Bollywood’s big daddy, Karan Johar is often pilloried for the good-looking fluff that he produces at factory speed. But in Alia Bhatt he may well have given birth, if only accidentally, to the most phenomenal acting brand of our time. That this petite and chirpy Bhatt has the added aura of a glam doll is a massive help in an industry where the rules are at once cruel and simple: Greek gods queue up for the feel-good mainstream market while the Plain Janes can go knock on the doors of art or alternative cinema. This is where Alia comes in, blurring the line between the two, reminding one of the trajectory that Hollywood’s Jennifer Lawrence has carved with her independent spirit and bold choice of roles that define contemporary American cinema.
Alia’s last powerful performances were in Udta Punjab and Highway but the trouble is, you are at a loss when it comes to categorising the two films. They fall neither under the fully commercial category, given their respective directors Abhishek Chaubey and Imtiaz Ali’s leanings toward offbeat storytelling, nor are the two films out-and-out art-house.
A megaton commercial star in her own right, Alia is at home in all kinds of cinema, be it as the catty student in the swanky campus of the KJO fantasy machine or as the traumatised Veera fizzing with dark energy in Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Highway.’ Best things, they say, come in small packages. It’s true in the case of Alia Bhatt. Mr Johar was perhaps on to something when he cast Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan’s daughter, at the tender age of 19 with ‘Student of the Year’ in 2012.
Johar may have set her on a dream course with ‘SOTY’ but after that, she was on her own. When most post-millennials were busy appearing for exams Alia was struggling to answer rapid-fire questions on glamorous chat shows. She became the butt of jokes for goofing up primary school GK questions (“Who’s the President of India?” Alia’s answer: “Prithviraj Chauhan.”) but quickly turned that into an advantage, with the self-mocking AIB video.
She more than makes up for her somewhat off-screen simple-mindedness and ingénue image with a natural-born brilliance on celluloid not seen in a female star since Tabu or Smita Patil. Serious cinema-minded readers may find that comparison a bit of a stretch, given the stalwart-like standing of Tabu and the late Smita Patil, who incidentally delivered one of her most celebrated performances in ‘Arth’, directed by Alia’s dad Mahesh Bhatt. Of course, it’s too soon to know whether the young star is in the Smita Patil-Tabu league. That’s a tall order. But one look at Alia’s resume and you realise what you have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg. The lion’s share of work is still to come. And yet, when you see her today, what you get is a star at the summit of her popularity.
The 23-year-old has elder sister Pooja Bhatt’s infectious effervescence and devil-may-care attitude towards life – but not towards work. Professionally, she’s sincere as a puppy. Directors working with her are enamoured by her work ethic. The way she’s going it’s tempting to wonder if she’s making senior actresses, including her own sister, wish they had handled their career like her. Watching Alia on screen, one gets the impression that she’s instinctive and follows her heart, oozing a supreme confidence in the self and candid expressions so typical of the Bhatt blood. She slips into the skin of her character, whether it is the fashion diva in ‘SOTY’, the rich Delhi girl who falls in love with her abductor in ‘Highway’, the vulnerable Bihari labourer who’s drugged and raped repeatedly, the stereotypical Tam-bram as conceived by the Punjabi Chetan Bhagat or the girl torn between the love of two brothers in ‘Kapoor & Sons’.
In each of these roles, she was a revelation. In a mere four years since making her debut, Alia has not only climbed the steep incline of Bollywood stardom rapidly but has also become the beloved darling of the critics, who are usually strident on mainstream actresses. But Alia, they love. Just to give you an additional perspective, her nearest competition happens to be Deepika Padukone, who’s seven years her senior but whose career lacks the bold risks that characterise Alia’s journey. Dad Mahesh Bhatt gave Alia an advice early on which may have served her well in the volatile show business. “The only way to fit in,” he reportedly told her, “is to not fit in.” Ironically, Alia is the ultimate insider who is making her name as a defiant outsider.
With ‘Dear Zindagi’, a light-hearted rom-com by Gauri Shinde of ‘English Vinglish’ fame, Alia is about to enter the next chapter of her career. It’s her first film with a Khan. Nearly two decades after elder sister Pooja Bhatt romanced Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Chaahat’ Alia makes for an interesting pair with the much-older SRK in a film that everyone is hoping will be as memorable as ‘Chaahat’ was forgettable.
Don’t be surprised if the peppy twenty-something ends up outshining the superstar Khan, nearly twice her age. And that’s another thing about Alia Bhatt. She deserves respect because she makes you believe that you don’t need years of experience to acquire enormous talent. Isn’t she raising the profile of the young, who are often, unfairly, not given the due they deserve?
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)