Alia Bhatt turns 24 today but she is ’32’ in her head and ’54’ in her craft. It’s difficult to imagine that until five years ago we hadn’t even heard of this Bhatt star kid, only passing mentions in the press as Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter and Pooja Bhatt’s sister. Representing the new Bollywood order, she came at a time when many established actresses (Kareena Kapoor with whom Alia shared screen in Udta Punjab and Aishwarya Rai to name a few) were approaching dead-end. The industry was suddenly flushed with bright sparks – Sonakshi Sinha, Kangana Ranaut, Anushka Sharma and the slightly older Vidya Balan, whose late flowering shook things up for Bollywood. In such a galaxy of talents, who would have expected Alia Bhatt, the youngest among her peers, to become a front-runner for best star performer? Alia, with plenty of charm and easy grip on acting, strikes you as a natural-born who has inherited all the good genes of the Bhatts.
Watch | Big B Wins Best Actor, Alia Bhatt Bags Best Actress at Zee Cine Awards 2017
In her short career, she has been loved and trolled and mocked at equally, for reasons other than her stardom. Those who feel she isn’t as intelligent as her famous dad or sister need only watch one of her performances to know that it’s not possible to convey such emotional and intuitive power on screen without possessing intellect. The other Bhatts are just knowledgeable. She is alert, keen, frank and totally unselfconscious about her work. The few films she has been a part of reveal a great understanding that acting is all about being yourself and that’s what sets her apart from both her celebrity family and other heroines.
She opts for raw, tormented and troubled characters when she can be unashamedly eye-candy just like others. Ain’t gonna fly for Ms Bhatt. There’s a layer to her characters which the audience slowly unpeels. She has made the classic Alia Bhatt outburst and confrontational monologue her own. She seems to relish challenging authority, both on and off-screen. Mostly, directors appear to be fond of giving this baby-faced ingénue, a back story of traumatic childhood or some parenting issue to arrive at a coming-of-age. If Ranbir Kapoor is the male epitome of Bollywood’s coming-of-age, Alia is its female ambassador.
On her birthday today, we pick five of her top performances. Bear in mind that she debuted in 2012 and has neither the prolific body of work nor the wisdom of her colleagues.
The ease with which Alia slips into Kiara, a young urban girl whose existential problems are not unfamiliar to those of us who live in the Big City, you are tempted to wonder if this is a character that’s closest to Alia, the person. She is commitment phobic. She desires a guy who has rebuffed her. She has had a difficult childhood (an Alia speciality). Ugly family secrets and skeletons will tumble out, much like her other film, Kapoor & Sons. In walks the magically charming, Shah Rukh Khan. He’s the shrink and she, the patient. The distinction will blur. How can a girl not fall for the impish charms of SRK? How can a guy not fall for the frank sexuality and peppy school-girlish appeal of Alia Bhatt?
A truly ensemble film, with brilliant performances by Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan and the heart-warmingly understated Diljit Dosanjh. But, some of Udta Punjab’s most haunting moments involve Alia Bhatt. She picks up the Bihari accent like she went to school with Lalu Prasad Yadav. She plays a migrant who works on a farm where she finds a bag of heroin. In an attempt to sell it, she gets sucked into a vicious underbelly. She is raped repeatedly. All she wants, this girl who had dreams of being a hockey player, is a better life – a normal life. Her ‘achcha tayme’ outburst is one of the highlights of the film. Note: She was also equally riveting in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania where she gets to play a massy heroine.
Kapoor & Sons
Once again, Alia’s character has a troubled childhood. She lost her parents young and now lives alone. But she can’t even begin to fathom the darkest of secrets that will fall out of the Kapoor and Sons family when she meets one of the two Kapoor brothers at a party. “Kar Gayi Chull” became a party anthem and the film, a quintessential dysfunctional Hindi family drama of late. The film isn’t afraid to raise ugly questions about that much-revered unit in Indian society – family. And, Alia, who is the most sorted character in this Wes Anderson-esque family, tops the charts with her affecting and economical performance.
Fresh off the blockbuster Queen starring Kangana Ranaut, Vikas Bahl’s Shaandaar is all bling and excess as if to suggest that the success party is still on. It’s crawling with caricatures who wear their shiniest to bed, led by the zany Sanjay Kapoor. But at heart, the film is a fairy-tale and the scenes involving father-daughter Pankaj Kapoor and Alia Bhatt are the ones that make this film worth watching, if at all. Even in a mediocre film, Alia proves that she can be moving and funny at the same time.
Her first breakout performance (though she was refreshing in her debut, Student of the Year), Imtiaz Ali’s Highway happened early in her career. It set the stage for what was to come – Alia would alternate between wildly commercial films where she is popcorn fresh and daringly offbeat ones which would employ all her dramatic talents. The film is about escape, freedom, utopia/dystopia, bondage, parenting and coming-of-age – all the themes that define the on-screen Alia. She gets to play not only a role but also live it. This high society Delhi girl is out on the road and like any young girl, her emotions run the entire gamut – she’s vulnerable, raw, strong, innocent, independent and explosive.
In her second film itself, she managed to establish herself as a thinking person’s actor. There is something about her that suggests she is a director’s actor. But it’s equally true that even directors find something muse-worthy in her. Since Highway, she has gone from strength to strength. Imtiaz Ali warned her to take it slow and not “exhaust” herself. But it seems Alia has only touched the tip of the iceberg. Her inexhaustible talent, self-assuredness, electric confidence and the ability to not take herself too seriously makes mainstream Hindi cinema exciting to follow.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)