Alia Bhatt: The girl behind the star


Alia Bhatt: The girl behind the star

The sisters settle down for a chat peppered with tender confessions and lots of giggling

By Shaheen Bhatt  November 30th, 2015

March 15, 1993 — I’m peering at the swathed and motionless lump in front of me with terrified, wide-eyed wonder. My father has led me into the mostly bare hospital room, mere seconds ago. At first I have eyes only for my mother, but that swiftly changes when I spy the bundle in her arms. The room buzzes with quiet anticipation as I inch closer, cautious. I can almost hear my parents hold their breath as I come face to face with the pink, mousy face that, unbeknownst to me, will change my life.

Twenty-two years later, a just-as-pink, less mousy version of that face stares down at me from what sometimes feels like every single billboard in the city.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to have your baby sister go from Aloo to Alia Bhatt almost overnight.

Fame has always been on the cards for her, though. So, when Student Of The Year (2012) catapulted Alia into somewhat uncomfortable notoriety, it wasn’t unexpected.

“I want to be a star,” a five-year old Alia once proclaimed after a rather spirited performance set to the music of (for the purposes of this story and as dramatic foreshadowing) Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I sat in a corner and rolled my eyes — it was the third time we had watched her dance that day.

At the age of five she had her mind made up — she was going to be a star. It’s not a decision she ever questioned and that unwavering certainty is the only thing I have ever envied her for. While I went back and forth between vet, astronaut, writer and unemployed millionaire, Alia always staunchly maintained that she was going to act. And act, she did.

While the face that stares down at me from all those billboards is my sister’s, that isn’t my sister up there. My sister is the girl who trudges home after a long day of shooting those campaigns to spend time with me because I’ve been snidely complaining about how I never see her and how busy she is. She’s the girl who bursts into tears on a Skype call with her family because she’s been away from home for a month. She’s the girl who dances goofily to music only she can hear for no reason other than “because she can”. She’s the girl who makes me laugh so hard I can’t breathe.

While I’m proud of every single one of Alia’s professional accomplishments, it’s these other things about her that make me glow. It’s the things she does far from the intrusive eyes of fame that make her so uniquely her. These are the things that make her my sister. When I was presented with the chance to interview my sister for this month’s issue of ELLE, I jumped at it because it meant I actually got to see her… and be snide about how I never get to see her, in print.

Shaheen Bhatt: What is your happiest memory of us?
Alia Bhatt: I think playing together. No, actually, (laughs), what automatically comes to me is an unhappy memory — of you locking me in the dark. Which is why I have a fear of the dark…

SB: I really don’t think that’s why you have a fear of the dark. Papa is afraid of the dark, too. 
AB: Papa didn’t sit me down and teach me to have a fear of the dark, you triggered it...

SB: I locked you in the dark, maybe twice!
AB: Shaheen?! It was like two years, it was not twice!

SB: That’s why I asked what your happiest memory is.
AB: (Laughs) When we used to play doctor-doctor...

SB: (Laughs) Yeah, and you didn’t realise that breathing was required to be alive, so I would play dead for several minutes and—
AB: That’s great, Shaheen, you just said Alia didn’t know that breathing was required to be alive.

SB: You were five!
AB: (Laughs) I remember this one amazing moment. You came into my room and started telling me what kissing and being intimate with boys was all about.

SB: What! I have no memory of this!
AB: Yes! You had the talk with Mummy, and you decided to tell me about it. I was in the sixth standard! But I have to say you did a better job than Mom who was like, when daddy comes to mummy, daddy gives mummy a seed and then comes a flower (laughs).

SB: That sounds seriously weird.
AB: There was also that time we didn’t talk to each other for about three years.

SB: There you are with the exaggeration again. It was two months! 
AB: Shaheen? It was two yea—

SB: ...and it was because you ratted to papa about something.
AB: (Laughs) Yeah, you were playing some Harry Potter game and I told him.

SB:  Yeah, I don’t even recall what it was but I froze you out for two months.
AB: You’re a very hard person, Shaheen. 

SB: (Laughs) The two years we didn’t talk was because we weren’t really close then, you were so young. Actually most people don’t realise that we’re six years apart. 
AB: You’re older, but people assume I am because I’m always shouting at you and telling you what to do.

SB: Yes, this is a very recent thing. 
AB: (Laughs) Our relationship dilly-dallies, there are times when you act like my mother and times when I act like your mother, sister, boyfriend, father. We have this telepathic sync and we come to each other’s rescue. 

