Bollywood’s youngest superstar on checking every life box before she turns 30, including the box office, of course
Alia Bhatt with mid-day’s entertainment editor Mayank Shekhar at the latest edition of Sit with Hitlist. Pics/Ashish Rane, Satej Shinde
Shortly before he became the OTT sensation/star of sorts, actor Pankaj Tripathi used to be Alia Bhatt’s tutor — for a month. This is when Bhatt was preparing to play Kumari Pinky, a brutally abused, drugged-out migrant girl from the under-classes in Udta Punjab (2016).
“There is a ‘Pankaj Tripathi wave’ that came, na, but it came after that,” Bhatt recalls her trainer, whom she’d meet every day, mastering body language, Jharkhandi dialect, down to how her character sits on haunches for hours.
It’s the only time in her career that Bhatt confesses she went “method” on herself. Meaning, abandoned cell-phone, never stepped out of hotel room, consumed no entertainment, spent time interacting/empathising with local youth, never switched on the TV, and simply marinated in the character, until the shoot ended. Why? Because she wanted to prove she was “a chameleon as an actor.” To whom? To herself, she says.
But looks like even before the audience, first to her director, Abhishek Chaubey — who hadn’t imagined Bhatt at all in the role while scripting it. She had in fact read the said script, through Shahid Kapoor, her co-actor in the romantic fantasy, 'Shaandaar' (2015), that they were shooting at the time. She actively went up to Chaubey, asking him to consider her for the battered female lead. The initial look-test didn’t wholly convince him either.
She even learnt to play hockey for a month, which is only part of the character’s back-story, not even in the film. The effort totally matches the outcome. Although she says, “There is a part [of me] that says I won’t do it again; of course, never say never. I only played that part for 20 days, which was great. I don’t know how I would have survived it for, say, 60 days.”
And it’s not that she hasn’t attempted sufficient variety since her debut in Karan Johar’s 'Student of the Year' (SOTY, 2012), a high-school musical, playing the high-heeled, dolled-up Shanaya Singhania, who’s also admittedly nothing like Bhatt, contrary to popular belief: “If you saw me in the clothes that I wore for my first audition, you would know how I was really not that character.” Apparently around 400 young girls tested for that debuting role. Bhatt was in 11th standard then.
Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi is among Bollywood’s few hits of the year so far
Set for a starry career, she followed up SOTY with occupying a polar-opposite space as Veera Tripathi, with a traumatic past, in 'Highway' (2014). How did she land up there? In the same way that she grabbed 'Udta Punjab' for herself — through persuasive skills.
She recalls, “Imtiaz was thinking of going with an older woman. He bumped into me at a screening, and I was very actively pursuing him. I gave him a vibe that was genuine and heartfelt. And Imtiaz Ali offering me a film, after 'Rockstar' and 'Jab We Met', of course, was a big moment for me. I read the script, and was like, okay, tough, tough, tough… I don’t pay anyone to take me in their movies, in case anybody was trying to sell that narrative. I think dedication sells on the top of the pyramid, and then come the rest. Talent is secondary, hard work is number one.”
More importantly, in showbiz, nothing sells like commercial success. And Bhatt has to her credit quite possibly the best box-office report card in Bombay. Over the past decade, all films starring her, have performed at the cinemas, barring merely two. She’s quick to point them out — Shaandaar (2015) and Kalank (2019).
A still from Darlings
As I write this, 'Darlings' (2022), Bhatt’s latest release, is trending at number two, across the world, on Netflix. She made a longish appearance in one of India’s greatest hits ever, SS Rajamouli’s 'RRR' (2022). Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' (2022), with Bhatt in the title role, in fact, turned out to be a face-saviour of sorts for Bollywood in the theatres, post the pandemic, while pretty much all the top-starrers have bombed since.
Ever since she can remember, Bhatt had always wanted to be an actor. As an audience, as she described it, she was a “runty thing”, watching all of Govinda’s No 1 films in the front row of Juhu’s Chandan cinema: “I was like, mujhe Govinda banna hai!”
She entered the big screen as Preity Zinta’s child version in her father Mahesh Bhatt’s production, 'Sangharsh' (1999), when she was six. Enough offers came her way thereafter for similar parts, but her mother Soni Razdan (also an actor) was clear she didn’t want Bhatt to become a “child actor”; instead she should “study, lead a normal life; acting can happen later.”
Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab
The mother made an exception once, though. This is when she took little Bhatt out for an audition, suggesting it’d be a good experience. It’s only when she reached the building, and her mom asked the watchman about Bhansali’s floor, that she figured she was going to audition before a director she had been fan-girling over, forever: “How ironic, na, that even the building he stays in is called Magnum Opus!”
