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Alia Bhatt’s bag of surprises

Alia Bhatt represents a new generation of Bollywood actors, self-assured, strong-willed, experimental, unfettered and highly driven

Alia Bhatt says she has learnt something from each film she has done. Photo: AFP
Alia Bhatt says she has learnt something from each film she has done. Photo: AFP

She might be born to Bollywood aristocracy, but in spite of the lineage and fortuitous debut, Alia Bhatt has displayed remarkable acting mettle and thrown up surprises. In just four years since her debut in the frothy Karan Johar film Student Of The Year, she has gathered “best newcomer", “worst breakthrough" and “best actress" nominations and awards.

Unarguably, 2016 has been seminal for the 23-year-old.

While 2015 ended with the torturous Shaandaar, this year she stole hearts with her performances as the bubbly but bruised Tia in Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), as the Bihari teenager whose dreams are punctured by a harsh reality in Udta Punjab (for which she won a Screen Award) and as Kaira, the young woman going through a rite of passage in Dear Zindagi.

Three hit films, critical and commercial acclaim, and a firm footing in Hindi cinema’s acting firmament—Bhatt represents a new generation of actors, self-assured, strong-willed, experimental, unfettered and highly driven. This was indicated by the unusual choice she made early in her career, stepping out of the designer comfort of mentor and film-maker Karan Johar’s production into a demanding landscape travelled by her conflicted character in Imtiaz Ali’s Highway. In just her second film she took on a complex role that she describes as “transformative".

Seated in the new home she shares with sister Shaheen, Alia says: “Highway was transformative because it was the first time I was out of my home, out in the world, in the mountains, being on the road, doing all these things for the first time. It was eye-opening and cathartic. It was also the first time I was investing in a character."

She says she has learnt something from each film she has done, be it about marriage, from the point of view of parents through 2 States, or the importance of survival from Udta Punjab. “I can summarize this one learning, one big takeaway from each film. Highway showed that things are not always as they appear to be on the surface and how one can be free of fear. I learnt that from Dear Zindagi too. Kapoor & Sons made me value family and from Udta Punjab I learned that you don’t give up, you get through the crap and you survive," she says. She says the character in Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab is the “most difficult" part she has played so far. “That was a world and character completely unknown to me. None of the reactions or thoughts or reflexes were natural to me. Udta Punjab helped me not to think clinically."

Last year, with the scathing reactions to Shaandaar, Bhatt faced her nascent career’s biggest blow. Perhaps her biggest public debacle prior to this was the fumble in the rapid-fire round of Koffee With Karan (season 4), in which she confessed to not knowing the name of India’s president, which spawned the mockumentary Genius Of The Year and showed unequivocally that here was a girl who could laugh at her own foibles. If she was already a teen sweetheart, this earned her the admiration of cynics as well. And then came Vikas Bahl’s Shaandaar. “It did hurt," she says. “And I thought the after-effects would be worse. But, in retrospect, it was very good because a failure brings you back to reality and I feel I am calmer now. I was anxious before that and trying too hard to market a film and pitch a product. I now know what it feels like when a film does not do well, and it’s done."

“In this business you have to have a thick skin," she adds. “I am open to professional criticism and if it’s sensible, I will use it. As Shah Rukh (Khan) said on Koffee With Karan recently: I am ‘de-motional’, or emotionally detached."

Bhatt counts Dear Zindagi as a significant addition to her growing filmography not just because the story revolved around Kaira, but because she got to perform opposite Khan. “Every actor or actress looks forward to the day when they will work with Shah Rukh Khan and it was the same for me," says the actor, who has just completed shooting for her next film, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, with Varun Dhawan.

While it sounds like she evaluates her work, Bhatt is quick to dismiss the notion saying she thinks it is “so boring" to watch yourself in movies. “I do see my films and I do note what I could do better and what I did wrong and then I work on the technical things," she says. Among the areas she needs to focus on are dance, Hindi diction and “I feel I sometimes move my eyebrows too much". Though she comes across as someone who knows her mind and is clear about how she wants her career to progress, she admits that there is no roadmap. “I am taking each day as it comes, and each day I am trying to do my optimum best or at least I should know when I am not doing my best."

Her choices are instinctive, she seeks roles that challenge her and present an opportunity to explore new spaces. “I am being more choosy now," she says. Next year she will act in Aashiqui 3 and the superhero film Dragon opposite Ranbir Kapoor.

Her method is to work silently on her preparation for a character and to master the dialogue. Without any formal training in acting, Bhatt says she learns from observing and from being a keen collaborator. She believes her connection to the audience comes from her choice of films. “I think the good films appeal. But the minute you start playing to the audience’s expectations, that connection is lost." Perhaps it’s also her ability to laugh at herself, as she proved by parodying herself as a “Genius". The memes, jokes and trolling that are endemic to celebrity didn’t bother her then, nor do they now. “One should not be easily offended in general. Sure, when it comes to personal matters and family, there are different thresholds, but otherwise it’s important to chill," she says.

She credits her parents, Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan, and her friends for keeping her grounded. “They are all too cool for me," she says. In the short time she has between shooting schedules, she plans to rest, prepare for the new film, learn cooking, settle into her new home and catch up on TV shows.

One acting trophy for 2016 is already in the bag and the awards season is about to begin. Bhatt admits that while it would be “beautiful" to win, awards are not the reason to accept or reject a part. “Whether I win or not, it does not take away from the experience of working in a particular film. It’s far more important for me to challenge myself and surprise both myself and the audience."

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