SB: We’ll be each other’s lawyer.
AB: Our parents are lovely people, but they can be excruciatingly overbearing. So if I’m low, Dad wants to give me my space, but he’ll somehow make sure that he’s not doing that…

SB: He’s being a parent, basically.
AB: Yeah, and you’ll tell them to back off. You would cover for me growing up too. I’d call you and say I’ve told them I’m here but I’m actually there. 

SB: (Laughs)
AB: But I used to not cover for you, I would go straight and complain: “Mummy, I think Shaheen is talking to a boy.” (Laughs)

SB: You were really a pain in the ass when we were growing up. You used to listen in on my phone calls and if I was talking to a boy you’d be like “heh heh, you said the L-word”. You were so disgusting.
AB: (Giggles) Also, you have this thing where you cry on my birthday. It started when I was 13 and kept happening...

SB: (Laughs) I would just weep and weep like, MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING!
AB: When I turned 21, you cried for like half an hour and I had to console you. Now it’s started happening one week before the birthday, I can see you moping around the house and I’m like, why are you so sad?

SB: It’s because I told Mom I wanted a baby sister and I didn’t understand the concept — I thought you would grow up to be the same age as me, I wouldn’t grow older, and we would just be together.  
AB: You’re just a crier.

SB: Yeah, dude. I also cry — what you’ve done like five movies now? — from frame one till the end, I’m choking. Mom stopped doing that after the first film, but it’s still that way for me. 
AB: (Nodding, mouthful of her post-workout snack.)

SB: You’ve always liked to have a lot of people around you. But recently you’ve discovered the joy of being alone. What prompted it?
AB: I think there comes a point when you’ve walked so far away from yourself that spending time in your own head becomes really, really difficult. I’d reached a stage where even car journeys alone were becoming painful for me because...

SB: …you didn’t know how to be with yourself. 
AB: Correct. Honestly I just wanted to go away after Shaandaar didn’t do well. It’s like dealing with a break-up. I was feeling really low. And more than just the film, it was for me — I had been going through that whole grind of promotions, constantly talking. I needed to be silent. Which is why this holiday by myself was amazing.

SB: You still very sweetly asked me to come with you, and  I was like no, you want to be alone, go be alone.
AB: (Laughs) I was scared, what if I got bored? But it was so good. I was there [in the UAE] for three nights and two days and I went paragliding. I felt like a bird! After landing, I had that moment of “Life is just so simple, we should just be happy we’re alive!” — I mean, apart from the fact that I was completely nauseous.
SB: (Laughs)  
AB: I now plan on making this an annual thing. 

SB: Now that you’ve brought up Shaandaar... this is the first time you haven’t gotten what you wanted from a film. What bothered you the most about it?
AB: That there was no love for the film. It was very difficult, like it was excruciating pain. Even though people were saying, “You were good, but” — for me it ends at “but”. I’m not one of those actors who would say I did my job well so that’s enough; I’m a team player. 

SB: Did you have a clue that it would turn out that way?
AB: No, because you lose objectivity. I knew that a certain audience wouldn’t like it but I didn’t think... I don’t know, I’ve always been wrong. When I saw Humpty [Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, 2014] for the first time I thought my career was over, but that film was so loved.

SB: What did you take away from the experience?
AB: I’m really happy that it finally happened, actually. It was like ripping off the Band-Aid, because I had not had even one film not do well and people were always like, “Aapki toh har film chalee hain,” and I’d be crossing my fingers, touchi–banging–JUMPING on top of wood. But you have no control. This is a Friday-to-Friday business and you are as good as your last film. 

SB: I thought your performance was fantastic, but I can’t be objective about you. 
AB: But we say the hard things to each other? In fact, as a family, we say the hard things more easily; we refrain from saying too many good things to one another. 

SB: Yeah, definitely. Especially because of what you do for a living, I think it’s important. You’re around people who are only building you up all the time...
AB: Yeah.

SB: But when you’re at home, you’re so normal I forget you have this whole other life. Are you different when we’re not around?
AB: I try to keep the acting only for the camera. I mean, I slump my shoulders off-camera. I am very much myself. 

SB: You’ve always been extra confident about how pretty you are, but when you started SOTY, you were really insecure about your body. You’ve only become confident over the last year or two…
AB: I’ve surpassed the “I want to lose weight” point because... I have lost weight. I’ve been on this healthy lifestyle for two years and it’s just become inherent now. I recently turned vegetarian and I go to the gym every day. The difference is, I’m no longer doing it out of force, I’m doing it out of joy. So it’s not stressful for me. Insecurity is not the point anymore. It’s about awareness now: How am I feeling today?   

