Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Alia Bhatt: The evolution of a star

From being a bundle of nerves at the sets of her debut a decade ago, Alia Bhatt has grown tremendously as an actor who understands all the aspects of filmmaking and her role in it, and as an entrepreneur, now producer and a new mother

Kunal Purandare
Published: Jan 9, 2023 11:29:02 AM IST
Updated: Jan 9, 2023 11:52:48 AM IST

Alia Bhatt: The evolution of a starAlia Bhatt, an actor, producer and entrepreneur Image: Masha Mel; Costume Stylist: Farrah O’ Connor;Makeup: Hila Karmand; Hairstylist: Christos Kallaniotis
Alia Bhatt blushes as she inadvertently discovers a poetic side to her. The actor’s muse, her newborn daughter Raha, has brought a new feeling of purpose in her life. Though there are sleepless nights, much like what happens before she starts shooting for a film, it’s not like anything that she has experienced before.

“It’s a totally new adjective. It’s literally learning a new language of love. Life was always meaningful, but now, every moment has become more meaningful. Even if it’s lack of sleep, I am living that moment to the fullest. It is extremely poetic,” Bhatt tells Forbes India in one of her first interactions since becoming a mother.

The year 2022 began on a positive note for the 29-year-old, who garnered acclaim for her performance in Gangubai Kathiawadi and ended in the most beautiful way with the birth of her daughter in November. In between, there were other notable achievements: She made her debut as producer with Darlings that released on Netflix to rave reviews, shot her first Hollywood film, Heart of Stone, featured in a Telugu movie, the blockbuster RRR, that has been nominated for the Golden Globes, and was seen with Ranbir Kapoor, with whom she tied the knot in April, in Brahmastra: Part One-Shiva.  

Bhatt admits that it has been a dream run for her personally and professionally. “It’s definitely been a year unlike any other. It will be difficult for the other years to match up to this one,” she says. “I have grown as an artiste, as an entrepreneur, as a person. So much has happened in different aspects of my life. This year was meant to be special, the trickles of which I am still sensing. It was not shortlived.”

Evolution As Actor

It’s been 10 years since Bhatt, daughter of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and actor Soni Razdan, made her acting debut with Student of The Year (2012). Since then, she has proved her mettle and versatility with films such as Highway (2015), Kapoor & Sons (2016), Udta Punjab (2016) and Raazi (2018), among others.

Alia Bhatt: The evolution of a starShe recalls being a bundle of nerves while shooting her first film, though she had always wanted to act. “While giving the first shot in Student of The Year, I was seeing stars all over. I couldn’t even focus on what was going on,” she reveals. A decade later, she’s way more comfortable in her skin and understanding the language of direction. “At the end of the day, I am a director’s actor,” says Bhatt, giving a glimpse into her evolution as an actor. “Earlier, my thinking was unidimensional—about what I was doing—and the actor that I am today thinks multidimensional—about the whole film. That has brought some exciting, fun layers to how I approach a scene.”

Filmmakers believe that is one of her hallmarks as an artiste. “Alia is extremely talented, but does not take that talent for granted. She is supremely gifted and the special sauce is that she is collaborative. She doesn’t care about how long or small the scene is, she just finds the best version of the scene with you,” says Shakun Batra, the director of Kapoor & Sons.

The actor thrives on challenges and taking on parts that may not be a walk in the park or those tricky enough to plant a doubt on whether one can do complete justice to them. “The feeling that I won’t be able to do it is always a good feeling. It puts me in an uncomfortable space. And lots of interesting things can be explored and discovered when you are out of your comfort zone, and when you are terrified,” explains Bhatt.

While she may have second thoughts at times on whether she can pull off certain roles, Bhatt, many a times, is the first choice for directors when they conceptualise a project. Meghna Gulzar, for instance, had only the actor in mind when she decided to make Raazi. “Somehow, I always saw her. I hadn’t even worked on the script… I just knew the story. It is probably the first and only time in my career that I have gone to an actor without a script,” the filmmaker tells Forbes India. She asked Bhatt if she could write the script with her in mind, and the actor replied in the affirmative. “I went back to her several months later when I had fleshed out my first draft, and she said just let me know when do you want to start.”