The role was for Bhansali’s 'Black'. Taking an instant shine to the kid, Bhansali told the mother right then that while he wasn’t considering her for Black, he did have a film in mind, wholly centred on her. This was going to be Balika Vadhu, that Bhatt would’ve debuted as a heroine with, when she was nine!
“We did costume rehearsals, look-tests. I went ahead and danced on Dola re dola and all of that. Ghoom phirke, I don’t know what happened. I went back to school. Sir decided not to make the film. But the keeda of working with him remained stuck in my head. When I joined the movies, I was told Sir only works with actors at their prime. I knew once that happens, I’ll get the chance.”
A still from Gully Boy
She still feels he should’ve gone ahead with Balika Vadhu, which became a hugely popular network TV show few years later. At the press conference before Gangubai’s premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, Bhansali described how Bhatt had stormed out of the director’s office, having first heard the film’s concept/script. She laughs, “Sir exaggerates a little bit. He said she ran out of the office. He was not wrong. I did get a little thrown off with the subject, because we were supposed to do another film [Inshallah, a romance, with Salman Khan, that got shelved]. So I was like, you know Sir, it is a very different subject. Totally different from what I had imagined. I need to digest it for a second, but it was a no-brainer [to accept the offer].”
Box-office successes apart, what has struck audiences is Bhatt’s capacity to convincingly inhabit worlds so separate from hers — whether as a mature, Kashmiri spy, undercover in Pakistan in 'Raazi' (2018), or for that matter, the cutesy girl from Ambala in 'Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania' (2014) — given a protected upbringing, with life experiences that barely stretch beyond Juhu, the tony, filmy neighbourhood where she’s lived all through. In terms of the world/setting, the only film, she says, that comes close to her own, is 'Dear Zindagi' (2016).
The 'Udta Punjab' acting process was of course an anomaly. Otherwise, she says, besides unconditionally submitting to her directors, and approaching the part/script “from an academic sense” beforehand — on the set, she likes to be in the moment, trusting her instinct and spontaneity.
“For instance, in Darlings, I depended a lot [on the debutant director] Jasmeet [K Reen]. It helps to work with a writer-director. You know that they’ve lived with the script for that long. Jasmeet spent three months in Byculla [where Darlings is set]. She would come and tell me things. You are then really responding, living, breathing that moment [on set]. That is why I had so much fun working with Shefali [Shah], because she is exactly like that. You don’t know what she is going to do. Also, I am a bit of a sponge. You can tell who I’ve hung out with on a given day — because I start speaking like that person!”
Which was the case with Gangubai, Bhatt reveals about Bhansali being the performative inspiration: “I took so much of Sir’s personality and put that into Gangubai’s character — the way he speaks, thinks, has a certain attitude, tashan… Because it is in his head. Film is the director’s medium. And then it’s the written word. The actor has to collect all those things and place it in front of the camera.”
Which kind of explains the unique range Bhatt manages, with three disparate directors — channelling lower-deck Bombay, in what can be seen as a trilogy in her career — playing Safeena from Kurla in Zoya Akhtar’s 'Gully Boy' (2019), down to 'Gangubai' (from Kamathipura), 'Darlings' (in Byculla).
Within Mumbai itself, it’s not that there’s been anything regular about Bhatt’s own life, or so one guesses. The first time I saw her, from a distance, was at the premiere of SOTY — she would’ve been 19, decidedly seeming a brat. Everyone is allowed their 20s, and all the senseless swag that comes with it. Only that a life entirely spent under a spotlight doesn’t allow for such leeway. That’s been the 20s for her. She’s 29. Did it require a certain mental adjustment?
She admits, “Well, you got to keep it together at most times, yes. I am very open to people’s opinions. That is the only way a person learns. But there is [this] humbling part [in my personality] that also comes with my upbringing, and the people around me. I am not the first member of my own fan club. I do not believe the sun shines out of my backside. I genuinely believe I am here to do a job, and must continue to do it well, which is a by-product of a lot of people doing their job well. It is not just me. I value that.”
The question was actually meant more in terms of whether she has led the normal 20s, pulling all-nighters at nightclubs, playing the fool, with friends, etc? “Actually, I recently realised that I have literally not been a ‘present’ friend for 10 years. And they let me be ‘unpresent’, because they knew I was chasing something. And you have to make sacrifices to try and get what you want. I have the same [set of] nine friends I went to [Jamnabai] school with. At the end of the day, I feel most comfortable with them. There is a certain version of myself that I have to be in a public space, which I don’t, in their company. What matters to them is me, being me. That’s very grounding. The reason I have not lost them, is because of them. Because they have been so understanding, supportive.”