SB: Except maybe your obsession with your arm and how fat it looks? 
AB: (Laughs) I worry about how I can improve my posture and my grace now — that’s become my new thing, I feel like I’m not a very graceful girl. 

SB: You still have your cheat days, where you’re like what bad thing can I eat today!
AB: Which is sugar. It’s the worst, but it’s fine.

SB: Because we share food, our food habits rub off on each other. When you lost weight for SOTY, I lost 10 kilos with you.
AB: Yeah. And we motivate each other, too. When we’re in London on holiday even, you’ll be like, “Alia we have to cycle in Hyde Park and have one cheat meal only.” 

SB: Our annual London trip. We always look forward to that...
AB: Yeah and because you’re an insomniac, you’ll stay up all night making a list of all the items on like, Carluccio’s menu that are under so-and-so many calories. If we go to Chipotle to have a burrito, you’ll tell me, “Don’t have the wrap, don’t have the rice, don’t have the guacamole,” so I’m basically just eating the beans! We make our holidays like work for each other, we stress each other out. And that’s the way we like it.

SB: Yeah that’s like our time. I’m looking forward to us moving in together next year because it will give me much more one-on-one time with you.  
AB: Do you think all our time apart has brought us closer?

SB: I think so. And has created a lot of problems in our relationship, where lots of snide comments go out from my side every three days...
AB: Every three days.

SB: Like “Do you live here any more? I’m going to rent out your room.” 
AB: (Laughs) 

SB: But we don’t really fight much. Even if we spend like 20 days together and we’re sick of each other, we’ll snap at each other for three seconds and then we’re done. Why do you think that is?
AB: I think we’re on one team, so it’s very hard to stay angry if you’re on the same team. If we fight then one of us will try extra hard to make up because we can’t stand the uneasiness. Because this, right here, is our happy place. Who would want to disturb their happy place?

Photographs: Abhay Singh; Styling: Malini Banerji; Art direction: Prashish More; Make-up and Hair: Elton Fernandez; Production: Parul Menezes; Assisted By: Veronna Parikh, Devika Wahal, Jannat Bhasin

Featured in the December 2015 issue of ELLE India

 

March 15, 1993 — I’m peering at the swathed and motionless lump in front of me with terrified, wide-eyed wonder. My father has led me into the mostly bare hospital room, mere seconds ago. At first I have eyes only for my mother, but that swiftly changes when I spy the bundle in her arms. The room buzzes with quiet anticipation as I inch closer, cautious. I can almost hear my parents hold their breath as I come face to face with the pink, mousy face that, unbeknownst to me, will change my life.

Twenty-two years later, a just-as-pink, less mousy version of that face stares down at me from what sometimes feels like every single billboard in the city.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to have your baby sister go from Aloo to Alia Bhatt almost overnight.

Fame has always been on the cards for her, though. So, when Student Of The Year (2012) catapulted Alia into somewhat uncomfortable notoriety, it wasn’t unexpected.

“I want to be a star,” a five-year old Alia once proclaimed after a rather spirited performance set to the music of (for the purposes of this story and as dramatic foreshadowing) Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I sat in a corner and rolled my eyes — it was the third time we had watched her dance that day.

At the age of five she had her mind made up — she was going to be a star. It’s not a decision she ever questioned and that unwavering certainty is the only thing I have ever envied her for. While I went back and forth between vet, astronaut, writer and unemployed millionaire, Alia always staunchly maintained that she was going to act. And act, she did.

While the face that stares down at me from all those billboards is my sister’s, that isn’t my sister up there. My sister is the girl who trudges home after a long day of shooting those campaigns to spend time with me because I’ve been snidely complaining about how I never see her and how busy she is. She’s the girl who bursts into tears on a Skype call with her family because she’s been away from home for a month. She’s the girl who dances goofily to music only she can hear for no reason other than “because she can”. She’s the girl who makes me laugh so hard I can’t breathe.

While I’m proud of every single one of Alia’s professional accomplishments, it’s these other things about her that make me glow. It’s the things she does far from the intrusive eyes of fame that make her so uniquely her. These are the things that make her my sister. When I was presented with the chance to interview my sister for this month’s issue of ELLE, I jumped at it because it meant I actually got to see her… and be snide about how I never get to see her, in print.