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Preparation And Instinct

When Bhatt emphasises she is obsessed with stories—as an actor, producer and entrepreneur—she isn’t exaggerating. “I think she can smell a good idea from a mile away,” says Batra, who had previously worked with her in a sketch called Genius of The Year. Feigning ignorance, Bhatt downplays her strengths as an actor. “I think the fact that I don’t know what my strengths are is my biggest strength. That is what I have been told,” she says, sounding almost apologetic and without trying to be modest.

Gulzar reveals Bhatt knew not only her lines, but also the entire script of Raazi. “She spoils her directors. When she spoke, she spoke like the person instead of an actor remembering the lines,” she says. “I would just explain what the character was thinking, what she was going through. You have to then leave it to the actor to cover the distance, which is what Alia did beautifully. There was immense spontaneity in her performance, she was acting from her gut.”

Even after 10 years in the industry, Bhatt still experiences the nervousness and excitement of a newcomer when she steps on to a set. So much so that she hopes she hasn’t forgotten acting by the time she starts shooting for Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani in February after her maternity break. “I can’t sleep a night before I start a film,” she says. “I get nervous before every big scene. I prepare for a big schedule for three months.” About her mental prep during this period, the actor says: “I go over the scenes multiple times in my head. I imagine how it will play out and the different ways in which I can do them. I imagine all the things that could possibly go wrong.”

Alia Bhatt: The evolution of a star

While each role stays with her for some time after having completed the film, Bhatt says among her recent work, she imbibed a lot from Gangubai, an aspiring actor who is forced into flesh trade in Mumbai and later becomes the voice of sex workers, even taking on some of the most powerful people for their rights. She says she focussed on the conversations she had with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali to mould the character. “With Sanjay Sir, I have learnt to explore a lot of the subtext,” she continues.

Shantanu Maheshwari, her co-star in Gangubai Kathiawadi, says once Bhatt got into the character, he didn’t see her prep much. “She was extremely spontaneous. She hit the ball out of the park in Gangubai,” he says. “Alia was extremely helpful to me throughout shooting. My performance got enhanced because of her, as I just had to react to what she was doing on screen.”

The beauty of preparation, explains Gulzar, is that it’s not visible. One of the reasons she says she went to Bhatt to play Sehmat, a RAW agent who acts as an informer after getting married into a military family in Pakistan, in Raazi was that she is inherently a vulnerable and fragile person. “I am not saying she is not a strong person, but there is a fragility to her. She is not overtly macho, she doesn’t try to be and doesn’t want to be either. And that’s how I saw Sehmat as well,” explains the director. “Sehmat is like an everyday young girl thrown into the most trying circumstances. It’s not that she comes out of it without a pinch of self-doubt or uncertainty. There is that human emotion… and I needed somebody who would be able to do that convincingly. Alia felt it all psychologically while she was filming and it shows because the camera picks up more than you can ever imagine.”

While the physical preparation such as practising driving a Jonga, learning self-defence techniques and getting adept at firing a weapon is a given, how does one train for a part that is grey and complex? “You have to eventually tap into your instinct, which is what Alia did. She totally internalised the character,” says Gulzar.

Batra, too, says Bhatt did a lot of homework before coming on sets and that when you meet a collaborator like her, you are working beyond acting. “You are then working on telling a story together. And that’s what I find most exciting about her,” he explains. “It’s easy to direct her… she has a friendly work ethic. When you work with an actor like her, you feel thankful that you have found her.” The filmmaker is now excited to see Bhatt as producer. “She probably has the best knack in the industry to pick up great ideas,” he says. And the start has certainly been promising.

Alia Bhatt: The evolution of a star

Backing Stories & Investments

Bhatt launched her production house, Eternal Sunshine Productions, with the intention to tell good stories, and support new talent—actors, writers, directors, technicians. Eternal Sunshine’s maiden production, Darlings, which deals with the subject of abuse against women, released in August and was an instant hit, garnering 6.7 million views in its opening weekend on Netflix.

In an earlier interview with Forbes India, Jasmeet K Reen, director of Darlings, spoke about Bhatt, the producer. “She was collaborative and open-minded. She would push you to have your vision,” according to the first-time filmmaker.

