Bollywood star Alia Bhatt
Bollywood star Alia Bhatt Image Credit: ANI

The first time this journalist met Alia Bhatt was 10 years ago, when a hesitant, yet hopeful young debutante stood in the shadow of her mentor Karan Johar, almost starry-eyed by the media turnout in Dubai to welcome the prolific filmmaker and his three new finds (the others being Varun Dhawan and Sidharth Malhotra) during the promotional blitzkrieg of ‘Student of the Year’ in 2012.

Even then, Bhatt showed a spark, holding her own with simple grace in a male-dominated space.

Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt in the teaser for 'Darlings'
Shefali Shah and Alia Bhatt in the teaser for 'Darlings' Image Credit: Netflix

Almost a decade and multiple interviews later, Bhatt sits before this journalist once again to promote her Netflix thriller ‘Darlings’. Only this time, that spark is laced with something akin to wisdom and, dare we say, contentment, as a proud Mama perched at the cusp of motherhood, both, in her personal and professional lives.

The actress, who is currently awaiting the birth of her first child with husband, actor Ranbir Kapoor, has already given free rein to her maternal instincts with ‘Darlings’, as the first film to be helmed by her ‘baby’, her production house Eternal Sunshine.

It wouldn’t be amiss to call 2022 the ‘Year of Alia Bhatt’, with the actress opening the year with critically acclaimed ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, followed by her wedding to the eligible Kapoor in April and that surprise pregnancy announcement in June.

Alia Bhatt in 'Gangubai Kathiawadi'
Alia Bhatt in 'Gangubai Kathiawadi' Image Credit: IMdB

The feather in her cap has been the success of ‘Darlings’ for her production house. Since the neo-noir thriller hit Netflix, the Jasmeet K Reen directorial has accumulated 10 million viewership hours during its opening weekend alone, making a record as the biggest opening for a non-English language Indian release on Netflix. Ten days since release, the film, which has been produced in conjunction with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, continues to trend in the top 10 films category in 16 nations, including the UAE.

Yet, despite the successes coming her way, Bhatt feels far from invincible. “No, [there’s] no such thing. I don’t feel invincible at all. You know, I’m someone who really believes in letting the fates decide. I kind of keep my fingers crossed and don’t speak too much about it,” Bhatt told Gulf News nestled at her plush Mumbai home where she married Kapoor not too many months ago. “And every time if anything good happens, I actually feel fear, hoping things don’t go all wrong now. So, I’m actually someone who feels grateful and sort of vulnerable when things are going well. But grateful being the key word here.”

Alia Bhatt 222-1659797787897
Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor Image Credit: AFP

Bollywood trailblazer

As the daughter of maverick filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, the 29-year-old star has spent her decade in Bollywood making unconventional choices that have largely worked in her favour.

Right on the heels of the mass entertainer ‘Student of the Year’, Bhatt broke the mould of conventional star kid and chose Imtiaz Ali’s performance-heavy ‘Highway’ as her second film. The gamble made her a bona fide star overnight, with Bhatt following up on the success by flitting between commercial potboilers such as ‘2 States’ and ‘Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania’ to more serious cinema such as ‘Udta Punjaab’, ‘Raazi’, ’Gully Boy’ and most recently, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’.

Her ability to slip into a myriad of roles in such a young career even drew praise from industry stalwarts such as Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, along with industry peers Ranveer Singh, Dia Mirza and Mrunal Thakur.

Even as she emerged as one of the most bankable stars in Bollywood, Bhatt wasn’t satisfied limiting her growth to just that of a film actress. She was here to build a brand and what better than launching her own production house before she hit 30.

Thus, when ‘Darlings’ came her way, the actress did not hesitate. “I kind of decided very early on in my life that I will try and listen to every script that comes to me because you never know.… And that’s kind of how ‘Darlings’ happened,” Bhatt revealed. “I didn’t have the time and had met with Jasmeet [film’s director] once before. But I heard that she had a script so I said, ‘Okay, let’s see’.”