The other aspect that separates a regular person in their 20s from those killing it in showbiz, or sports as well, is your income levels — which go in the opposite direction of almost all other jobs, where you make so much less at an early age, and financially peak only nearing retirement, when there is hardly the same energy/inclination left to splurge!
At what age did Bhatt buy her first car? “At 19-20; Audi Q5.” First home? “At 21. But listen, I feel very touched and grateful for the privileges. That’s why I believe in giving back, I have set aside a certain amount of money that goes into CSR on a yearly basis, for animals [rights, protection], that I feel very passionately about.”
What did she get paid for her big Bollywood debut, SOTY? “R15 lakh. I deposited the cheque straight to my mother and very nicely said, ‘Mamma, you handle the money. Till date, my mother handles my money.”
Where does she invest her money — I’m just curious, having never met someone as rich through their 20s, with an income/earning that is totally theirs? “In fact my CA, who’s also a family friend gets stressed out — that I don’t spend any money, don’t invest, that I need to enjoy a little bit. But I am not much of a spender.”
That said, Bhatt concedes she does have some sort of “business brain”: “Itna toh mujhe pata hai. I created my own children’s [clothing] brand, and I put my own money into it. I didn’t go to an investor. And the brand has grown a lot.” It’s called Edamamma; meaning?
“My [five-year-old] cat’s name is Edward, who is my inspiration for everything. So Ed-A-Mamma, like Ed’s mama. He is there in my production house logo as well [there is a cat’s whiskers], and in the beginning of my film.”
Bhatt launched her movie company with Darlings, and named it Eternal Sunshine, which is an obvious reference to Michael Gondry’s 2004 romantic sci-fi, surely? “It is one of my favourite films. But it’s also the feeling [that] movies [evoke]. I believe movies are [an] eternal [sunshine].”
Her character Badru in 'Darlings', presumably the same age as her, actually has a checklist hanging in her wall at home, with life-goals for boxes that she must tick, before she attains a certain age. Why does that sound familiar?
Here’s Bhatt, the actor, with a house, car, checked, before 21; Bollywood debut before 20; started a film company, and then married, and is even expecting a child, before she turns 30! Is she following some timeline — yes/no/maybe?
Bhatt says, “Contrary to the character in Darlings, I don’t have a list. I have never had a plan. In fact, I used to think I will get married very late. I was one of those girls, who didn’t really talk about marriage much. But it is totally different, when you fall deeply in love, and you also feel like, okay, no, you want to get into that next point of your life.
“That happened very naturally with Ranbir [Kapoor]. I don’t know why. It just happened. And I am not feeling like my work will stop, pause, or change. I will continue to work till the very end. But that [raising a family] section of your life is something that you have to give your time and energy to. It is not going to happen by
As for manifesting life events, here’s something that can’t be denied about her relationship with her now-husband, Ranbir Kapoor. Over the past decade, pick up any interview, especially the rapid-fire round type stuff that’s common on YouTube chats.
Every time she’s been asked about a crush, someone she’d like to date on-screen, etc — inevitably, her answer has been Ranbir Kapoor. Which is mildly strange, since both of them had been dating other people, all through. It’s almost like she set her eyes on this guy, and simply announced to the world that that’s the one she’s gonna end up with.
Bhatt laughs, “You know, it is really weird. I was saying it as a regular ‘cute girl’. I was not actually chasing Ranbir on the side, or plotting to get Ranbir; none of that was happening. The fact that I was saying it obviously means I was not thinking about it. Sometimes when you think about it, you never say it.
“It is beautiful how it naturally worked out, when we started working together on BrahmÄstra. For the longest time, we were socially meeting each other. But we had our own lives. There was no interaction, nothing. There was not even a friendship. I could not even call Ranbir a friend. But it naturally happened on that one flight to Tel Aviv, when we both were not seeing anybody. Both of us were single. Both of us were like, ‘Oh my God, what were we doing all these years?’ ‘Why aren’t we together?’ It was a question he kinda asked me. I was like, ‘I don’t know!’ So that’s what I was talking about. You cannot plan something like this.”
By the way, Bhatt will soon get christened Bhatt-Kapoor, or Kapoor-Bhatt, however she plans to put it, for her last name. While Ranbir has “fondly” changed the marital status on his passport, she hasn’t had the time to make the submissions since her wedding.
