Alia Bhatt Refuses to Be Predictable
August 5, 2022
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Alia Bhatt (Netflix)
After her Bollywood debut as a lead in Student of the Year (2012), critics dismissed Alia Bhatt. They called her a “washout,” “superfluous,” “inelegant in the dance numbers,” and someone whose “expressions are limited.” No one thought she had what it takes to make it as a star. But that only fueled Alia Bhatt further. Now, nearly 10 years after her first leading role, her peers call her one of — if not the best — actors in Bollywood. With her chameleon-like ability to slip into characters of any time period, background, and storyline, it’s almost jarring to see Alia on our Saturday-morning Zoom, wearing a blazer and AirPods, as if we were colleagues. It’s mere days before the release of Darlings, which hits Netflix on August 5, and even though we’re an ocean apart, the anticipation is palpable.
“I’m extremely restless,” Bhatt, 29, told me.
Over the past decade, Bhatt has played a kidnapped woman who develops Stockholm syndrome (Highway), a spy capable of both killing and loving (Raazi), a millennial going through mental health challenges (Dear Zindagi), and a girlfriend who has every right to be suspicious of her increasingly successful rap star boyfriend (Gully Boy). She’s also had her share of playing the typical Bollywood heroine — one obsessed with buying an expensive wedding lehenga (Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania) or a star-crossed lover in an epic tale (Kalank). She single-handedly carried maestro filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) as a brothel madame, bringing gravitas to a role in which critics initially thought she was miscast.
“People should be like, ‘there’s no one better who can play this part,’’” Bhatt admitted with a laugh. “That only happens if you are able to [have] a certain amount of range as an actor.”
With her résumé and drive to succeed in the film industry, Alia Bhatt seems like a character actor navigating a Bollywood and Hollywood addicted to its blockbusters. Bhatt aspires to be the kind of actor who can seamlessly embody any role. But, arguably, she shines most when you take away the glitz and the glamour, when it’s just her and her performance in all its rawness.
Alia Bhatt as Shanaya Singhania in 'Student of the Year' ('Student of the Year')
With Darlings, audiences get to see Bhatt in exactly that avatar. The film opens with Bhatt in a ponytail and a kurta as she gets two movie tickets and two kulfis, waiting for her beau, Hamza (Vijay Varma), who shows up far too late (both kulfis are nearly already gone). We find out that he has been trying to get a job, and today, he finally got a coveted government position with a reliable salary and pension. Now, the couple can finally get married. We fast forward three years into their future as a married couple. Badru (Bhatt) is serving her husband dinner. He kisses her hands as he tells her the food is delicious and asks for more. But then there’s a crunch, as Hamza bites down on small stones in his biryani. All the air seems to leave the room. After the second stone, Hamza grabs Badru’s neck and won’t let go. It’s clearly not the first time things have turned violent in this household.
The film markets itself as a dark comedy that explores the very real issue of domestic abuse — one that 33% of Indian women face during their lifetime, but only 10% of women ever report to police or health professionals. Darlings has no glamorous costumes, songs and dances, or elaborate sets. The story clocks in at under two hours and relies on a small cast. We meet Badru’s mother, a wondrous Shefali Shah; an unnamed salon owner who works underneath the couple’s apartment and is privy to all their fighting; a butcher with a soft spot for Badru and her mother; and Zulfi (Roshan Mathew), a family friend and odds-and-ends seller who is particularly enthralled by Badru’s mother.
Shefali Shah in 'Darlings' (Netflix)
“I like the smaller, intimate storytelling. I don’t think I really understand the big masala,” Bhatt continued. “I’ll be a part of that as an actor, but I don’t think I understand it creatively.” For her, she believes masala films are far more challenging to pull off because they involve understanding the tastes of a broad audience and often letting go of certain creative indulgences. “You really need to know your country.”
Darlings isn’t the first time audiences will see Bhatt in a stripped-down role, playing the everyday woman. One of her most daring performances was that of a Kashmiri daughter who marries a Pakistani man, serving as a spy in Raazi. As Sehmat, she was as likely to discuss her favorite music with her loving husband as she was to plot how to kill her brother-in-law. We meet Safeena, the hijab-wearing girlfriend of Murad (Ranveer Singh), in Gully Boy (2019) — someone who is extremely supportive but can also break a glass bottle on your face when she suspects you of cheating. We’ve seen Bhatt in Highway (2014) as Veera Tripathi, a privileged woman who is kidnapped and starts developing a camaraderie with her kidnapper (Randeep Hooda). In the latter, she conveys much of her emotions through silence, in a marvelous, haunting performance that would win her a critic’s choice award at the Filmfares. At the time, Highway felt like a risk — it was Bhatt’s second film as a lead, and far from the typical romance.
“My intention is to pick up all these very different roles,” Bhatt told me. “I just naturally gravitate toward totally different people from who I am in life. So I can really sink myself into this personality that is totally opposite to who I am.”
