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Alia Bhatt: Last actor standing

Alia Bhatt is making all the right moves. Ten years after her debut, she is bracing herself for Hollywood. Could she change the rules of the game yet again?

Alia Bhatt. Photographer Psudo, stylist Ami Patel, makeup Pompy, hair Ayesha 

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Hindi cinema is bleeding. Big films, empty theatres, unimpressed audiences. Uncertain, unforgiving times. In the midst of box office carnage, Alia Bhatt stands tall. This year, the 29-year-old actor has fronted bonafide hit Gangubai Kathiawadi, played a small part in the worldwide sensation RRR, and debuted as a producer with the critically acclaimed Darlings. (She has also gotten married and is weeks away from becoming a mother.) This is not an actor biding her time, but one in a hurry. Like her brothel-ruling character in Gangubai, Alia Bhatt intends to keep going to the next level.

I believe Gangubai Kathiawadi has a lot in common with the testosterone-fuelled Telugu superhit Pushpa: The Rise. Both are linear stories of heroic progression, where an infallible protagonist takes on different villains one at a time, like in video-game levels. No fall, no stumble, only a climb. These are films made with the unadulterated intent of celebrating a hero—only that one hero happens to be a young woman. Bhatt, sitting across from me in a Mumbai hotel, is thrilled that I noticed.

Also read: Darlings review: Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah shine in deft neo-noir

“I kept using the word ‘front-foot’ during that performance,” she says, only understanding director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s intent after she hoisted her leg on to a chair. “When we were shooting the sequence where I challenge Raziya (the character played by Vijay Raaz), that whole section where I say ‘zameen pe baithi bahut achchi lag rahi hai tu,’ and I put my leg up on the chair, that is when I realised it.” It was a realisation born out of sudden, unfamiliar enjoyment, and when she went home, she wanted to share the thrill with actor husband Ranbir Kapoor. “I told him it’s a face-off, and it’s so stylish and so this and so that, but… I’m so small!”

It was while lighting the beedi—she sparks an imaginary one as she describes the scene—that it clicked. “Then everything changed for me,” she says. “The way I was walking, the way I was talking.” Once she knew the amount of swagger required, she leaned into it and used even dance sequences as power-moves, her character posturing to intimidate, archly—and unsubtly—conquering the screen. Front-foot.

The footwork began early. “I decided to become an actor before I knew anything about life,” Bhatt says. “I knew I wanted to be inside the television in my room.” On that TV set, she watched Govinda and Karisma Kapoor, entranced by colours and songs. “I would naturally gravitate towards anything that required me to perform, to be centre stage,” she says, explaining her attraction to plays and singing competitions throughout school, and the dances she’d perform for grandparents on Sundays.

“When Gangubai released in theatres,” she recalls, “I went on Day 1 to do a theatre visit, and in one of the theatres, I was walking through the crowd to give them roses, because Gangubai used to give out roses, and I bumped into my teachers who taught me how to act for this very big play we did on the annual day, Fiddler On The Roof. That was the first time the school got theatre professionals—Yashwant Singh and Salone (Mehta) Ma’am. That was my only formal training in acting.” A delighted Bhatt took the microphone to announce that these teachers taught her to act, and the theatre veterans received an ovation from the audience. “It was unreal. Unreal.”

A still from ‘2 States’
A still from ‘2 States’

She was 16—and possibly still memorising Fiddler—when she auditioned for Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year, released 10 years ago. I revisited clips of the film, particularly her bright pink introduction shot, set to a Gulabi Aankhen remix. To this she loudly, theatrically, says, “Ugh!” Then she admits that was for effect. “I think it just sounds cool to say I cringe at my own work,” she smiles. “Maybe I don’t.”