Shaheen Bhatt: What is your happiest memory of us?
Alia Bhatt: I think playing together. No, actually, (laughs), what automatically comes to me is an unhappy memory — of you locking me in the dark. Which is why I have a fear of the dark…

SB: I really don’t think that’s why you have a fear of the dark. Papa is afraid of the dark, too. 
AB: Papa didn’t sit me down and teach me to have a fear of the dark, you triggered it...

SB: I locked you in the dark, maybe twice!
AB: Shaheen?! It was like two years, it was not twice!

SB: That’s why I asked what your happiest memory is.
AB: (Laughs) When we used to play doctor-doctor...

SB: (Laughs) Yeah, and you didn’t realise that breathing was required to be alive, so I would play dead for several minutes and—
AB: That’s great, Shaheen, you just said Alia didn’t know that breathing was required to be alive.

SB: You were five!
AB: (Laughs) I remember this one amazing moment. You came into my room and started telling me what kissing and being intimate with boys was all about.

SB: What! I have no memory of this!
AB: Yes! You had the talk with Mummy, and you decided to tell me about it. I was in the sixth standard! But I have to say you did a better job than Mom who was like, when daddy comes to mummy, daddy gives mummy a seed and then comes a flower (laughs).

SB: That sounds seriously weird.
AB: There was also that time we didn’t talk to each other for about three years.

SB: There you are with the exaggeration again. It was two months! 
AB: Shaheen? It was two yea—

SB: ...and it was because you ratted to papa about something.
AB: (Laughs) Yeah, you were playing some Harry Potter game and I told him.

SB:  Yeah, I don’t even recall what it was but I froze you out for two months.
AB: You’re a very hard person, Shaheen. 

SB: (Laughs) The two years we didn’t talk was because we weren’t really close then, you were so young. Actually most people don’t realise that we’re six years apart. 
AB: You’re older, but people assume I am because I’m always shouting at you and telling you what to do.

SB: Yes, this is a very recent thing. 
AB: (Laughs) Our relationship dilly-dallies, there are times when you act like my mother and times when I act like your mother, sister, boyfriend, father. We have this telepathic sync and we come to each other’s rescue. 

SB: We’ll be each other’s lawyer.
AB: Our parents are lovely people, but they can be excruciatingly overbearing. So if I’m low, Dad wants to give me my space, but he’ll somehow make sure that he’s not doing that…

SB: He’s being a parent, basically.
AB: Yeah, and you’ll tell them to back off. You would cover for me growing up too. I’d call you and say I’ve told them I’m here but I’m actually there. 

SB: (Laughs)
AB: But I used to not cover for you, I would go straight and complain: “Mummy, I think Shaheen is talking to a boy.” (Laughs)

SB: You were really a pain in the ass when we were growing up. You used to listen in on my phone calls and if I was talking to a boy you’d be like “heh heh, you said the L-word”. You were so disgusting.
AB: (Giggles) Also, you have this thing where you cry on my birthday. It started when I was 13 and kept happening...

SB: (Laughs) I would just weep and weep like, MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING!
AB: When I turned 21, you cried for like half an hour and I had to console you. Now it’s started happening one week before the birthday, I can see you moping around the house and I’m like, why are you so sad?

SB: It’s because I told Mom I wanted a baby sister and I didn’t understand the concept — I thought you would grow up to be the same age as me, I wouldn’t grow older, and we would just be together.  
AB: You’re just a crier.

SB: Yeah, dude. I also cry — what you’ve done like five movies now? — from frame one till the end, I’m choking. Mom stopped doing that after the first film, but it’s still that way for me. 
AB: (Nodding, mouthful of her post-workout snack.)

SB: You’ve always liked to have a lot of people around you. But recently you’ve discovered the joy of being alone. What prompted it?
AB: I think there comes a point when you’ve walked so far away from yourself that spending time in your own head becomes really, really difficult. I’d reached a stage where even car journeys alone were becoming painful for me because...

SB: …you didn’t know how to be with yourself. 
AB: Correct. Honestly I just wanted to go away after Shaandaar didn’t do well. It’s like dealing with a break-up. I was feeling really low. And more than just the film, it was for me — I had been going through that whole grind of promotions, constantly talking. I needed to be silent. Which is why this holiday by myself was amazing.

SB: You still very sweetly asked me to come with you, and  I was like no, you want to be alone, go be alone.
AB: (Laughs) I was scared, what if I got bored? But it was so good. I was there [in the UAE] for three nights and two days and I went paragliding. I felt like a bird! After landing, I had that moment of “Life is just so simple, we should just be happy we’re alive!” — I mean, apart from the fact that I was completely nauseous.
SB: (Laughs)  
AB: I now plan on making this an annual thing. 

SB: Now that you’ve brought up Shaandaar... this is the first time you haven’t gotten what you wanted from a film. What bothered you the most about it?
AB: That there was no love for the film. It was very difficult, like it was excruciating pain. Even though people were saying, “You were good, but” — for me it ends at “but”. I’m not one of those actors who would say I did my job well so that’s enough; I’m a team player. 

SB: Did you have a clue that it would turn out that way?
AB: No, because you lose objectivity. I knew that a certain audience wouldn’t like it but I didn’t think... I don’t know, I’ve always been wrong. When I saw Humpty [Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, 2014] for the first time I thought my career was over, but that film was so loved.

SB: What did you take away from the experience?
AB: I’m really happy that it finally happened, actually. It was like ripping off the Band-Aid, because I had not had even one film not do well and people were always like, “Aapki toh har film chalee hain,” and I’d be crossing my fingers, touchi–banging–JUMPING on top of wood. But you have no control. This is a Friday-to-Friday business and you are as good as your last film. 

SB: I thought your performance was fantastic, but I can’t be objective about you. 
AB: But we say the hard things to each other? In fact, as a family, we say the hard things more easily; we refrain from saying too many good things to one another. 

SB: Yeah, definitely. Especially because of what you do for a living, I think it’s important. You’re around people who are only building you up all the time...
AB: Yeah.

SB: But when you’re at home, you’re so normal I forget you have this whole other life. Are you different when we’re not around?
AB: I try to keep the acting only for the camera. I mean, I slump my shoulders off-camera. I am very much myself. 

SB: You’ve always been extra confident about how pretty you are, but when you started SOTY, you were really insecure about your body. You’ve only become confident over the last year or two…
AB: I’ve surpassed the “I want to lose weight” point because... I have lost weight. I’ve been on this healthy lifestyle for two years and it’s just become inherent now. I recently turned vegetarian and I go to the gym every day. The difference is, I’m no longer doing it out of force, I’m doing it out of joy. So it’s not stressful for me. Insecurity is not the point anymore. It’s about awareness now: How am I feeling today?   

SB: Except maybe your obsession with your arm and how fat it looks? 
AB: (Laughs) I worry about how I can improve my posture and my grace now — that’s become my new thing, I feel like I’m not a very graceful girl. 

SB: You still have your cheat days, where you’re like what bad thing can I eat today!
AB: Which is sugar. It’s the worst, but it’s fine.

SB: Because we share food, our food habits rub off on each other. When you lost weight for SOTY, I lost 10 kilos with you.
AB: Yeah. And we motivate each other, too. When we’re in London on holiday even, you’ll be like, “Alia we have to cycle in Hyde Park and have one cheat meal only.” 

SB: Our annual London trip. We always look forward to that...
AB: Yeah and because you’re an insomniac, you’ll stay up all night making a list of all the items on like, Carluccio’s menu that are under so-and-so many calories. If we go to Chipotle to have a burrito, you’ll tell me, “Don’t have the wrap, don’t have the rice, don’t have the guacamole,” so I’m basically just eating the beans! We make our holidays like work for each other, we stress each other out. And that’s the way we like it.

SB: Yeah that’s like our time. I’m looking forward to us moving in together next year because it will give me much more one-on-one time with you.  
AB: Do you think all our time apart has brought us closer?

SB: I think so. And has created a lot of problems in our relationship, where lots of snide comments go out from my side every three days...
AB: Every three days.

SB: Like “Do you live here any more? I’m going to rent out your room.” 
AB: (Laughs) 

SB: But we don’t really fight much. Even if we spend like 20 days together and we’re sick of each other, we’ll snap at each other for three seconds and then we’re done. Why do you think that is?
AB: I think we’re on one team, so it’s very hard to stay angry if you’re on the same team. If we fight then one of us will try extra hard to make up because we can’t stand the uneasiness. Because this, right here, is our happy place. Who would want to disturb their happy place?

Photographs: Abhay Singh; Styling: Malini Banerji; Art direction: Prashish More; Make-up and Hair: Elton Fernandez; Production: Parul Menezes; Assisted By: Veronna Parikh, Devika Wahal, Jannat Bhasin

Featured in the December 2015 issue of ELLE India