At the recent Express Adda in Mumbai, actor and producer Alia Bhatt spoke on the economic impact of the pandemic on the film industry, the need for a correction in what stars charge, her Bollywood journey and how she’s here to stay
On her decision to become a producer
I met the director of Darlings, Jasmeet K Reen, in 2019. I remember that it just felt like a ‘why-not’? Perhaps I had reached that point where I thought if I’m headlining a movie, it makes more sense if I produce it and not charge such a massive actor fee and not load the production. There was a part of me that also wanted to explore a new sort of arena in my career as a creative individual. I felt like I have something that I would like to contribute as well. Then came the script for Darlings and I was instantly surprised by it. I was not expecting it to go where it was going. That’s how it all happened.
I call my production house Eternal Sunshine Productions because there’s something about the words ‘eternal’ and ‘sunshine’. I believe cinema is eternal and sunshine brings you warmth. That is the contribution that movies, content and cinema have had in my life. I’m not somebody who wants to say something unusual or what nobody is saying. Everyone is telling the same kind of story. The setup is different. There’s the underdog story, love story, revenge story and story about fighting for your loved one. I will tell that story in different settings, in different forms. I don’t want to make only women-centric films. I want to tell good stories. Stories that mean something to you and maybe leave you with some lingering thought… There has to be a takeaway. It should not be a time-pass watch. You should try and make some point. Some dialogue or some moment that can impact somebody’s life or leave you thinking about something. I don’t want to tell a story about a pillar. Otherwise, what is the point?
On Bollywood passing through a tough phase
I think it’s a tough year for Indian cinema, we should just be a little kind to Hindi films. We say it is tough for Bollywood but are we really counting the overall number of films that have done well this year? Even in the South Indian film industry, all their films have not worked. Similarly, some of the films, starting with my film this year, Gangubai Kathiawadi, have done very well. A good film will always do well. I think the lens right now is really hard on cinema in general because we’re coming back post-pandemic. The theatres were shut for almost two years. Good content will always do well but now we’re just reassessing what are the kinds of films that we are going to screen at theatres or on an OTT platform and what is the general consumer habit. It doesn’t mean that Hindi cinema is over.
If you ask anybody who’s making movies, or who’s in the movie business, (you will learn that) we literally only talk about the movies. Our friends are in the movies. We’re talking about each other’s content. We’re constantly learning, grasping, and evolving. At the end of the day, it is a business. But it’s also a creative business, which genuinely takes over your life.
On emotional intelligence and Brand Alia
I love it when people think that I’m unintelligent or dumb because they make so many memes on me, which adds to the popularity. But you’re loving my movies. There’s something that I’m possibly doing right within the movie business. I want to put out this message also to young girls, without meaning to offend, that general knowledge or book intelligence, in my opinion, is not intelligence. That is a part of a layer. But actually, to survive in the world, you have to have a certain emotional intelligence, which is possibly the highest form of intelligence because that makes you take some decisions, which are not very studied, calculated, or very by-the-book. I genuinely don’t even remember anything that I studied in school from a book. What I remember are my interactions with my teacher from dramatics or when I took part in inter-school competitions or sports competitions. That is what I really understood. My father said to me that you’d rather be stupid than pretend to be intelligent. So I rather be stupid than pretend to be intelligent. I ask questions. Speaking about my evolution as a brand, I don’t know. I don’t care. Because I don’t think this is just a 10-year journey. I want to be in the industry, acting, making movies till I’m 90, till I can walk, till I’m making sense. So it’s a really long road ahead.
On her process as an actor
I don’t have an answer, because I genuinely do not have a process. I’m not trying to hide my secrets. I do the basics of learning my lines and learning the dialect. I like to completely lose myself in another person’s life. That’s the most exciting part about being an actor. Even when I was five or seven years old, I was always making stories up. The endeavour is to just lose myself in that story. And it doesn’t happen in every take, or every shot. But I try to make it happen in most of the shots. Filmmaking is the best of the best takes.
On her most challenging role till date
Gangubai (in Gangubai Kathiawadi) has been my most challenging role. Maybe before that it was Udta Punjab. Gangubai has been my most challenging role so far because I realised that not only did I have to give an extremely genuine performance from the heart, I also had to play it on the front foot, because it also had to be entertaining. We were trying to make a film that was reaching out to a larger audience and hence, you get those commercial figures at the box office. That is very hard. And it’s all based on this one character, the style, energy, the way you are delivering the line, the way you’re lighting the beedi and the way you’re sitting. It’s really hard to do all of that and also be genuine, and be committed to the moment. So you’re also playing this larger-than-life character where you’re amping up the heroism.
On big screen vs OTT
I believe that Gangubai Kathiawadi gives you a larger-than-life visual experience, which needs to be enjoyed in the depths of a really nice theatre on a big screen. Darlings is a more intimate watch. It’s not about which is better. The content has to be good either way. A platform like Netflix gives me a Day One release in 190 countries. You’re getting a chance to cut across the diaspora because this story is very intricate and particular to the world.
