As She Likes It: Alia Bhatt talks about her filmi career

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Since her debut in 2012, Alia Bhatt boasts of an enviable career graph. As she gears up for the release of Shaandaar, Bhatt talks about the choices she’s made, how Govinda’s films inspired her and that quiz that changed her life.

It’s hard not to like Alia Bhatt. At the Dharma Productions office in Khar in Mumbai, she gently goes round in circles in her swivel chair, fidgets with her laptop and drinks lemon tea from a sipper. As Bhatt turns and chats about her career, one catches a glimpse of Shanaya, the designer bag-toting spoiled teenager from Student of the Year (2012), Veera, the almost-bride who is kidnapped in Highway (2014) and Ananya, the career-driven IIM-A graduate in 2 States (2014). “It is very important to know what people think of my movies, and if they can connect to my personality. Being myself is the wisest decision I have made,” says the 22-year-old actor.

It would appear so. Could Bhatt be that rare thing, a Bollywood personality who is liked by everyone? Everybody who has worked with her so far — from filmmakers Karan Johar and Imtiaz Ali, to the boys at All India Bakchod (AIB) and her latest co-star, Shahid Kapoor — speaks of her with affection and admiration. Randeep Hooda, her Highway co-star, describes Bhatt as one of most vivacious and genuine people he has come across in the industry. “I have asked her to remain the person she is,” he says.

“My whole being and approach to work is shaped by Karan Johar. From him, I have learned that people should love to work with you and you should give out warmth and energy to them,” says Bhatt. The beauty pageant-like answer might sound like a platitude but she genuinely means it. She’s charmed you, just like that — and there’s very little you can do about it.

Gearing up for Shaandaar, “India’s first destination wedding film”, which releases on October 22, and her fifth in a lead role, Bhatt is in high spirits. “Shaandaar is a big commercial film. Also, it is likely to have a wider reach since it is a family film. That will add to my value as an actor and in turn, help me build my brand image for future projects,” says Bhatt. Shaandaar is also Vikas Bahl’s first outing after 2014’s Queen. “I offered Alia the film before Highway was released. At that time, I was thinking of a pretty face. But she brought much more to the table. She is a dedicated and involved actor. On most days, she was the first one to reach the sets,” he says. Bahl recalls how he regularly received ideas and feedback from Bhatt during the shooting of the film.

She might be fairly new in the industry but this girl is no ingénue — 2014 ended with three mainstream projects (Highway, 2 States, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania; all three struck gold at the box office), Going Home, a short film about women’s safety in India, and a cameo in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly. Three years after making her debut in Student of the Year, Bhatt is on the verge of being recognised as a bankable lead who doesn’t allow herself to be typecast.

“Student of the Year was like a missile launch,” says Bhatt, who was only 19 when the film was released. She was barely 16 when her mother, actor Soni Razdan took her to audition for the role of Shanaya. In the audition tape that has now gone viral, a chubby Bhatt says her lines a little self-consciously. But Johar, the film’s director, noticed her “zest” when she danced without care to Bahara Bahara, a song from the film. After signing on the dotted line, Razdan was tasked with making her daughter slimmer. By the time shooting began a year later, Bhatt had accomplished two things: she had completed the International Baccalaureate (IB) course at Jamnabai Narsee School, and she was 14 kg lighter.

Born to filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and his second wife Razdan, the actor and her sister Shaheen grew up in a family associated with Bollywood — her half-siblings, Pooja and Rahul, have been actors, actor Emraan Hashmi and director Mohit Suri are her paternal cousins, and producer Mukesh is her uncle. “I always knew I would be an actor,” says Bhatt.

At Jamnabai Narsee, school plays offered the young girl a platform to showcase her talents. “She regularly participated in school plays and inter-school drama competitions. Most of these skits demanded improvisation, something Alia is good at. In hindsight, that might have prepared her as an actor,” says Razdan, who singles out Bhatt’s performance as Hodel in the school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, as her best stage show yet. “That’s when I realised that she has a sweet singing voice, too,” she says.

Student of the Year was a hit at the box office and Bhatt was poised for stardom. “But I feared being typecast as a ‘baby doll’. When the opportunity to do Highway came, I grabbed it,” she says. When the Imtiaz Ali-directed road movie released in February 2014, Bhatt’s performance of a young girl grappling with the demons of child sexual abuse was lauded by critics. The remarkable transition from the glam girl Shanaya to the sensitive Veera, who falls in love with her captor, took Bollywood audiences by surprise.

“It took me a while to get over Highway. I started living the character of Veera very closely. I don’t think I would be able to give so much to a character the way I did with her,” says Bhatt. Ali is all praise for his lead actor: “Alia is Veera, not just on screen but in spirit. Just like her, Alia is sensitive and free-spirited. The movie became Alia’s journey, too.”

