Highway to Fame
I am at a beauty product launch with a colleague post the release of Student of The Year and the then one-film-old starlet chosen to push the lip balm wasn’t really a priority for us. The commercial and social media campaign was cute and we were looking to dash off before the entertainment press started asking their usual banal questions. Just as my colleague and I spotted an escape route, Alia Bhatt, absolutely charmingly, hauled a journalist up for asking a silly question and we stopped in our tracks, surprised and impressed by her personality. Used to waifs with more hair than wit, this was a pleasant change and we’ve been tracking her spunky exchanges ever since.
Her debut film focused more on her male co-stars, leading to an almost Twilight-like Team Varun (Dhawan) or Team Siddharth (Malhotra) situation, while Bhatt was reduced to little more than a bright pout to the audience. She’s been busy since then, establishing credibility as the most nuanced actress of her generation, shining bright in both dramatic roles and crowd-pleasers. We debate the merits of having a process and she divulges, “I think it’s better not to develop a process. Each character is different and with a process every emotion and action gets mechanical. I make up a little story of my own – what must have happened before, what my character likes doing, doesn’t like doing, likes eating – it gives me a good sketch of how she is.”
Bhatt talks about what it takes to depict mundane emotions. “I think showing that you’re really happy is the most difficult thing to do – in your day-to-day life when you’re laughing and you’re genuinely happy, you don’t really concentrate on your emotions so much. You don’t think “Today I was happy and my smile was so broad or this small,” but when you cry there is only one way that you cry. You get teary or you’re crying or you’re howling – these are the three stages that you’ve had since you were five, and you do it the same way. When you are content, it will show in your walk or demeanour, so I think when you’re showing happiness in its different variations, it’s perhaps the most difficult thing to do.”
As we converse, Bhatt is busy tucking away into a leafy salad. We talk about her diet and she voices her belief that the body shouldn’t get too used to any particular diet because it then develops a resistance to the benefits. Her Highway director Imtiaz Ali got her hooked onto herbal tea from Darjeeling that she drinks at least five cups of daily. Her mother, she claims, is such a good cook that even the diet khaana tastes ‘yummy’! If she ever moves away from home, her mother’s cooking will be what she’ll miss the most. As Indians tend to do, Bhatt too showers affection with food. “I like to make sure I’m giving someone what they like. Some people aren’t into materialism and food is always appreciated. If a friend likes red velvet cake, I’ll make sure to get that. If I ever need to get Varun (Dhawan, co-star in two of her films) something, I know I’ll buy him chicken, like a big bucket of KFC because he would love that!”
Talking about her childhood brings up the most quintessentially Indian aspect of it – the superstition. While she doesn’t believe in it, she is hugely amused by the number of superstitions she remembers hearing. “I had a black cat for almost 15 years and absolutely nothing happened,” she chortles.
Most of her free time is taken up with snoozing – she declares she can sleep 18 hours at a stretch. Friends and Friends, the TV series, are her other favourite ways to spend time.
At just 21, Bhatt is an icon for the youth in India, and it’s a responsibility she feels keenly. “When I make my choices, I try and do films that I want my younger audience to see – I feel I connect with children and I have to keep that in mind,” she says. “Just being a responsible adult is a pressure, I have to think about my image – you can’t be caught drinking and driving, going to rave parties. But it’s not like I want to do any of these things – I don’t even know how to drive so that would never be a problem!”
Perhaps it’s the new generation, and maybe it’s just the Bhatt charm, but she’s very comfortable interacting with fans and the fawning public. “There’s a feeling of ‘yeh apna hai’. It’s very sweet how we Indians tend to establish a relationship. Even when I meet aunties they tell me ‘we are very proud of you beta’, like they know me. With today’s culture of cellphones and selfies, you cannot afford to be shy. Whenever I am travelling abroad and see an Indian, I automatically feel safe; some familiarity even though I don’t know the person. While we are really large in number, we are still small in connect, and when we connect with our people, it’s a different feeling. So I think it is something that at least the industry banks on when the whole family goes to watch the film together, the kind of money it makes is another ballgame entirely.”
Which brings us to international projects. “I think it’s too soon for me to be trying for international projects but if something does come up, I’m probably not going to say ‘no’ to auditioning.” I am curious as to whether she feels Indian characters get a little too dramatised, and I get a rather well-considered response. “Sometimes I do think so, but it is sort of a distinction. The character in The Big Bang Theory, Raj, speaks English with a forceful Indian accent, but I feel it makes him more interesting.”
Her favourite Indian cities include Goa, Bengaluru and Kolkata, but Bhatt admits that she is first and foremost a mountain baby. “Take me to the mountains and I’ll go anywhere, I just love it. I recently went to Manali and I was so happy and peaceful over there. I travelled from Delhi to Himachal Pradesh while shooting Highway, and I had the privilege of seeing a yak calf grow into an adult,” she says, her eyes alive at the memory.
Move along to the hot topic for young actresses and she’s a little less passionate. While being labelled a ‘fashionista’ seems to be an important element of every Bollywood actor’s repertoire, Bhatt plays it cool. “It is important, eyes are going to be on you and you do feel good when you get a look right. But I dress for myself so even if someone thinks I am going wrong it doesn’t hurt me. When I start second-guessing my own choices and it goes wrong, then I get upset because I didn’t go with my instinct. I just genuinely always want to do something cool and the day I don’t want to I don’t, and sometimes that clicks!” Her first Indian designer buy was an outfit by her friend, Masaba Gupta, for a wedding, but now Manish Malhotra is more her speed – she even walked the runway for him at the recently concluded India Couture Week in New Delhi.
Having had the opportunity to spend time with her, I can only conclude that her famous general knowledge gaffe on Koffee With Karan was brought on by the happy light-headedness of being among friends, for there is nothing of the ditz about Bhatt as she patiently fields my questions on this rainy day at Mehboob Studios. “I want to be the best at doing something consistently, I don’t just want to be the best for a year and then forgotten,” she says, and I come away knowing that she’s got what it takes.
Don’t miss our behind-the-scenes video of her cover shoot! Watch it here.