Your twenties aren’t meant for good decisions, but I don’t think Alia Bhatt has got the memo. At 23, her four-year-old filmography reads like a wildly optimistic bucket list. Storm into the scene with a glossy Karan Johar film, check (Student Of The Year, 2012). Get critics on your side with a contrasting sophomore feature, check (Highway, 2014). Rock a hammy romantic-comedy, check (Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, 2014). Ace an unfamiliar dialect, check (Udta Punjab, 2016). Share screen space with a leading Khan, check (she stars alongside Shah Rukh Khan in this month’s Dear Zindagi). Plus, she’s already ticked off two for next year: create a successful franchise (Badrinath Ki Dulhania) and be part of a superhero film (Ayan Mukerji’s Dragon, opposite Ranbir Kapoor).
Your twenties are also a time of maddening self-doubt. But with Bhatt, all you get is a cool-girl confidence and a general disdain for complexities. She won’t defend her privilege. She is happy to leave compulsive opining to those who know better, and lets slander and ridicule slide off her back with no trouble.
When we meet in her vanity van, she tells me how she’s benefitted from reading The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and now passes it to anyone struggling with change. “Put that in the interview,” she chuckles. “Alia Bhatt is recommending a book.”
Her comfort with self-love and self-depreciation makes you wonder about Bhatt. Because beyond that cutesy, ditsy narrative is a remarkably secure actor who has dealt with early fame, online trolling, ridiculous scandal (her favourite was the rumour about her half-sister Pooja Bhatt being her biological mother) and oppressive lows without any of us noticing. No rants, no open letters, no meltdowns.
A lot of her present clarity, she says, comes from the time she spent on the sets of Dear Zindagi, directed by Gauri Shinde (English Vinglish, 2012). “I play a regular city girl who is dealing with problems we don’t often address. Shah Rukh plays my therapist. The whole filming process ended up being therapeutic for me too. One thing I learnt from watching Shah Rukh was compassion—it is a rare quality for an actor to possess. We have a tendency to constantly think only about ourselves,” she says.
Bhatt’s experiences have taught her crucial lessons too, on how to face humiliation, find body love and survive heartbreak, and she shares them here. She might get the names of presidents wrong, but she is quietly winning at life, and we should all be taking notes.
Don’t Wrestle With Heartache
Bhatt will not confirm her relationship, or rumoured break-up, with Siddharth Malhotra, but she will have you know that she’s learnt a thing or two about heartbreak. First, that it attracts bad advice. “I hate it when people tell you to try and distract yourself. That’s very lame. It is temporary. Nobody’s found a cure for heartbreak. If they had, the world would be a much happier place.” Her advice is to be patient, let the pain run its course, and as you wait, OD on endorphins by getting a great revenge body.
Forget Your Privilege
Success can make you suddenly intolerant of 4am call times. But if you hire Bhatt for a job, she promises diligence, punctuality and general niceness. “I get my work ethic from Karan [Johar], who is still my mentor. He taught me how to create a happy atmosphere on set and the importance of respect. I also believe that punctuality takes you really far. People don’t realise that not being on time actually compromises the quality of your work,” she says.
Find A Sisterhood
“I still feel a strong connection with friends I have known since the fourth standard,” says Bhatt. She ensures her girlfriends never suffer the consequences of movie-star schedules or demanding boyfriends. Recently, she took a one-day trip halfway around the globe to surprise her best friend on her birthday. “I have always believed that you can either be a really good girlfriend/boyfriend, or a really good best friend. You can’t be both. I think I’m an average girlfriend and a really good best friend.” All she asks in return is that friends follow a simple code: “Don’t mess with my ex-boyfriend, be honest and don’t have too much fun when you’re not with me.”
Book A Ticket For One
“We come alone and we leave alone,” is a dire life truth Bhatt can happily confront while having her eyelashes curled. “Of course, we make friends, we fall in love, but in the end, it is just you and your mind. The minute you start enjoying your own company, there’s this peace that sets in. It can help you get through a heartbreak or a low time in your life,” she says. After taking her first solo holiday last year (she went paragliding in the UAE), Bhatt has made this an annual tradition. “Earlier, I wanted people around me all the time, now that I’m constantly surrounded by people, I want alone time.”
Get Off Your Ass
Bhatt’s relationship with her body only improved once she accepted this inconvenient truth—if you want to feel good about your body, you have to work towards making your body feel good. “To feel healthy from the inside takes effort. For that, following a basic workout regime is necessary, even if it’s just a daily walk. We sleep for eight hours a day. We should be able to get our ass moving for one hour,” she says. She now finds her time with the reformer, usually joined by Pilates partner Katrina Kaif, as fulfilling as a portion of XL fries.
Trust Your Animals
Sheeba and Pica, Bhatt’s camera-friendly cats, do not tolerate bad behaviour. “They are extremely affectionate, but every time I’m back after a long schedule, they won’t even come near me,” she says. While she’s trying to make good, Bhatt also takes notes on how to master their strength of will and cool indifference. “An important lesson my cats have taught me is to not give in too easily. They don’t tolerate bullshit.”
Use The Filters
New studies have confirmed that a selfie a day can actually boost self-esteem and overall happiness. Bhatt figured that out without science. “Forget what people say about social media making you vain. I like taking selfies when I’m out partying with my friends or in a beautiful location,” she says. “I know people who use beauty apps to thin themselves in pictures before putting them up on Instagram. If that makes you happy, that’s fine. I feel you can’t judge these things. You don’t know what’s going on in the other person’s head.”
Aim For Failure
The only blight on Bhatt’s four-year-long winning streak was last year’s near-insufferable comedy, Shaandaar. The failure was unsteadying, until she remembered she was raised to know better. In an interview with Karan Thapar earlier this year, Bhatt explained, “[Mahesh Bhatt] is not a regular person in general, so one would also imagine that he would not be a regular dad. He’s not the dad who […] tells you to do well in school. He’s the opposite—he would tell me to fail. He totally took the idea out of my head that failure is a bad thing.”
Shame The Slut-Shamers
For Bhatt, the campaign for equality begins with her own squad, and she keeps constant vigilance for trouble. “I make myself very clear when I feel someone’s making an unequal move or statement. I get upset and angry and have major arguments. [With this] an atmosphere gets created. People won’t do things or say things they generally would, and I think [change] begins like that.” The offence she finds most galling is slut-shaming. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s all cool. The moment a girl has X number of boyfriends or relationships, it’s a problem. A boy can sleep around
but girls cannot.”
Enjoy The Humiliation
Once she yelled ‘Prithviraj Chauhan’ on Koffee With Karan, Bhatt became the internet’s favourite punchline. But browse the sizable list of ‘Alia Bhatt DUMB’ videos (misleading titles) on YouTube, and you’ll find the long-running joke didn’t end there. Every interview since has doubled as a GK quiz. It’s tiresome to watch, but she attempts every question, and now, even enjoys the patronisation. “I don’t mind any of it. The whole thing just brought me a lot of attention, and I’ve never shied away from attention,” she smiles.
Photographs: R Burman. Styling: Nidhi Jacob. Assisted by: Veronna Parikh, Amie Banerjee (Styling). Make-Up And Hair: Daniel Bauer/Artist Factory India. Production: Parul Menezes. Assisted by: Sahej Marwah (Production)