Highway released at a time Bhatt’s public persona needed it the most. Three weeks before the film hit the theatres, along with her former co-stars Sidharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan, she appeared on Johar’s chat show, Koffee with Karan. The episode began harmlessly enough, with lots of giggling and banter, till it was time for the “Koffee Quiz” segment. Johar asked them to name the President of India and among the wrong answers that shot into the air, was Bhatt’s contribution: “Prithviraj Chauhan”. By the time the show ended, Alia Bhatt jokes and memes were trending on social media — she had become a “desi blonde” girl overnight.

Even Though her acting chops were being appreciated, there was no getting away from being the butt of all jokes . Till the AIB team approached her with a one-line concept note. “They came to me with an idea for a video: Alia Bhatt enrolls herself at a ‘mental gym’ and ‘undergoes brain enlargement’. I went ahead with it. What did I have to lose,” she says. “A full-blown comedy film should be made to tap her potential,” says Rohan Joshi, AIB, who was impressed with Bhatt’s comic timing. AIB’s Genius of the Year went viral and Bhatt was trending again — for all the right reasons.

Today, she has a host of interesting projects. After Shaandar, Bhatt will be seen in Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab, due for release in 2016. Bhatt considers herself lucky to have got the film. “The character is in stark contrast from who I am in real life,” says Bhatt. While she is excited to do a happy film like Shaandar and a love story such as 2 States, she looks forward to a film like Udta Punjab which transports her to a very different world. “It’s a dark film and I have done it with a lot of belief,” she says. Set in Punjab, the thriller tells the story of substance abuse in the state and also stars Shahid Kapoor, and Kareena Kapoor Khan in lead roles. Kapoor describes Bhatt as an enthusiastic, super-talented, focussed and energetic actor. “Alia and I almost froze to death as we shot in -5 degrees water for three days in Leeds for Shaandar,” he says.

There’s also Gauri Shinde’s next, about an unusual relationship, where she is cast opposite Shah Rukh Khan. “I wanted to cast Alia, I was impressed with her raw energy,” says Shinde. Initially, the filmmaker had reservations as she thought Bhatt was too young for the role. “However, I decided to tweak the age bracket of the character so that I could cast Alia. It is a pleasure to work with a good performer, someone who is willing to go to any length to essay the part,” says Shinde, who directed Sridevi’s comeback film, English Vinglish.

Does Bhatt see her age as a disadvantage? “Initially, I was wary, but not anymore. I’m the only one in my age group. Nowadays, films don’t have much of an age bar; they are about good stories, screenplays and ideas,” says the actor. Though Parineeti Chopra, 26, and Anushka Sharma, 27, are the two top-bracket actors closest to Bhatt in terms of age, the former’s last two films have tanked, and Sharma has diversified into production. Bhatt is firm about one thing: she does not want to take up a project for the sake of it. “I will sit at home for six months if I have to, but I won’t do a film just to fill up my calendar,” she says. Bhatt fears getting “burnt out”, and tries to take two holidays every year. Her last break was a two-week health retreat in Austria with her mother and sister — fitness is her top priority now.

Though only five films old, Bhatt is slowly establishing herself as a director’s actor. “For Shandaar, Vikas did not want much preparation. So, I only did two-three readings with my sister Shaheen. However, for Udta Punjab, I trained for two months as that character demands it,” she says. “There are very few actresses who like to step out of their skin and not worry about looking good and play the character. I was very proud of her that she said ‘yes’ to the film. She has been making some brave choices,” says Kapoor.

While Bhatt has been inspired by her father’s work — Zakhm, Saaransh, Arth and Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin — the films that led to her understanding of “acting” are on the other side of the spectrum. “Had it not been for David Dhawan’s films and watching Govinda and Karisma Kapoor on television regularly, I don’t think I would have understood what being an ‘actor’ is. I went through a phase when I watched all of Govinda’s No.1 series along with all of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan movies,” she says.

And someday, Bhatt would like to return to the stage. “Recently, the experience of watching my mother in Where Did I Leave My Purdah blew me away. All the actors in it are terrific. One day, I would like to be a part of a stage production, preferably a musical,” she says. Her family, though, seem to have other plans for her. “Soni, Pooja and Shaheen feel that Alia should be cast in the remake of Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin. Maybe someday, I will go ahead with that and hopefully, we will find a good co-actor,” says Mahesh.

TAKE 5 with Alia Bhatt:

Directors I want to work with- Many. Among them, Rajkumar Hirani and Zoya Akhtar

Co-star I want to work with- Amitabh Bachchan. Whenever we meet, we joke about doing one movie together

Next holiday destination- New York. I hear amazing things about the city

Favourite adventure sports- I am scared of heights. So no bungee jumping for me. I would love to try scuba diving

Movies I want to catch up on- Talvar and The Martian

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As She Likes It: Alia Bhatt talks about her filmi career

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