Alia’s emotional awareness. “She was barely 6-7 years old and I had lost the most important person in my life—my mother. I was sitting down at the crack of dawn when she was going to school, dressed in a uniform with her water bottle. She came to me and said you are missing mummy. I told her I was. She said close your eyes, think of her, and you will discover that she is there. And I did exactly that. Then I opened my eyes and I saw her face beaming with joy. She had realised that I had inched a little closer to my mother. This was extraordinary.”

Arjun Kapoor, her co-star in 2014’s 2 States—her “first Rs 100 crore hit”—found during their time together on set that Alia had “the brain for understanding every little emotional detail and depth—for someone of her age to have that kind of bandwidth in front of the camera...”

                                                                                                    *** 

 “Who would know where somebody’s emotional depth comes from?” says Ali. “I always found it in Alia, and I do know it’s not got anything to do with age.”

It isn’t a rags-to-riches story either. How does a girl brought up in an upper-class milieu in Juhu do this, asks a bemused Mahesh Bhatt. And answers his own question. “Not to take away from her own skills, her emotional quotient is part of her DNA.” An actor mother, a filmmaker father and paternal grandfather, an artistic maternal grandmother—the gene pool takes care of the basics.

The rest is all Alia.

“Before I even knew what they [her parents] did, I would act, dance and perform. I became this filmi buff since I was two—since I could walk or talk, or have any understanding of visuals or people,” she says. Alia has often spoken about enjoying the Govinda-Karisma Kapoor brand of cinema as opposed to her father’s serious social films like Arth (1982)or Saaransh (1984). “Maybe I was subconsciously [influenced] by the atmosphere at home, though,” she says, but her creative pursuit was largely instinctive. “I just knew it [acting] was something in me.”

Alia had planned to go to drama school “because mum did, so I was inspired by that”—and even started filling out applications. But then SOTY came her way. At that point, her father even told her not to take her Class 12 board exams. “He said, you are going to be an actor, you don’t need it. I was like, No! I have worked for this for one-and-a-half years! I will not leave without giving these exams.”

But no school or college can prepare you for planet Bollywood, where the meteors will strike when they will. Alia, however, had years of prep in the unlikeliest of places—her bathroom, car or even a nook of her house where she acted out all manners of scenarios. “As a child, I would play acting-acting with my friends and randomly have conversations with myself in the bathroom,” she says, bursting out laughing. “I would enact a scene while I was having a shower. There would be real-life things that I wanted in life [grinning even wider]. Like I wanted a boy to talk to me—and I would act that out! I am sounding creepy, but it would be a conversation with real emotion and it would be a moment, and it would make me really happy!”

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Image: Rohan Shrestha
Real emotions, fittingly, are integral to her performances. In Dear Zindagi, Mahesh Bhatt says, “she wasn’t performing. She was just breathing.” He was particularly astounded during a recent trip to the outskirts of Ranchi to inaugurate a tribal art and craft function. “I met the adivasis of Jharkhand and they were marvelling at her performance [in Udta Punjab] and were amazed at how she could transport herself into ‘our skins’.”

Alia’s ease with vulnerability cannot be trained—but parental advice plays its part. “My father has always kind of fed me this feeling that an actor has to be vulnerable, an actor has to be imperfect, the emotions have to be real and felt because the camera catches everything,” she says. “All these things were told to me again and again, which is why I have that at the back of my head—that whatever I am doing has to be real, even if I’m picking up a cup.”

Ali believes it is up to the world to “produce jewels” from Alia. “She already has it all,” he says.

He should know. She was barely 20 when he physically lifted her and placed her on a rock and asked her to talk to the stream flowing below. “Alia just started crying and laughing at the same time.” This scene wasn’t planned. Ali simply wanted to see what Alia could do in the setting. This wasn’t usual practice for Ali, but with Alia, he knew he could take a chance. “She used to surprise me in every scene, not because of what she did but because she hadn’t planned it. It was because she just submitted to it.”

Kapoor suggests that Alia isn’t even aware of “her own genius”. “She’s like an accidental genius and that’s the most amazing part about her as an actor,” he says.

                                                                                                    *** 

There aren’t many shades to Alia’s story. Not yet, anyway. It is a happy, idyllic picture for now. The greys, if any, aren’t allowed in the public eye. “People say honesty is the best policy,” she says, “but of course we [actors] openly lie about our lives.”

At the same time, her family has never been known to shy away from the truth. For instance, her sister Shaheen recently penned an article about dealing with depression. For Alia, the subject of mental health in Dear Zindagi was “a very normal thing, my sister goes to therapy”.  

Though she appreciates media attention—“the minute people stop speculating about me, I’m going to wonder why”—she draws the line at intrusions into her family. That, she says firmly, is not okay.

“Whatever it is, it has to be real—true to the moment,” she says. “People should talk about me because they want to talk about me—not because I’m making them talk about me.”

In fact, Alia’s social media presence, too, tends to largely be limited to movie promotions. “I am quite active on Instagram but I don’t tweet too much,” she says. “I won’t tweet a poem because it sounds intelligent. And I’m not one of those people who wants to show that I am having a busy day so take photos and share!”

She is also aware of her own limitations. “I have opinions but I also accept the fact that I don’t have too much information on most things—I only have information on what I’m doing and what work surrounds me. So I’m bendable. Sometimes, though, not being rigid is also not a good thing—because, it’s like, what’re you thinking, bro?” she says, rolling her eyes.

Not that it bothers her. “I believe ignorance is bliss. My sister is crying every third day about what’s happening in the world—I say, let’s all be ignorant,” she says glibly.

Alia would rather talk about movies. “I want to do a comedy, something nonsensical,” she says, as we close the interview. “The sensible ones should say, ‘Oh, so she is this person also’. I want to go to that extreme.”  
She also wants to play a villain. And anyone else she wakes up wanting to be.

The good news: She has time. And she has talent.
 
 Importantly, she has family—“her loved ones”—around her. Not that she admits to needing grounding. “People don’t need to keep telling me that I’m normal. That’s inherent. That’s who I am. And my people are like that,” she says.

 A few days after we met, she is surrounded by those people on the beaches of Maldives, their “first family trip together internationally”.

Her father, while on the phone with us, has spotted her outside, and describes her as “lying against the green ocean, under an umbrella, typing into her phone, at times looking into infinity”. The proud father wonders about the “unheard of horizons” she is contemplating. The daughter, on the other hand, is probably lost in one of her numerous day-dreams, which, in her case, seem to come true.

(With inputs from Angad Singh Thakur and Shruti Venkatesh)

(This story appears in the 06 January, 2017 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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