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Alia Bhatt, the Wonder Girl of Hindi Cinema

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The sensational box office run of her latest film is yet another milestone in the journey of Hindi cinema’s new wonder girl

WHEN WE SAW her as a 16-year- old high-school student in her debut film Student of the Year (2012), that’s exactly who she was. A young girl who seemed to know little about the demands of being a Hindi film heroine. It was almost like her mentors had plucked her out of school and tossed her onto the big screen. And India, a nation with millions of film watchers, watched her too. Alia Bhatt, the youngest daughter of Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan, was yet another star child trying for superstardom. Her performance was appreciated, even in a film as mediocre as Karan Johar’s Student of the Year.

Today, six years later, we spot Alia in a short YouTube clip that’s gone viral. She’s seen stepping out of her apartment and is approached by a young man with a phone camera. He asks if she would take a picture with his friend who is due to go back to his village the next day. Alia obliges, without hesitating or making a fuss. She thanks them right after, waves goodbye and leaves for work. It’s not the first time she’s addressing a fan population that has grown manifold since her debut. What’s refreshing is her approach towards the attention she has earned, sooner than anyone expected her to. “I always felt there’s undue fuss made about actors in our country. It’s a job, like the one you do, or he does (pointing at her driver). Yes, my work reaches a lot more people, and by virtue of that, I’d better be available for the people my films are made for, no?” she says casually, trying to fix an AC vent of the car we are travelling in.

She’s just stepped out of judging a dance reality show and is headed for the sets of her next film, Abhishek Varman’s Kalank, with Varun Dhawan and Sanjay Dutt. She’s shooting for five films in the coming two years and is the face of at least 15 brands. Her latest film Raazi has joined the ranks of the few woman-led movies to have grossed over Rs 100 crore at the box office. The only other recent female-led movie to cross that mark was Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015).

The success of Raazi is not only important for Alia, but could also be a game- changer for female-centric films in Hindi cinema, with producers more willing to invest money in such films. While the current reigning queen is still Deepika Padukone, younger lead roles are likely to go to Alia. Priyanka Chopra is now well ensconced in Hollywood, which leaves the arena wide open for Alia, who has proved that she can headline a movie and bring in the cash. While she can easily be slotted as a ‘multiplex star’, she has shown that she has wider appeal as well.

She says that these days she gets exactly 45 minutes for herself before she goes to bed and that’s all the downtime she can afford. “I read a book or do something completely not film related in that time. I need to feel the difference. When you’re playing the character all day, you need to come home and unplay it. That’s very important,” she adds.

It probably takes the best of actors many, many years to understand what she just summed up in a line. She’s just 25 and despite her impressive filmography, one that her peers can only envy, you know that Alia’s best is yet to come. After six years and 11 films, with Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi she has become a force to reckon with. In a film that is patriotic without being jingoistic, her depiction of an Indian spy in Pakistan has moved audiences on both sides of the border. Zenab, a fan from Pakistan, writes on Alia’s Twitter page, ‘Thank you for showing that Pakistan or India, people from both countries are just people.’

“The feeling of having arrived can tear down very brilliant talented minds. The good thing about Alia is that she isn't in awe of her achievements” - Mahesh Bhatt,  Alia’s father

Raazi has been celebrated for humanising India’s neighbour rather than demonising it, which has been the case with most Indian films. Alia’s portrayal of Sehmat, a 20-year-old woman married off into a Pakistani family so she can source vital information for India, is headstrong yet humane. “This is the first time I have approached an actor without a script because I knew that only she could play this part the way I saw it,” says director Meghna Gulzar.

Set in the 70s, Alia convincingly plays the role of a college girl thrown into a world of espionage and deceit. She’s sharp and quick footed when she needs to be, but somewhere between the heroism and helplessness, Alia thrives on the vulnerability of her extreme situation. We cheer for her, even though we know there can be no happy ending to this.

The strength of her role and the script is that it shows there are no easy answers. When nationalism and patriotism are framed as extremes, in ‘with us or against us’ terms, this movie shows that there is no black and white. She will spy for her country, even kill for it, but she does not do this with an easy conscience. She will follow the orders of her mentor, a RAW officer, but she will also question his cold-hearted brutality. “The grace and simplicity of holding back but still having respect for everything and everyone is something I had to learn in this film. Respect can be given in two ways, one in your heart truly, and one in body language. We in today’s generation may have respect for people, but our body language may be a little casual. What I needed to do with this film is control that. It gave me a new perspective on how a girl can be,” Alia says.

