Alia Bhatt distinctly remembers that moment in her life when she knew that she “had to be” an actor. It was when she was rehearsing on stage with the school choir. At some point during practice, the teacher told everyone to follow Alia and sing like her. “That’s when it clicked. I loved that everyone was looking at me, and that I was the reference point. I knew I wanted to be the centre of attention,” she tells Forbes India.
She was in kindergarten.
Alia’s “training” started around the same time, when her mother, actor Soni Razdan, enrolled her in Shiamak Davar’s dance classes. “I was obsessed with dancing. By the time I was eight, I was already in the advanced classes,” says the 21-year-old.
However, over a decade later, in 2012, on the sets of Karan Johar’s Student of the Year (SOTY), Alia—despite her early epiphany—was “like a deer caught in the headlights”. “You don’t know how clueless I was,” she says. “I didn’t know anything at all. Like I didn’t know there were different departments of filmmaking or what production design was. In my head, you just take a camera and start shooting. We started with shooting a song and I was like a fish out of sea and yet, I felt like I belonged. It was strange, but interesting,” the actor tells Forbes India over the phone. (She was in Poland shooting for Shaandaar along with actor Shahid Kapoor.)
SOTY did well at the box office but it was clear that Alia’s Hermès-toting Shanaya did not impress the critics. “Alia’s brief is to be pouty and attractive, which she manages to do,” wrote Anupama Chopra in the Hindustan Times. CNN-IBN’s Rajeev Masand thought Alia was “cute as the clueless Shanaya, if a little raw”.
“People didn’t think I was an actor… just a face. Everyone thought I was there only as eye candy,” says Alia. She was determined to prove to herself, and to the world, that she was more than just a pretty face.
She got the opportunity to do that in Imtiaz Ali’s coming-of-age film Highway (2014). Alia plays Veera Tripathi, a rich and sheltered bride-to-be who is kidnapped on the eve of her wedding and falls in love with her captor even as she is hauled to all parts of India. She displays a balance of vulnerability and tenacity that many actors take a lifetime to achieve. And this was just her second release.
Ali was looking for an older actor to play Veera. But not having seen SOTY, he reacted instinctively when he met Alia. “She is very young, but also very mature. She seemed like an old soul… someone with a huge emotional quotient. Like Veera, she seemed to live in a world of her own,” Ali tells Forbes India.
“When I signed Highway, I was hoping that I’d shock and surprise people. And I did,” says Alia, with more than a hint of satisfaction in her voice. “Amitabh Bachchan sent me a handwritten note and flowers. Javed saab (Akhtar) and Shabanaji (Azmi) came to my house at 11 am after watching the first day, first show. It was overwhelming. When seniors of their stature take the time to watch your work and appreciate it, it’s a big deal.”
In many ways, Alia defies the stereotype of a child born into a Bollywood family. Her father is Mahesh Bhatt, the outspoken film director and producer. And she studied in Mumbai’s Jamnabai Narsee School, the playground of the who’s who of the film industry: Its alumni includes the Deol siblings (Sunny, Bobby and Esha), Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor and Kunal Kapoor, to name a few. But Alia grew up insulated from its mechanisations. “My introduction to Bollywood wasn’t from my family’s perspective. Just because my dad was making films, it didn’t mean that I got to know Bollywood through him. Like everyone else, I watched Govinda’s films or DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) songs on TV,” she points out.
However, Alia did play a young Preity Zinta in Sangharsh (1999). It was the first time she faced the camera. “I was five years old. And I don’t remember much of the shoot. I would go to the sets only for the food,” she says. Her childhood memories of interactions with stars on film sets are a blur. “I remember accompanying Mohit (Suri, director and her cousin) to Goa where he was shooting Zeher (2005),” she recalls. “I also remember going to the Murder set where I saw Mallika Sherawat in a green sari.”It’s no surprise, then, that when Alia arrived on the sets of SOTY, she had no idea about what it took to be a Hindi film heroine. “What surprised me was that looking good was such a big task. I never thought that I’d need to diet or look comfortable while dancing in a heavy lehenga. I didn’t know you can’t blink or that you have to arch your back because the camera catches everything,” she says.
High on Alia’s checklist of roles she wants to essay is a “dark character, something along the lines of Rosamund Pike’s role in Hollywood hit Gone Girl”. And the directors she is hoping to work with soon include “everyone from Raju Hirani to Zoya Akhtar to Rohit Shetty. I also want to work with Karan and Imtiaz again”.
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(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
The movie struck a chord with me, instantly. Veera, as the name signifies, is courage personified. The movie deals with the need to break free, breathe and just be, without the pressures of having to fit in. Alia feels so much at ease with the character, Veera, who is pretty open about not fitting in with the rest of the family. That\'s courage and integrity rolled into one. Wonderful movie, great job, not just Alia, but her captor lover boy too!! A younger version of Pawan Malhotra. Way to go both of you!! A long run ahead.on Dec 24, 2014
Alia has had a great transformation since SOTY. One of the finest young talents we have in Bollywood today. She is meant to go a long way!on Dec 20, 2014
I like thison Dec 20, 2014
Alia\'s a great actor..on Dec 19, 2014