What makes you a star? Love. It comes from giving the audience content that they love. Content is what’s bringing that power even to the box office. Similarly, on an OTT platform, if the content is good, three years from now, who’s going to remember if you have seen a movie on an OTT or not. So whether it’s on an OTT platform or in the theatre, the love will come if it’s good.
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On a correction in actors’ remuneration
Yes, that should happen. In general. I am not a number producer. I believe everyone knows that I do not understand numbers and I do not understand a lot of things. I am a creative producer. But I do understand that it is the content that is bringing people to the theatres. Our value or the stardom is a layer but it is not the only thing that is bringing anyone into theatres. So yes, for that aspect it should balance out because you are not loading the budget of the film then. And if you are not loading the budget of the film, then your recovery is better. So I am trying to understand from that perspective. But again, I’m no one to tell anybody what they should charge. But if you ask me that if some reassessing in general needs to happen, I’m sure all the producers are thinking that way.
I think that even stars are thinking that way. And it happens often that when actors charge a certain fee for a film and the film doesn’t do well, they don’t take the balance fee. Sometimes, (they) give their money back. There are so many examples before me of actors not taking the money if the film has not made money at the box office. Nobody is fleecing anyone.
I am a big fan of Bollywood and it’s our strongest soft power. India, for many people all over the world, is what Bollywood shows. But we hear that there is a kind of pressure being put by the state, cultural pressure. Is there pressure and do you think there is damage?
No such pressure has reached my shoulders or my circle yet. But I think our answers will be in the movies we tell. Because we hear a lot of things. We also heard that I had 25 vegan counters at my wedding but I didn’t even have 25 guests so I don’t know where the vegan counters come from. So I think the cinema that we put out there is the best answer to whether any of this is true.
Managing Partner, Edelweiss
As a producer, can we expect more youngsters to get chances amid this constant talk of nepotism in Bollywood?
Nepotism naam sunke an, mujhe kuch ho jata hai. But I genuinely feel that there has been so much unraveling recently. I’ve seen the kind of work people put in, it’s genuine work, it’s hard work and I felt very sad that sometimes they have no place to go to. They don’t know how to break in. So yes, that is going to be one of my top endeavours to find that content among a random bunch of emails coming in from somebody sitting in Bhopal or Chennai.
Can you name your top three Hollywood actors and top three Bollywood actors that you think you admire from their acting talent, male or female?
It would be Meryl Streep, Leonardo di Caprio, and Joaquim Phoenix from Hollywood. Three Bollywood actors that I love, admire and look up to are Kareena Kapoor, ultimate favourite; Shah Rukh Khan, everyone’s favourite; and Ranbir Kapoor, theek hai. Also my husband.
Amritpal Singh Bindra
Producer and Writer
Let’s imagine you are about to turn 90 and you have one last role that you can do—what role would that be? What legacy do you want to leave behind?
If it’s the last role I have to play and I am 90, then I would play the old woman in Titanic because that film has been remembered forever. The legacy I want to leave behind is just that maybe when you are asking an actor 100 years from now who is one dead actor they love, then they take my name.
Consul General of Israel in Mumbai
I saw Two States long ago and I mentioned this film all the time in universities because in my point of view, the combination between south and north is so fascinating. I think that is what India needs eventually.
It’s the most beautiful part of India. There is so much culture and it is such a rich country that every step, every kilometre the culture changes, the food changes, the dialect changes, the people change, the animals change. India is so rich and it’s what I take most pride in.
Chairman, HCC Ltd
As an actor, how do you see yourself add nuances to people you want to imitate? As a filmmaker, how will you put stories across that remain with people so that they want to imitate you?
It’s a very difficult question. I think imitation is the best form of flattery, so I would love to be imitated but I also have to say I’d love it if it’s very hard to imitate me because that also means I’m a bit of a chameleon. So I know there are people who imitate me and they do a brilliant job at it. I get a lot of these videos sent to me. But my endeavour with each character is also I give you a new face so that you are not really sure which face was the last face — so it’s a new face, a new character, a new person.
I watched Dear Zindagi when I was in Class VII. Do you think the movie paved the way for people to talk more openly about mental health or is it still a very stigmatised topic?
I can’t give so much responsibility to one little Dear Zindagi and I would be totally unfair as well, because there is a lot of work that has gone into destigmatising mental health over the years. But we have definitely reached a very open place of discussion.
Director, Pagoda Advisors Pvt ltd
You said that you have no memory, but look at the dialogues you have delivered in a flow in Gangubai Kathiawadi. So I beg to differ about that. What is that one thing that makes you look so easy in every movie?
I remember my dialogues but not many other things. The one tip I would give in general is that don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s a movie. It’s a small part in the movie, a small part of the puzzle.