Alia Bhatt as Veera Tripathi in 'Highway' ('Highway')
In an interview with filmmaker Karan Johar on his eponymous talk show Koffee With Karan, Bhatt admitted that playing Gangubai “was very challenging.” She gave nearly a minute-long shot dancing for the song “Dholida,” where she goes into a trance near the end — all in one take. “Two days before that, I was so physically exhausted,” Bhatt told Johar. “I was getting so overwhelmed. How will I be able to deliver what [director Sanjay Leela Bhansali] wants?”
After the shot, Bhatt felt equally overwhelmed. “I was so happy. I really felt like I had climbed the mountain,” Bhatt told Johar. “When I see it, I feel so grateful that he had pushed me to do that.”
That drive is apparent in much of Bhatt’s work. In some ways, it’s hard not to see parallels between Darlings’s Badru and Bhatt. Badru is a planner, with a board where she has written out her milestones: 2020 - 1st baby, 2021 - big house with Hamza, 2022 - 2nd baby with Hamza, 2004 - buy 4 wheelers. Bhatt is only 29 and has worked with some of the leading directors in the Hindi film industry — Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Meghna Gulzar, Zoya Akhtar, Shakun Batra, Imtiaz Ali. She just wrapped up shooting for the Hollywood film Heart of Stone with Gal Gadot. She already has her own production company, Eternal Sunshine, which backed Darlings. And, just a few months ago, she married fellow actor Ranbir Kapoor, and is now pregnant with their first child.
Alia Bhatt as Gangu Kathiawadi
“In my life, I’ve had a range of broad milestones, but it was not so detailed,” Bhatt confided. “I like surprises. I don’t like things to be too predictable. I’ve recently learned that nothing in life goes according to plan. So if nothing goes according to plan, then how are you able to plan anything out? Maybe a part of me is a bit of a planner, but…more of the final details, not like the big strokes.”
We see elements of this personality trait — and perhaps a competitive streak — when Bhatt jokes on Koffee with Karan that she wants four films with Bhansali, one more than fellow actor Deepika Padukone. It’s as if she wants to make an indelible mark on global cinema, quickly. Part of this drive might be due to being part of a film family. Her father, Mahesh Bhatt, is a director and producer with over 50 filmmaking credits. Her mother, Soni Razdan, is a British Indian who has been acting since the 1980s in films ranging from Monsoon Wedding to Raazi (yes, playing Bhatt’s on-screen mother). Her half-sister Pooja Bhatt and cousin Emraan Hashmi are all Bollywood actors.
Alia Bhatt as Kaira and Shah Rukh Khan as Dr. Jug Khan in 'Dear Zindagi' ('Dear Zindagi')
But Alia Bhatt isn't sticking to crowd-pleasing films in her pursuit of global stardom.
Darlings is difficult to watch. In one scene, Badru orders a beautiful red dress with matching shoes online. She wants to seduce her husband in the hopes of getting pregnant, one of her biggest dreams. But the excitement of the evening quickly turns into terror, with an enraged Hamza using the stiletto heel of Badru’s brand new shoes as a weapon.
Making an entertaining dark comedy about a serious subject like domestic violence, however, is a tall order.
“It’s definitely disturbing to watch at times, but there is a relief,” Bhatt admitted. “And that relief makes you want to continue watching. It makes the watch more entertaining, whereas we’re not making fun of the situation or the subject that we are touching upon.” She continued, “I also believe the characters that make you laugh also make you cry the most. I enjoyed that balance.”
Vijay Varma and Alia Bhatt in 'Darlings' (Netflix)
There are indeed some moments of relief. We see a masterful Shefali Shah as Badru’s mother trying to negotiate with Zulfi (Mathew), who is trying to get her to buy a stand mixer. Not only does Badru’s mother negotiate him down from 400 rupees to 100 rupees, but somehow Badru mind-ninjas Zulfi so that she pays only 50 rupees and also drinks Zulfi’s chai.
Despite the support of her mother and Zulfi, Badru can’t seem to let go of her belief that Hamza will change. She tries everything, from mixing in pills that help reduce addiction to alcohol into a mutton salan to (nearly) filing a police complaint.
“I understand it’s very difficult to walk out of the relationship,” Bhatt said when I asked her about her views on the prevalence of domestic violence in South Asian homes. “Marriage is great. Having children is great, but be independent, have your own security, follow your own dreams. Your life is not meant to only be for another person’s life…because you never know what happens.” She underlined the importance of becoming “self secure, self-sufficient, and independent,” but also the barriers that still exist for girls’ education in India. In 2018, for example, male literacy (82%) in India exceeded female literacy (66%) rates by 16 percentage points.
Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt in 'Darlings' (Netflix)
Sexism isn’t just visible in India’s education system. Hindi films, too, often relegate women to bit parts with minimal dialogue and depth, even when they bill them as leading ladies. Student of the Year, Bhatt’s debut, felt more like a bromance highlighting the abs, dancing moves, and acting chops of her male counterparts, Varun Dhawan and Siddharth Malhotra. There was little room for Bhatt to shine, and critics rightly glossed over her talent.
Today, however, Bollywood seems to have realized the power of its leading ladies. This year alone, from Madhuri Dixit in The Fame Game to Deepika Padukone in Gehraiyaan to Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi and now Darlings, more and more projects not only center women but rely on them to drive the plot. So, what took so long?
“I don’t know what took so long, to be very honest, because there was a time even, maybe like a decade or two ago where women were driving movies,” Bhatt pointed out. “A lot of the big films that broke out of India, even films like Mother India, or films that my father [Mahesh Bhatt] directed were all led by women and really beautiful, strong women. It’s a very proud part of our Indian cinematic history. But maybe there was a point where one just stopped taking as many risks. And there was a comfort zone of relying on the man.”
Alia Bhat as Gangubai Kathiawadi
Bhatt also pointed to the need for a larger ecosystem that supports women-centric stories, from the writers to the directors, who will “put their merit and money behind women.” That said, she argues that Hindi cinema has also seen women-centric films in the recent past, referring to films like Kahaani and Queen. “But maybe we need to see it on a larger, more commercial scale now…It’s the storytelling that wins the audience, and it’s not the gender.”
Darlings, too, features several women behind the camera, including director and co-writer Jasmeet K. Reen. Bhatt is also serving as a co-producer. Perhaps, I posit, covering a topic like abuse came off differently because of their touch. “Yes and no,” Bhatt shared. “You are working from your moral pool of empathy, right? So whether you are a man or a woman, if you have your moralities in the right place, domestic violence is not okay…But yes, definitely a woman directing a film in which women are trying to make it in a man’s world has another subtext or another energy or another lens altogether.”
Bhatt hopes to bring some of her energy and sensibility to her future projects, including through her new production company, Eternal Sunshine. She’s working with her sister Shaheen on one script, as well as another “lovely movie script” about “three women of different ages and backgrounds and how their stories align.” In the latter project, Bhatt is trying something new — she won’t be acting in the film, but focusing on editing the script and producing.
Alia Bhatt as Safeena Firdausi and Ranveer Singh as Murad in 'Gully Boy' ('Gully Boy')
Despite all she’s done, and all she’s currently working on, Bhatt is still looking for a dream project. “I’d love to tell just a simple love story…like a Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, or One Day…I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve seen a pure love story.” We both immediately reference Jab We Met — the famed 2007 film about a talkative, optimistic woman and a depressed, jaded man who meet on a train and eventually fall in love — and how these simple love stories are increasingly rare in Hindi cinema.
When I ask her how she keeps going and breathing life into these complex characters, Bhatt doesn’t reveal much about her process. But her humility shows. “Nothing is easy, honestly speaking, and it shouldn’t be easy,” she pointed out. She admits that she finds the roles in her more mainstream films, such as Gangubai, more challenging. “You have to have a certain front which will connect with the wide, unanimous mass audience...that is actually way harder to do than an intimate film.”
That doesn’t mean that Bhatt, as per usual, isn’t up for the challenge when it comes to blockbusters. Her upcoming projects include the super-epic Brahmastra with real-life beau Ranbir Kapoor; Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, opposite Ranveer Singh and her first project with Johar after a decade; and Jee Le Zaraa, the female version of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, to be directed by Farhan Akhtar (“it’s three women coming together like never before, directed by a man. So I think that dynamic is super sexy, if I may say so.”).
Alia Bhatt and Vijay Varma in 'Darlings' (Netflix)
But for her diehard fans, Bhatt will continue to be at her best when it’s just her, the camera, and realistic dialogue. For them, she remains the best actor of her generation — something her Student of the Year critics perhaps couldn’t have predicted. She laughs when I point out how often Koffee with Karan guests name her as the better actor among a pool of stars, including Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma. Does Bhatt agree?
“I don’t know what it makes me feel. It makes me feel very grateful, but I also feel like…it’s almost a bit surreal that there’s so much love,” she shared.
When I ask her how she’s changed ten years into her career — which has had its shares of ups and downs — Bhatt sounds almost wistful. “When you’re starting off, you really want everyone to like you, and then you make a couple of mistakes, or then you have a couple of good films.” To this day, she spends most of her time working and has no hobbies. Yet, you can’t shake the feeling that Alia Bhatt now cares less about what others think of her and more about what she’s pursuing for herself.
“What I’ve learned is that movies and acting and being part of the industry is a very, very important part of my life. But it’s just a part.”
Snigdha Sur is founder & CEO of The Juggernaut. She grew up a voracious reader and likes having a pen on her at all times.
Who write this long essays?
Fire him/her, hire me, ismein 2 paragraphs aur add ho sakte hai.
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