This young actor had a rough start, facing sniggering critics and cruel trolls, but look who is having the last laugh

The young actor had a rough start, facing sniggering critics and cruel trolls, but look who is having the last laugh

Gully Boy’s hijab-wearing Safeena challenges every stereotype. Whichever part of the country you are from, however educated you are or whatever career path you are on, there is a part of you that wants to be like Safeena. She is fearless, intelligent, ambitious and most importantly unapologetic for who she is, even when she is breaking a beer bottle on a woman’s head or punching a girl from her neighbourhood for flirting with her boyfriend. But, like with every person, it is her flaws that make her lovable. Playing this fiery, passionate, aspiring doctor from Dharavi to perfection, Alia Bhatt proves yet again what a brilliant actor she is. While movie buffs can’t stop raving about her performance, Bhatt has learnt to take adulation in her stride. “When you are doing a movie, you only hope that it does well and that people enjoy your work. You don’t think of anything beyond that. This movie is a bit different in the way I relate to Safeena, she is my favourite character in the story. In my all films, I like my character, but my favourite is always another that stands out a little more. But Safeena was beautifully written and I had a blast playing her,” she says.

All it took for was a three-day workshop for Bhatt to make the transformation. “I did a workshop with Atul Mongia and Zoya (Akhtar) for three days to learn and improvise on the language. Then I worked on the dialogues with Vijay Maurya. It was a team effort and the process was so well-defined that, by time I arrived on the set, I had slipped into her skin.”

Debutante blues

Bhatt has been on movie sets even when she was five. Her first film was the 1999 thriller Sangharsh, in which was she playing the younger Reet Oberoi (played by Preity Zinta). Thirteen years later, she reappeared in Karan Johar’s Student of the Year.

While the movie did well at the box-office, her role as Shanaya didn’t impress the critics, who saw her as just another pretty face and a privileged star kid who got an easy pass into the industry. Bhatt was determined to change all of that and, when she got the opportunity to do that with Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, she grabbed it with both hands. In the 2014 movie, Bhatt played the young bride-to-be Veera who is abducted by a criminal. The kidnapping soon turns into a road trip, during which the kidnapped and the kidnapper forge a deep friendship. Bhatt excelled in that role, and everyone sat up and took notice of her.

The same year she also essayed the role of a Tamil Brahmin MBA graduate from IIM-Ahmedabad in the film adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller 2 States and Kavya Singh in the romcom Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, whose only aim in life is to wear an expensive designer lehenga for her wedding. Bhatt had proved her versatility and silenced the critics.

It even shut up the millions who trolled her mercilessly after the infamous Koffee with Karan episode, where she confused the Chief Minister of Maharashtra with the President of India. But instead of getting bogged down by the Internet memes on her, Bhatt made a smart comeback by starring in All India Bakchod’s video titled ‘Genius of the Year’, in which she was not afraid to poke fun at herself. In the spoof video, she joins a Dumb Belle Mental Gym that promises to take her from “Dolce & Gabbana to Smart like Shabana” and comes back on Koffee with Karan and aces all the questions.

Daddy’s lil girl: Alia with her father Mahesh Bhatt

Not only did the country fall in love with her for being such a sport but, more importantly, the joke was now on the trolls.

Coming of age

Today, Bhatt is comfortable in the space she is in. It can’t have been easy but she makes the transformation look effortless. She authentically portrayed not just Gully Boy’s Safeena or Veera in Highway, there was also the vulnerable and brave Sehmat Khan in Raazi and the fragile Bauria in Udta Punjab. It is easy to forget that she is all of 25 years and an upper-class star-kid who has lived in Juhu, an upscale Mumbai suburb all her life.

Her ability to bring out the nuances in every character — no matter how far removed from her reality — is definitely what makes her one of the finest actors India has ever seen.

Not surprising that her dad, the accomplished director Mahesh Bhatt too thinks highly of his little girl. He even compared her with Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. In an interview with PTI, the filmmaker had said that he sees his daughter fit into the shoes of Patil. “She (Patil) could act both, in commercial and parallel films, and yet not get cliched,” he had said. The younger Bhatt has grown up watching their movies by her father’s production house.

Mere pass maa hai: Alia and Ranbir with their moms Soni Razdan and Neetu Kapoor on Ranbir’s birthday

That influence is showing in the choices that she makes. “The way I pick my roles is fairly simple. If there is something in the character that I connect with and if the story makes me feel like I want to be part of that world. I just go with my instinct,” she says, adding that the movie should also appeal to her as an audience member. “I am an avid movie watcher so, to me, cinema should be exciting. If the character can inspire that, then that convinces me. I don’t pick roles thinking that it could be good for me.”

For instance, Bhatt says that she was drawn to Sehmat’s story in Raazi because it is an unheard one and because a young girl had managed to do all of this. “My first hook was the excitement I felt on hearing the story. It was only later on that I discovered other beautiful traits about the character,” she says. Similarly, in Dear Zindagi, Bhatt could relate to Kaira’s world and the problems she was talking about, and liked the fact that she was so flawed.

But the most challenging role till date, she says, was that of Bauria. Bhatt plays a Jharkhandi hockey player turned immigrant worker, who gets entangled in the drug-trafficking trade in north India. “To me, the challenge was the idea that I could be so removed from who I actually was. It was like chalk and cheese. Even my director initially thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. That made it exciting for me,” she says.

Picture abhi baaki hain

Most of us wonder what our calling is, even through our adult life, but Bhatt was sure that this is all she ever wanted to in her life. “Even as a little girl I loved to perform. I was clear that I wanted to perform and wherever that takes me I was ready to go. Acting was just a part of that overwhelming desire to perform,” she says. “So, I won’t say I was born to be an actor. I was born to perform and be creatively out there in whatever form that interests me to entertain people.”

I’ve got your back: Alia with her mentor Karan Johar

Bhatt credits her family for keeping her grounded and shaping her into the person that she is today. “My mother is a very strong independent carefree woman. She doesn’t get rattled by things too easily and I think I have taken after her. My sister Shaheen is very practical but, at the same time, has a high emotional quotient so that’s something I have imbibed from her. My father has always given other people way more respect and importance than he has given himself, and that’s something I’ve learnt from him,” she says.

2019 promises to yet another blockbuster year for Bhatt with two more major releases. First off the block will be the period drama Kalank directed by Abhishek Varman, where she stars opposite Varun Dhawan, followed by Ayan Mukerji’s much awaited supernatural adventure movie Brahmastra where she stars opposite her boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor. “I am really excited about these movies because they are nothing like the films I‘ve done before,” says Bhatt without revealing much else.

Next year, eight years after he launched her, Karan Johar and Bhatt will come together in Takht. “He is not just mentor, he is family and gets me. He is a beautiful human being and, no matter what, I know he will always be there for me. Even now he makes fun of me saying that, even though I have two kids now, you will always be my first born,” she says.

Despite churning out hits like clockwork, Bhatt is not taking anything for granted. “I don’t believe that success is permanent or solely mine. Yes I did work very hard to get here but when you know something is not permanent, you don’t take it for granted,” she says. Success maybe fickle but it is by Bhatt’s side for now, and is likely to remain a steady friend for a while.

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