Bhatt is ambivalent about that audition. “I don’t know about the scene because I remember I was touching my hair a lot, but I was very confident about the song.” It’s more telling how she narrates the scene after the audition, when she first met director and future mentor Karan Johar. Johar suggested she go watch his forthcoming production I Hate Luv Storys in theatres, go have fun at the movies with her boyfriend. She recounts her own reaction with shock. “I was like ‘I don’t have a boyfriend’,” she mimics, shyly, mortified by the suggestion. “I was that young.”

Bhatt, who is young and looks younger, and is petite compared to her contemporaries, often brings up her age and physicality. I believe she embraces her girlishness and diminutive size because she likes astonishing those who may write her off as too young to play a certain character, or too small to take over a screen. After playing a Veronica Lodge type in Student Of The Year, Bhatt was truly noticed after her second film, Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014), where she impressed as an abducted rich girl who falls for her kidnapper.

Directors and colleagues suddenly sounded serious. “They would come up to me and say, ‘Very honestly I didn’t think you were an actor after your first film,’” she laughs. “All the honesty started coming after Highway.”

        *****

Three years ago, in an interview to promote the film Gully Boy, Alia Bhatt and co-star Ranveer Singh chose silence. “I’m apolitical,” Singh had said with misplaced nonchalance, and Bhatt followed up: “I don’t think we give out a very strong political vibe as artists.” Hearing the word “apolitical”, Bhatt very nearly does a spit-take, then smiles. “I feel very comfortable just being known for my work, and not what I say. Not my politics, not my preferences,” she says. “I kind of explain through my work what I believe in and what my morals are.”

Her father Mahesh Bhatt is a highly outspoken film personality, a radical director never far from a stance. “I think even my father has imparted this advice to me that the world has so many opinions it can really do with one less opinion, especially now,” she explains. “It’s not about being outspoken. Of course speak-speak-speak, but what are you speaking for? Who are you speaking to? Who’s listening? And what are you adding (to the conversation)?”

Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in 'Gully Boy'
Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in 'Gully Boy'

Saying that one’s films speak for one’s politics seems a bit like a dodge…until you look more closely at Bhatt’s filmography. Her 2016 film Udta Punjab came under fire for painting an unflattering portrayal of the drug-problems plaguing Punjab— it would certainly be boycotted with furious hashtags today—and in movies like Raazi, Gully Boy and Darlings, she has played intelligent and determined Muslim protagonists at a time when the mainstream appears increasingly eager to other-ise minorities.

Gully Boy sees her particularly incandescent as Safeena Firdausi, a practising Muslim girl who is not only studying medicine but is self-assured enough to tell her rapping boyfriend to dream his unlikely dream because she can take care of them both. Safeena is also a hothead, nicknamed “Danger Aapa” by her man. The character contains multitudes, and is gloriously impossible to label.

In her debut production, the Netflix film Darlings, she plays Badrunissa Qureshi, a troubled young wife battered by domestic violence, and in the film’s most memorable scenes—set in a police station where Bhatt vacillates between filing a complaint against her abusive husband and giving him yet another chance—Darlings demonstrates how, despite the gulf between “aap logon mein” and “hum logon mein”, some horrors remain the same. The film stresses linguistic differences between religions as a policeman says “Nisha” instead of “Nissa”, and Bhatt and her mother, played by Shefali Shah, try to teach him how to pronounce “kh” right. (In another scene her dastardly husband, played excellently by Vijay Varma, snaps at his boss for flogging the cliché about only one community causing a population explosion. It’s a sharp, necessary jibe.)

Does this mean, I wonder, that she will not do a film espousing a worldview she doesn’t agree with? She starts with a “possibly not” and amends this, swiftly and firmly, to an “obviously not”. True to her decision to avoid saying something stormy, she sidesteps any talk of propaganda and messaging in mainstream cinema. “I wouldn’t naturally take to that subject,” she responds, adding that she chooses films like a member of the audience. She’s making the films she wants to watch. “Nothing’s wrong with what you may be trying to say,” she clarifies, eager to leave feathers unruffled, “It’s just something that I wouldn’t naturally feel excited by.”