Meghna Gulzar calls her a ravenous actor, ready to absorb any aspect of the character she is expected to. Alia isn’t perfect, she says, and she embraces her imperfections to sketch out the part that she is meant to play. “Alia is a fidgety girl. I used to have to hold her hands down because she’d be constantly quivering. But what’s wonderful is that when the camera comes on, you see none of that. She is raw around the edges, and she never really gives her character a complete finish. She leaves it open and that’s bold for anyone playing the kind of parts she has. It makes her real and so relatable that you leave behind the fact that she is acting,” Gulzar adds.

“Alia is raw around the edges, and she never really gives her character a complete finish. She leaves it open and that's bold for anyone playing the kind of parts she has. It makes her real and so relatable that you leave behind the fact that she is acting” - Meghna Gulzar, director of Raazi

Even her seniors like Anushka Sharma or Deepika Padukone, or Kareena Kapoor (who she is often compared with) took a few films to find their footing in the film industry. Their choices were capable, but none of them really drove their films till recently. Surprisingly, Alia did that with her very second film. With Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014), she set the performance bar very high. “After Student… I wasn’t even sure how people will look at me. Youngsters did wake up to me and they were excited, but I always hoped the directors don’t think I’m some glamorous little teeny bopper. So when Imtiaz came to me with that film, I completely surrendered myself to him. I became like the clay he could mould the way he wanted. I don’t think I will be able to do that ever again with any other film,” she says.

Her graph as an actor was almost as dramatic as that of her character in Highway. As the 21-year-old Veera Tripathi trapped in an affluent but insensitive household, she breathed in pain and pathos. As a performer, it seemed like she’d jumped off a cliff unharnessed to feel the wind hit her face. Its director Imtiaz Ali says, “Many of our actors tend to over-think or over-analyse a part. What I saw in Alia was that she strived to be the part. She’d walk around the roads of Kashmir, feel the cold, talk to locals, run barefoot, almost like a child. That childlike quality made her connect with herself so beautifully. She had no ego, no baggage; she was like an empty cup, ready to take in any experience that came her way.” He adds that she needs to be careful not to burn out if she continues to perform the way she does.

“I was fearless then because I really had nothing to lose,” says Alia, “ Today when I look at that film, I don’t know how I did what I did. I don’t even think I knew what giving meant at the time, but I still went with my instincts.”

The fact that she doesn’t approach her roles with training or technicality is amongst her biggest strengths. Like a Jennifer Lawrence of the Hindi film industry, she’s a natural performer who is happy to spill over the edges. She has an irreverent charm, is unafraid and commands the screen in a way that you look at no one but her.

This was the case even when she was growing up, says father Mahesh Bhatt who spent a lot of time away from Alia in her formative years. “We always called her a ‘little miracle’ that happened to us, not just because she was ever ready to perform, but she was a very bold child. She would put herself out there in front of a crowd even if she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She never asked for help or said something was too difficult to attempt,” he says.

Alia grew up in a family that was constantly in the limelight, and with a father who led an unconventional life. Bhatt was breaking boundaries with films such as Arth (1982) and Saaransh (1984), but she realised this only much later. Her only challenge growing up was the fact that her father was seldom around, says Alia, and she’d have to constantly defend her family from her schoolmates. “They’d say my family is dysfunctional because dad got married twice. But which family isn’t? I think I’d just be happy dancing or just performing for people around me. It’s just that now that performer is in front of the camera. Nothing else has changed.”

“Many of our actors tend to over-think or over-analyse a part. What I saw in Alia was that she strived to be the part. She had no ego, no baggage; she was like an empty cup, ready to take in any experience that came her way” - Imtiaz Ali, director of Highway

Her mother remembers her as a child who was always too independent to demand anything from her. She was both the troublemaker and the problem solver at home. “I enjoy the struggles and overcoming them. To constantly solve a problem gives me immense happiness. It satisfies me. Even if sometimes there is nothing to solve, I will try and find something. That is why I’m always changing my diet or workout. I like to confuse myself. I like doing these things. It’s a bit weird, but I think I enjoy it a lot,” Alia says.

Bhatt remembers Alia’s first autograph that she signed for him after her first film. ‘Thanks for not helping me at all,’ she had written. “She did it on her own. And I will always give her complete credit for that,” he says. For him, it was the moment when his little girl had grown up.

What’s nice, however, is that she doesn’t sound any less adventurous or any more mature than any other 25-year-old girl. Youngsters her age look up to her, but they also see her as one of their own. She doesn’t intimidate them, and could easily be a friend.

