She is jealous of her peers, insecure about her talents and doubts her intelligence.
But for Alia Bhatt, a 21-year-old rising star, daughter of noted film-maker Mahesh Bhatt and actor and theatre personality Soni Razdan, constant self-doubt is the key to professional growth.
“My dad always told me that you only begin to learn when you constantly feel you are not worth it. Doubt is the key to knowledge... I strongly believe in that,” says Alia.
With four films already on her CV – the most recent, Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania (Humpty Sharma’s bride), hit the screens on July 10 – Alia has already firmly underscored her presence in the tough and slippery world of Bollywood. Blessed with a rare and potent mix of star value as well as tremendous acting talent, the relative newcomer is already being deluged by film offers.
Alia heralded her entry into Bollywood with Student of the Year, a coming-of-age romantic comedy. It succeeded in establishing her as a heroine who could dance well and has great screen presence.
But it was Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, Alia’s second film, that established her as a competent actor. “Highway made me an actor – it broke me. I found an emotional bank inside me that I didn’t know I possessed. I thought I was a shallow person and I didn’t think I had any depth,” she says.
As the name suggests, Highway belongs to the road-trip genre. But it is the controversial storyline that garnered a lot of attention.
Based on the Stockholm Syndrome, it is a love story between a captor and his hostage, a formula that has found celluloid interpretation on many occasions. But this Imtiaz Ali film, like most of his others, stood out for the way it explores romance not in a fairy-tale environment but in nuances that organically evolve through interactions between two people. The movie demanded extremely complex, layered, subtle yet intense character portrayals from both its lead actors – Alia and Randeep Hooda.
Since Randeep is a seasoned actor, known for brooding, dark roles, the challenge of constructing a highly inflammable on-screen chemistry lay solely with young Alia. The role also tested her ability to convincingly portray a girl with a chic look yet a wounded soul, who over the length of the film grows into a young woman who finds comfort in a physicality that is deglamorised, shabby yet real.
“I was cautioned about accepting such a role so early in my career, but how can one say no to [well known and highly respected film-maker] Imtiaz Ali?” smiles Alia. “He is a pure soul and his purity reflects in his passion for his craft. There is no fuss or nothing fake about him; that is what I love about him.
“Since I did not have much acting experience during the making of Highway, I depended on Imtiaz to walk me through and it was an amazing experience, raw look and all.”
While Highway made her a household name in India, it was 2 States, Alia’s third film, that got her critical appreciation for doing justice to a script that demanded honest and realistic performances from its cast. “Just like colouring outside the lines is a mess, in 2 States, colouring outside the character would have been a mess,” she explains. “I simply did my best and luckily it was hugely appreciated.”
2 States, a film based on Chetan Bhagat’s book of the same name, ensured that Alia found a durable place in the hearts and minds of her audience. The film explores the trials and tribulations of a well-educated young couple from different cultures who want to get married with the approval of their extremely parochial families.
Again, it was a theme that has seen several cinematic adaptations, but it was Alia and her co-actor Arjun Kapoor’s performances that made the film a resounding success.
“I was blown away by Arjun’s performance in his debut film Ishaqzaade. So when I came to know that I was going to be a doing a film with him, I hoped that I would be able to match his energy on-screen.”
The fact that the film was a phenomenal success proved the two new stars on Bollywood’s horizon had talent that would fuel their growth and spur new trends in film-making. In an industry where female characters are often expected to add only glamour to a film, this was not just revolutionary but refreshing as well.
Alia’s performance in 2 States didn’t just win her accolades; it was also key to the success of the film. “In fact, I remember when I told my father that I was suffering from mental and physical exhaustion during the making of the film, he used to say ‘Yeah that’s the way it should be... you’re sounding good’.
“I think he was more than happy to know that I was exhausted and dying,” she laughs. But it is this upbringing, in which she has always been encouraged to push the envelope and explore the unknown, that has held her in good stead for Bollywood. “Acting in Highway was a life-changing experience,” she says. “Until this film, I felt I didn’t have the experience of having faced problems that give your performance depth.
“But Highway made me see a new side to my personality. It made me realise I am not shallow,” she says. “The experience of shooting in the middle of nowhere and often having to make do with few luxuries transformed my life immensely.”
So much so that she doesn’t just act but is now willing to show off her singing talents too. Alia recorded Sooha Saha for Highway, which was a huge hit, before returning to the mic again to sing an unplugged version of the noted singer Rahet Fateh Ali’s popular number Samjhawan. But the self-confessed bathroom singer admits she was not scared to do a new version of Rahet’s well known song.
“I am not a professional singer. I did it only because I love to sing. It was not to prove anything to anybody or to impress people,” she says.
It was a hit, and if she needed confirmation of her vocal skills, she received it from Academy award winning music director AR Rahman. “I was advised by AR Rahman to take my singing seriously, and I am thinking about it,” she says.
The younger daughter of Mahesh Bhatt and his second wife Soni Razdan, an accomplished actress herself, Alia is constantly reminded of how complacency can be fatal for any actor. “I am scared of being complacent,” she says. “In fact my father constantly tells me that nothing fails like success. I must say my parents and sister Shaheen – who has worked on a few films as scriptwriter and assistant director – have taught me a lot. I’ve been brought up in the kind of household where if I’d say silly things, I’d be reprimanded and told to be more sensible.”
And is she sensible? “Not as sensible as my family is,” she says, nonchalantly.
It is this humility that ensures that her performances continue to connect with audiences looking for films and actors that are an extension of their own everyday struggles and dilemmas.
“Eventually what you become is because of your talent. You have to have a talent. The audience want to see good work.” Alia hopes that one day her father, who has several hits under his belt including critically and commercially acclaimed films such as Saaransh, Arth and Naam, will direct her.
“I have tried to convince him many times. I am sure he will write for me. I don’t know when but I guess it will happen at the right time.”
Now Alia, who plays the role of a happy-go-lucky girl who has some film-inspired, overly simplistic notions of marriage in Humpty… alongside her co-actor from Student of the Year Varun Dhawan, is hoping her off-screen connection with Varun enables them to create that on-screen chemistry. “The trick to building on-screen chemistry is to try and be as natural as possible. The harder you try, the more forced it looks,” says the actor.
“Varun and I have remained friends since Student... days and we share a camaraderie that is beyond films. I hope the film reflects how comfortable we are with each other and we get to work together more often,” says Alia.
So does this mean that reel-life love story is about to turn into a real-life one? “No, of course not. Varun is a very dear friend and we share a bond that is based on good, honest friendship,” says Alia.