       *****

When Shahid Kapoor suggested that Udta Punjab director Abhishek Chaubey cast Alia Bhatt as a migrant labourer from Bihar, the director baulked. “I mean Tropic Thunder mein Robert Downey Jr ho jaayega, yaar!” Chaubey had told me back in 2016, evoking that sublime Hollywood parody where Downey Jr plays a white actor who self-seriously dons blackface for a part, and remains in character even when cameras are off. This role would require Bhatt, stripped of glamour, to have her skin darkened. Chaubey’s fears intensified when he first met Bhatt. “She was shooting a song for Shaandaar and she was dressed in this ghaghra-choli, very bright and (with) full make-up”.

He was, however, instantly impressed with Bhatt’s takeaways from his screenplay. “Her reasons for wanting to do the film were very correct. She made the right noises, and that started a process in my head.” The preparation included long training sessions with actor Pankaj Tripathi, involving accent and body language. “This girl was just going for it,” said Chaubey, coming back to how Bhatt’s youth belies her talent. “She’s a 22-23-year-old girl playing an 18-year-old, and I would keep briefing her that ‘the character is a young girl, she’s a girl’,” laughed Chaubey. “And then I would have to tell myself I’m talking to a girl.”

A still from ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’
A still from ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

“More than being surprised at myself,” Bhatt says of that bravura Udta Punjab performance, which includes a devastatingly good monologue, “I was surprised it landed. I knew I would be able to do it but I didn’t know that people would think I am able to do it, and accept me like that.”

In Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi (2016), Bhatt plays Kaira, a cinematographer with anger issues—an irritable, unlikable protagonist. “In Alia I saw the restlessness, the raw hunger, the impatience, the charm and the potential to portray Kaira,” Shinde says. “When she heard the script the character truly resonated with her, and I could believe that. Frankly, it’s also a lot of how I have been, impatient and restless, and one recognises those traits in another instantly.”

“It was very important for me that Kaira was a young, ambitious professional,” says Shinde. “Also, her uniqueness and self-challenging attitude to choose something that not many women had been doing so far. I hadn’t seen many female DoPs (directors of photography). I thought Alia’s delicate, small-built physical structure holding this big, fat camera is even more striking.” Bhatt spent time with DoP Laxman Utekar to understand the camera and acquaint herself with its operations, “to not simply look authentic but for it to become a part of her.”

I quiz Bhatt on her process and how she gets into character, whether she’s someone who builds a mood all day, or switches on the minute the cameras start rolling. “I’m not very chatty,” she says, slowly, as if examining her own methods for the first time, “but I can’t be in the zone constantly either.” Sometimes, she uses music “just to cut out the noise because on set there can be a lot of noise”. She chews on the question. “I don’t have a fixed process,” she concludes. “My only prep is that I should know my lines.”

Her mother would approve. When she speaks about Soni Razdan—whose 1983 film Mandi Bhansali instructed Bhatt to revisit before filming Gangubai—she is visibly awestruck. “Even when I was young, I remember how hard she used to work. Rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals,” Bhatt says. “When I hear her life story of how she put herself through theatre school when she was young, living in London, whilst working as a waitress and whilst working as a nurse and whilst working as a usher, I have so much admiration and respect for that, because it’s a totally different life from what I have had to live.”

Currently, the actress seems fascinated by different storytelling approaches. “You can have the best actors but if the director is a bit confused, then you will be rubbish and the film will be confused. With a solid director, you are handled, you are managed, you are aided, you are comforted.” Bhatt speaks gratefully of being hand-held by Johar and Ali, and can’t wait to work with “Sanjay sir” again: “I can’t put into words how quickly time would fly on that set because of how mentally engaged I was.”

Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in ‘Dear Zindagi’
Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in ‘Dear Zindagi’

While shooting RRR with S.S. Rajamouli, she was thunderstruck by his unique process. “It’s about enhancing every beat on paper,” she says. “So you could be feeling it (as a performer) but it doesn’t matter if it’s not reaching me (as a viewer). So you have to really…elevate.” Rajamouli told her, on set, that sometimes he felt that he controls actors too much. “And I found that so interesting, because he said, ‘See, I have these many beats to show and this much time, so I need to convey it. I can’t wait for you to reach that moment. The audience will check out.’”

Several heroines become producers out of compulsion, trying to put together better projects for themselves. Bhatt, who can currently choose—and command—most projects, may have a different motive. “It’s about adding that extra layer and that dimension to my life which is beyond just me, actor, singular. Now I suddenly pull back,” she says, motioning with her hands like a camera opening wide. “As a creative producer holding a director’s hand, the vision of the film is totally different. I’m in a much wider shot.”

        *****

Of course Bhatt is nervous about Brahmastra. Directed by Ayan Mukerji, the fantasy epic has been in production for years, plagued by reshoots, budget issues and VFX troubles. It will finally hit the big screen in September. In turbulent times, the stakes are high for Bhatt’s first film with husband Kapoor. “I’m very, very nervous about Brahmastra because I’m so close to it in so many ways. It’s really a home film,” Bhatt says. “The two of us together, Ranbir and me, and Ayan, who’s like our closest friend.”

Kapoor’s last film, Shamshera, performed dismally, but that is par for the course this year. Only Bhatt has had back-to-back successes, with Gangubai Kathiawadi, the first Hindi film to bring audiences back to theatres post-covid, and the critically acclaimed Darlings, which—made for a modest budget and digital release—may reportedly have been more profitable for her than Gangubai was for its producers. Can Bhatt bring audiences back, again?

Brahmastra is an attempt to really shift something, for the better,” she says. “So far whatever we have put out there is connecting, so far the response has been great, but you can never be too confident. So we’re still keeping our heads down.” At this she hangs her head, folds her hands.

When we speak about films that didn’t find their groove, Bhatt mentions Shaandaar (2015). “The audience was absolutely right to pan it,” she says. “I genuinely believe a good film will always do well. You can’t hold it back.” As a critic who has observed a more tenuous correlation between quality and box office numbers, I’m less convinced, but Bhatt persists. “A good film will always get its due,” she corrects. “Through love, through money, whatever.”

I feel Bhatt enjoys things that scare her. “Comfort zones are comfort zones for a reason,” she agrees. “After some time, you’re just leaving your brain at home and you don’t even realise it. Ten years working in the industry and I’m in a very, very comfortable place, and so I did my first film in Hollywood.” Bhatt will star in Netflix spy film Heart Of Stone, alongside Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan. “Now that’s like a new thing. I need to see if I work there. Can I act in English? Am I convincing there?”

On the set of 'Darlings'. Image courtesy Netflix
On the set of 'Darlings'. Image courtesy Netflix

Over the lockdown, Bhatt has been auditioning for numerous English-language projects. She has also been bingeing on shows, with Fleabag helping her in Darlings—“a big reference point because of the balance between humour and the seriousness of the character, and what the character’s feeling—and Mare Of Easttown propelling a certain character to the top of her wishlist. “I want to do a really tough, almost butch, investigating journalist or officer.”

“It is probably a god-given—or genetics-given—gift,” says Shinde of the actor’s talent, “but she is not just sitting on it. She seems to be taking this gift and deepening it, growing it and honing it constantly. Those delicate shoulders have certainly been ready to take on more.”

Alia Bhatt is restless, Alia Bhatt is on the move, Alia Bhatt is briefly interrupting our conversation because the baby is kicking. She’s also pointing to herself while speaking about the Hollywood film she isn’t allowed to speak about. “I just went, me!” she points. “By myself, to a completely new crew, and a completely new set. That makes you realise how small you are in the whole scheme of things. You are one character, one actor who has come to do your part, and then you go home and that’s it,” she smiles. “Sometimes we give ourselves too much importance.”

Also read: Gangubai Kathiawadi review: A girlboss in Kamathipura

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