The early success could have made her more guarded, but Alia chooses not to take that too seriously. “I am constantly around people, and if I am constantly performing for them or if I’m being an ‘actress’ all the time, then I’ve had it. Then it’s like 90 per cent of the time I am going to be pretending or I’m bottled up. This is why most people the way they describe me is that I’m always on the edge. I think it’s okay. It’s better than putting up a smile on a day you’re feeling really shitty. At least I am being myself,” she says.

She talks of her professional space with inexplicable detachment. It’s almost like if all of this work and adulation is taken away, she’ll find something else to do and have fun there. She’s obviously in love with acting, and she’s meant to do what she’s doing, but she isn’t too carried away. “I don’t really reflect on my choices and actions a lot. The best thing to do is go on the journey and feel it. I don’t analyse and intellectualise. I don’t even do that with my characters. I never try to over break them down, especially in people’s eyes or with my director. I like to keep every process very simple. I am pretty straightforward that way,” she adds. Which is perhaps why she effortlessly ventures into roles as an actor that are far removed from her personality.

Like in Udta Punjab (2016)—admittedly her toughest and darkest role to date —where she broke all perceptions of being a ‘safe’ actor. Now here was the role of Kumari Pinky, a hockey player from Bihar who comes to Punjab in search of work, gets addicted to drugs and is repeatedly abused. Not only does Alia not fit the physical description of the character, but it would be difficult to imagine someone like her playing such a tortured role. It does take a few scenes to really believe that she’s a Biharan, but once you do, you’re invested in her performance.

Abhishek Chaubey, who directed the film, was equally surprised. “I couldn’t imagine her in the role because she had no context of life in Bihar or of that of hockey player. Also, urban actors no matter how hard they try, don’t really play rural roles as well as someone from that state. But Alia really pushed herself. She came across as emotionally very strong and intelligent. This girl had to endure a lot of physical bashing, and it would throw any actor off. But Alia was really able to tap into the silent suffering and resilience this part required. I found myself spending less and less time directing her through those scenes because she found her connect with that part,” says Chaubey.

The experience of that film, Alia admits, changed something within her. “When I walked onto the sets of Udta Punjab, people wouldn’t recognise me. I was really nervous and scared. Even today when I think about it, I feel like I’ll awaken some demons. It was a very sensitive part and it really made me think about girls who lived and strived through such adversities. I don’t know if I managed to play out their pain or do justice to it, but I really tried,” she says.

Her earthy performance drew comparisons with actors senior to her. She was not just able to hold her own among other experienced performers, she even surpassed them in some ways. The best part of Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi (2016)—where Alia plays a cinematographer going through an emotional upheaval—is her earnest performance. “It’s not weird when people compare me with another much senior actor because I know it’s out of love and appreciation. But it would be weird if I believe it,” she says with a straight face.

“Urban actors don't play rural roles as well as someone from that state. But Alia was really able to tap into the silent suffering and resilience the part required. I spent less and less time directing her as she found her connect with that part” - Abhishek Chaubey, director of Udta Punjab

There’s little to ask Alia, apart from her work, and she is happy to keep it that way. She maintains that she has her share of troubles in her personal life, but then, who doesn’t? Early in her career, she displayed an ability to laugh at herself and take everything that came with being famous in her stride. She was trolled for her lack of general knowledge on Koffee with Karan, a chat show where she famously said the president of the country was Prithviraj Chavan, but she managed to turn even that into something fun. By laughing at herself, she shut up the meanies. She realises that being a youth icon comes with its responsibilities, and she’s taking steps towards turning herself into more than just an actor. She has recently joined Aamir Khan’s Paani Foundation that’s working to improve drought conditions in the villages of Maharashtra. “After doing Raazi, I realised if I don’t actively participate in helping society, I can’t call myself a patriot. You can’t just live in a country and love it and say that’s enough. You have to make a difference in whatever small way possible. I am doing my little bit, a lot of people are doing way more.”

Alia is now among India’s highest paid female actors and has filmmakers writing parts just for her. The next decade is likely to prove her best yet. The biggest challenge she has faced in these years, she says, is to stay in touch with herself. She’s aware of the fact that she is constantly surrounded by people and knows she could lose herself a little bit in the process. “I feel like I’ve formed a very strong relationship with myself and I don’t think people give self relationships enough importance. It has been the biggest evolution for me from when I started working to now,” she adds.

“The feeling of having arrived can tear down very brilliant talented minds,” says Mahesh Bhatt, “The good thing about Alia is that she isn’t in awe of her achievements. I tell her, ‘While you have a lot to be happy about, you haven’t even yet scratched the surface of the potential’.”