The team behind 'Darlings'
The team behind 'Darlings' Image Credit: ANI

The fact that ‘Darlings’ had been written and would be directed by a woman further piqued Bhatt’s curiosity, according to the actress. “Anyway, she narrated the script to me, and it started off as a regular film and then suddenly, it just shifted genres. That took me by surprise and I love to be surprised,” Bhatt said.

“Usually, you can predict the journey of a movie but I couldn’t do that with a film like ‘Darlings’ and that was shocking to me. I knew I wanted to do the film, but honestly, I don’t know how I became a producer. Was it a good opportunity for me as a producer as well? And strangely, I was talking to Gaurav [Verma, producer and COO at Red Chillies Entertainment] who brought this to me and was actually very supportive that I should produce it as well. And it just kind of all fell into place. So actually, first came ‘Darlings’, and then came Eternal Sunshine productions,” she added.

Laced with black humour, ‘Darlings’ stars Bhatt as Badrunissa, a seemingly naive girl who marries her sweetheart (played by a solid Vijay Varma), only to discover his dark side shortly into the marriage. Touching on themes of domestic violence and alcohol addiction, the movie also stars the talented Shefali Shah as Bhatt’s on-screen mother.

Dark comedy

Peppered with moments that are sometimes hard to watch, Bhatt doesn’t deny that ‘Darlings’ saw her go to some dark places during its shoot, especially during the violent scenes. “But I also have to say, there’s a certain amount of detachment with which you have to go about any of those sequences as well.

“I mean, I know it’s not physically happening to me in that moment. But the imagination of the repercussions is intense. But my job as an actor is to deliver what I feel in the moment, and beyond that, you have to kind of step away from it because it can mess with your head. And the endeavour is always to kind of take that disturbance and make it the fuel for a good film. You want to reach out to people, like a woman, maybe sitting at her house, or at her workplace, watching this and resonating with that story.”Some have also come forth on social media that the film is almost making a mockery out marital abuse through Badrumissa’s character who finds the positives in every situation, but Bhatt had a different take. “In a situation that is working against you, you try and believe in the positive and make things work for yourself.”

The actress felt the movie also was a strong advocate for feminism today. “There is this level of abuse in the film, the physical abuse, but then there’s the emotional abuse, the psychological abuse… it’s a mind game that Hamza plays with Badru where even though he’s not physically hitting her, you can see negativity. And he’s trying to try to break her confidence even in their final moments, he tries to make her believe that she’s not good enough by herself. And I think that was one of the, that was one of the cutting thoughts that we used to speak about.

“We need to get this message out. The idea of being alone is so scary to most people, because we’ve been sold this idea that we need to survive in pairs. And that’s not true, though. That shouldn’t be the case for everyone, especially if you’re not in a happy equation.”

Bhatt is one of those few actresses in Bollywood today who can command packed cinema houses without the need of a male hero by her side on the poster, yet for ‘Darlings’, the team took a conscious decision to release the film as a small screen production.

“I think that we’re learning now that the world is becoming a much smaller place and there’s a lot of different content that lives on streaming platforms that can reach different places around the world. And a story about domestic abuse is not only limited to a country like India, so why not reach into so many more homes,” asked Bhatt.

And even though Bhatt has a busy few months ahead, what with ‘Brahmastra’, the supernatural film co-starring her husband, releasing in September, sleeping jags that she admitted mid-interview came with her pregnancy, followed by the birth of their baby, she is laser-focused on taking her production house to new heights in the coming years.

Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor in 'Brahmastra' Image Credit: Social Media

“In the next five years, the plan is to just make good content. I want people who have maybe not made any content before, the new writers, new directors, to be able to think of Eternal Sunshine as a reliable production house to sort of put that together for them. I want to give a chance to new people to put together their dream and bring their creative ideas to life. And yeah, hopefully, I will have a couple of films, maybe even a couple of shows under the banner.”

But Bhatt was quick to dismiss the notion that Kapoor or her father would be involved with her production house in any way. “No. My sister [Shaheen Bhatt] and I, and my team, we will handle it. I don’t think the family needs to get involved. They can watch the movies and give their opinion and give feedback. But that’s about it.”

Don’t miss it!

‘Darlings’ is streaming on Netflix