While the endeavour remains to produce their own projects, Bhatt says Eternal Sunshine will also promote quality work that sometimes does not reach a wider audience due to various reasons, including lack of funds. “We have started a property on our Instagram page called Eternal Support where we want to highlight content or films that we’ve seen or we’d like to support… that may not have a widespread marketing campaign, basically filmmakers who feel they need more reach,” she says.

Batra feels she will be able to support talent and stories that would otherwise probably get lost or missed. “With her position where she can back projects, I think she would shift the needle again,” he says.

The investor in Bhatt also veers towards brands that tell good stories. That does not mean she disregards the basic principles of business, though she insists she is not a numbers person. “Of course, it has to be profitable. It has to make monetary sense. Any investor who says profit is not a motive would be lying. Even if it’s slow profit, it is the motive,” she says. “I prefer to invest in a story or a model that is long term rather than going for a short-term investment. The potential for growth is way more.”

In 2020, the actor launched Ed-a-Mamma, a conscious homegrown clothing brand for children aged between two and 14. And recently, she unveiled the brand’s maternity collection. “I struggled to find quality maternity wear, so I started devising my own solutions, making my personal style more bump-friendly and prioritising comfort,” she had shared in a note.
Bhatt also has investments in beauty and personal care marketplace Nykaa that had a blockbuster IPO in 2021, and has even backed India’s first biomaterial startup Explaining her investment philosophy, she tells Forbes India: “I have to see that it is filling a certain gap in the market or a gap we haven’t noticed. And it has to have a good story attached to it… about why it began.”

Alia Bhatt: The evolution of a star

Looking Ahead

Over the years, Bhatt has been a subject of several memes. “Nothing has changed,” she jokes. But she’s a sport, says Batra, adding that once they pretended to have met with an accident next to their set. “Alia began crying. We’ve been evil at times, but she’s all game,” he says. “She’s a good laugh and does not take herself too seriously.”

The actor knows how to take setbacks and disappointments in her stride. “I am someone who believes you can’t have only one kind of colour in the world. You have to experience each emotion. It’s important to go through all the feelings so that each and every feeling stands out,” she says philosophically. “You feel grateful for failure at times because that’s what gives you a certain vigour. You feel grateful for a heartbreak or disappointment because that’s what makes you value the opposite.”

Gulzar reveals that with Bhatt, what you see is what you get. “There is no duplicity. And she appreciates that in return. It was comfortable to be around her because there are no facades,” she says.

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Despite being one of the best actors in the country, Maheshwari says she gives her co-actors their space in terms of performance. “Alia doesn’t carry any kind of baggage when you meet her. It’s her biggest plus point… she is approachable,” he says, adding that now that she has done an international project, she will wear different hats with aplomb: “She has become producer, she might direct someday… she will kill it. She has proved how versatile an actor she is. She has a lot of power and honesty that she brings to the table.”

Her ability to win over both the audience and filmmakers with her craft has left many to look forward to what she does next. “Every time you think how she is going to better this or go beyond this, she does it and makes it look effortless. That is her biggest forte,” says Gulzar. “I would want her to surprise me each time like she has been doing. And surprise herself too. She’s not been the one to fit into a template. She keeps experimenting with different characters, parts and kind of stories.”

Agrees Batra, who feels she will only get better with time and age. “As an actor, she is not scared of her age and all such things. It’s not in her head. As she grows older, she’s only going to do more and more interesting, complex, mature, grown-up roles… she’s only going to take this further,” he says. Adds Gulzar: “Knowing her, she will be acting till her 60s. I would love to see her doing that… interpreted as an older woman as well.”

Also read: Alia Bhatt: The author, actor, producer of her own surreal story

Life’s Beautiful

There have been a lot of firsts for Bhatt in 2022 and almost all of them have gone right. She’s only raring to go and knows what it takes to stay on top of one’s game.

“I don’t think I ever had doubts that my intent towards acting was extremely pure. It was a matter of time about earning my place in the industry. You have to do good work. I knew I have to go through that. Even now, if I have to survive in the industry for two decades, I have to prove that I am an actor you can trust to deliver. At the end of the day, you have to deliver. You can’t take work for granted and I have always been aware of that,” she says.

So far, life’s been good. “There’s a bunch of chaos, but it’s beautiful,” says Bhatt, wistfully unaware that probably there was always a poetic side to her.

(This story appears in the 13 January, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)