But she intends to go in for an official name-change in her travel documents: “We are going to have a child now. I don’t want to be the Bhatt, whilst the Kapoors are traveling together; you know what I mean? I don’t want to feel left out.” Her screen name, she says, will remain
That’s a lotta information to share, given her marriage ceremony itself in Mumbai on April 14, 2022, seemed no less than a state secret, with her fans, and therefore the national press, going on all fours to scoop out any details they could, while none were forthcoming.
Even the wedding date was open to speculation — what with one uncle in the family declaring a date, and another cousin contradicting it. It’s unclear if either was invited! Why not just reveal the date, and end the unnecessary attention.
Bhatt says, “Par mere ko announce nahin karna hai. Kyunki yeh public event nahin hai [Why? It’s not a public event!]. Speculation was also that there are 25 vegan counters [at the wedding]. I said I didn’t even have 25 guests. What am I going to get 25 vegan counters for? And I have got a lovely but a basic house. You speculate what the hell you want, it is fine, entertaining. I don’t care. I didn’t want to confirm it. Because you have to understand, I live in a residential building. It was anyway a nightmare [for the neighbours] — poor things, we sent them all hampers…”
A celebrity destination-wedding, away from prying paps, could have also saved everyone from the traffic snarl on Pali Hill, with TV crews clogging the two-lane road for days, assuming she could tie the proverbial knot, any afternoon/evening/night!
“Yes, haath jodke unse maafi maangti hoon [I apologise with folded hands], but we made enough preparation. I wanted to get married at my house, where Ranbir and I have lived together for the past many years since our relationship began. It was perfect, comfortable — I got to interact with everybody, because there were only 40 people. We aren’t the big, celebratory kinda people.”
Speaking of unnecessary media attention, while India, like the world, was reeling under COVID-19 in 2020, the national TV news media, particularly certain aggro anchors, known for manufacturing enemies within, chose Bollywood as a fresh egg in their basket. Accusing it of being the hotbed of a nepotistic culture — the insider-outsider, elite-subaltern as binaries, being part of a wider politics.
The city’s film industry was under siege in nightly debates, that instantly expand to trolling online; both feeding off each other. Bhatt belongs to the third generation in the film industry. Her grandfather Nanabhai Bhatt used to make swashbuckling stunt flicks in the black-&-white era. And she was introduced to Bollywood (along with Sidharth Malhotra, Varun Dhawan) by Karan Johar, who was himself under attack for heading a “gang”/”mafia” of sorts. She, in turn, uniquely became the face of Bollywood’s nepotism. Surely the insane vitriol can take a toll — what did she make of it?
“I believed the only way I could shut the conversation down is through my movies. So, don’t respond, don’t feel bad. Of course, I felt bad. But feeling bad is a small price to pay for the work that you are respected and loved for. I delivered a film like Gangubai. So, who’s having the last laugh? At least until I deliver my next flop? For now, I am laughing!”
Bhatt is combative enough as she makes her case further: “I can’t keep defending myself verbally. And if you don’t like me, don’t watch me. I can’t help it. That’s something I can’t do [anything about]. People have something to say. Hopefully, I will prove to them with my movies that I am actually worth the space I occupy. That’s the controlled person in me. The other person in me is like, ‘What the hell is this nonsense? Why is this happening for no reason?’
“Nepotism, in my opinion, exists in every industry. It’s leveraging your connections to help somebody get a position. You can similarly put somebody forward for a job in tech, marketing, or finance. But if he messes up that job, the company goes into a loss. [Likewise in films] the audience is the biggest barometer for success. If they believe you’re worth that success, they will give it to you. Another thing — how can I control where I am born, bhai? Tomorrow, if my child wants to get into acting or movies, they will have to work hard to prove. So you have to have a super thick skin [about it].”
Which she does, evidently, over a deceptively petite frame — even a sense of humour, actually. Recall the video she once made with AIB, lampooning herself, responding to memes in 2014, because she couldn’t answer who the President of India was, on the chat show Koffee with Karan.
Oh wait, that reminds me, does she know who the President is now? To be fair, it’s a trick question. At the point we were recording this episode of Sit with Hitlist, Droupadi Murmu was the President-elect. She remembers [Ram Nath] Kovind. “Madam President,” she says. Asking me in return if I know who the production designer of Darlings is. Fair point, I should know, but I don’t [it’s Garima Mathur]. My bad. But it’s not the same thing!
While Bhatt sweetly retaliates, “I don’t want to give the wrong answer. And tum mujhe dumb samjho, mujhe koi interest nahin hai, jaake meri film dekho, bas [Think of me as dumb if you like, never mind, just go watch my movies].” Oh not dumb at all — someone with an uncannily high emotional intelligence, for sure.
Watch the full interview here: