Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Alia Bhatt: The little old star

Three back-to-back hits, multiple endorsement deals and two viral videos with over 10 million views later, Alia Bhatt may well be the story of the year

Published: Dec 18, 2014 06:36:59 AM IST
Updated: Dec 19, 2014 04:52:33 PM IST
Alia Bhatt: The little old star
Forbes India Celebrity 100 Rank no. 53

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.

Alia Bhatt: The little old star
Alia Bhatt is only 21, but she has already won over both critics and audiences with her performances

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.

In just the couple of years that have followed SOTY, things have quickly—and incredibly—changed for Alia. She has grown up.

It is too early to call a film a game-changer, but Highway has proved unequivocally influential in Alia’s career.

For someone who has grown up in Juhu, Mumbai’s upscale, filmi suburb, the journey with Highway gave Alia an understanding of “different lands and people”. The boundaries between reel and real life merged. This was the first time that she experienced India. Director Imtiaz Ali, Alia and the cast and crew of Highway travelled through six states across the country while shooting the film. Ali recalls incidents that reflect the growth of the actor and the character she was playing in the film. “We were shooting in the freezing cold in Kaza (Himachal Pradesh) and I remember seeing Alia sitting on the road with the crew, eating a concoction of Maggi (noodles) and rice with her fingers,” he says.

Highway not only changed how the world perceived Alia as an actor, but also who she intrinsically is as a person. “Imtiaz shot the film linearly, so while on screen Veera is discovering things about herself, off screen, I was discovering myself. In a sense, I was living a parallel life. When Veera feels that sense of freedom as she climbs a tree for the first time, that’s exactly how I felt as well. Like Veera, I was so out of my comfort zone.” Alia pauses before adding, “Highway has made me the person that I am today.”

She followed Highway with the film adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller 2 States (2014) and the frothy romcom Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (HSKD, 2014). Bollywood veteran of 25 years, Sajid Nadiadwala, who produced both Highway and 2 States, is clearly a fan. “Once in a decade do you get an actress like Alia. She has the range to play a Veera, a Tamilian MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad (in 2 States) and a girl whose only concern in life is that she wants to wear a designer lehenga (in HSKD). You see this kind of range very rarely in this industry,” says Nadiadwala.

Three back-to-back films in the first half of the year have made Alia wary of over-exposure. “It’s like when you have too many sweets, it begins to taste bitter. The audience should want to see you,” she says. But she doesn’t seem to have much reason to fear. For now, people can’t seem to get enough of Alia, and her recent absence from social media—she was busy shooting Shandar—was noticed.

After all, she is part of a brave new brigade of actors. And Alia, at its vanguard, is willing to experiment with roles. “It’s not about the length of a role, but what it requires me to do. I have to like a film in totality. At this stage of my career, I don’t want to do a film for the wrong reason. I don’t want to do a film just because I have the time,” she says, quickly adding, “but then, ‘never say never’. There could come a time when I have nothing on hand and I will jump at the first offer that comes my way.”

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”.

Though her stock as an actor is on the rise, her IQ has been harshly questioned after an interview with Johar on his talk show Koffee with Karan. The fallout: Jokes like ‘Alia Bhatt is so dumb that she though Pani Puri and Sev Puri are relatives of Amrish Puri’ continue to be WhatsApped and BBMed. But instead of allowing it to cow her down, in August, the spunky actor cocked a snook at all the trolls by starring in an All India Bakchod (a comedy collective) video, titled ‘Genius of the Year’. It ‘documents’ the months after her Koffee With Karan fiasco when she enrols in a Dumb Belle Mental Gym that promises to take her from “Dolce & Gabbana to Smart like Shabana”.

The video went viral; it had over six million views at the time of going to press.

Rohan Joshi, one of the founders of All India Bakchod, says, “In the last joke in the video, Alia announces that she could be India’s first female prime minister. We weren’t sure if she’d be okay ending the video by making fun of herself again, but she loved the idea.”

A second video became more of a platform to address a subject close to her heart: Women’s rights. Helmed by Queen director Vikas Bahl, ‘Going Home’ talks about a utopian world where women are free to make their own decisions. Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher was one of the over four million people who viewed and shared the video. “The upside of being ‘known’ is being able to do something like this. If it changes even one life, it will all be worth it,” says Alia about the video which was a part of Vogue India’s #VogueEmpower initiative.

You can see why it is easy to forget that Alia is just 21 years old. There are hardly any giveaways of her youth—other than, perhaps, when she punctuates a sentence with the mandatory “like”.

Her age, she believes, can be a bit of a double-edged sword. “There are days when I think I might lose out on roles because I am too young. But then, I have these years to do what I want to do, to improve and grow as an actor. However, there are times when people don’t take me seriously because I am so young,” she says. That ship, however, seems to have sailed.

Both critics and audiences have been won over. Subtle murmurs of Alia winning all the Best Actress awards for Highway have been doing the rounds. But she refuses to get swept away by the hype. “Cherophobia is the fear of being too happy and thinking that you’ll lose it all. I have cherophobia in both my personal and professional life. I try to not be aware of this fame because I fear I will lose it,” she says. “I don’t live in the moment because I am constantly thinking about what if it all goes away.”

Alia has another fear, that of becoming fat again. (Before he signed her for SOTY, Karan Johar asked Alia to shed 16 kilos.) “I have become a lot more conscious about my body since I became an actress. I pick on every little bit of fat I see, even on my toe. I am done losing weight.”

She may be overtly critical of her body but, she says, “I don’t pick on my performances. I am not someone who is looking for flaws. I just think, ‘the next time I’ll do better’.” And so far, she already has.

(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)