When she chanced upon SS Rajamouli at the airport one day, Alia Bhatt struck a conversation with him about how she’d love to work with him. A few months later, she had the Baahubali director giving her a call—he felt she had the right combination of strength and vulnerability to play Sita in his forthcoming RRR. When Inshallah, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film with Salman Khan and her, fell through, she went away for a month to deal with the devastation. But like a good student, she waited her turn; her patience paid off when Bhansali offered her the titular role in his Gangubai Kathiawadi.
At 28, Alia has already spent many years in the spotlight. She began shooting for her debut film Student of the Year at all of 17, and has come of age in the public eye. From being the butt of all jokes for her answer on Koffee with Karan (yes, that episode where she said Prithviraj Chauhan was the president of India!) to becoming India’s sweetheart thanks to stirring performances as the traumatised addict in Udta Punjab (2016), a brave spy in Raazi (2018), and the maverick girlfriend in Gully Boy (2019). Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, one of her closest friends testifies, “We’ve been friends since childhood and nothing, not the career and not the fame have changed anything between us.”
After the pandemic hiatus—punctured only by a fairly unmemorable Sadak 2, she will be back on our screens with a series of films. RRR, Gangubai Kathiawadi, her own production Darlings, Karan Johar’s Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahani with the very “giving and talented” Ranveer Singh, and the long-awaited Brahmastra with partner Ranbir Kapoor. The lockdowns afforded her time to pause and introspect. “Working at a manic pace, you lose a sense of yourself. You tend to work on the auto-mode! But my father always says to me, ‘If you can’t sit down with yourself, you can’t sit down with anyone else,’ she narrates. “Acting on that emotion, I’m spending quality time with myself on a beach somewhere by myself, even as we speak. Four years ago, I would have never been able to do it, I always needed people around me,” she adds.
A STAR CHILD LIKE NONE OTHER
Daughter to director Mahesh Bhatt and actress Soni Razdan, Alia belongs to a multicultural heritage— English, Gujarati and Kashmiri. Resilience, one could say, is embedded in her DNA—her maternal grandmother, Gertrude Hoelzer escaped from Nazi Germany as a six-year-old with her mother, making her way to London, UK. “She is not an extension of her parents,” father Mahesh insists. “She is a fire of her own.”
Alia starred briefly as a young Preity Zinta in Tanuja Chandra’s Sangharsh (1999), famously lost 16 kgs to play the teen prom queen in Karan Johar’s Student of the Year (2012), and has only improved with every subsequent role. In a way, her filmography reconciles her birth father and Karan—her cinematic dad who launched her career—as she moves easily from RRR‘s massive scale to the intimate, indie vibe of Darlings. Mahesh continues, “Although I was a filmmaker, we always lived on the edge of the industry. Our home was not a hub for film parties. I made films to make a living, and these are the things that have gone into Alia’s consciousness. She works with a ferocity and focus, but she also has deep empathy.”
Alia has also upended the ‘star child’ syndrome by being fearless in her choices. Whether it was diving headfirst into the shoot for Highway (2014), which saw her being away for the time from her sheltered, suburban upbringing, or more recently, walking the 180-360 different paths on the Gangubai Kathiawadi shoot, that Bhansali showed her were possible. Gauri Shinde, Alia’s director on Dear Zindagi (2016) says, “Alia has everything one needs to be a great actor. She is damn real, unafraid to show vulnerability both on-screen and off-screen, highly sensitive and intuitive at such a young age, sharply focused on her craft, and has a natural charm, energy and honesty that are so appealing that one can’t help but fall in love with her.”
Imtiaz Ali, Alia’s director on Highway, too speaks fondly of her. “The heart leads and the art follows—that seems to be Alia’s philosophy. She continues to surprise us over the years by bringing forth the scent of real people in the characters she plays, thanks to her innate sense of empathy,” he says. Alia calls herself ‘a work in progress’, and keenly observes the audience’s reaction to her films. She’s aware that her public life stops at creating work for the audience. “I have to draw boundaries even with my loved ones,” she explains, adding that she feels comfortable with her current self, and doesn’t need constant validation for her personality.
OF BEAUTY AND DIY
This state in which one is at peace and comfort with oneself, Alia defines as ‘beauty’. And in alignment with her thoughts on the topic, her beauty rituals are simple in nature. She relies heavily on plenty of water, moisturiser, sunscreen, lip balm and Charlotte Tilbury Wonderglow Face Primer. The hair, as for every actress, needs special care and Alia tends to mask it with whatever she eats—from eggs to yoghurt to avocado. She’s a regular in her weekly hair-oiling routine and also experiments with onion juice. When she’s stepping out, she’s a fuss-free, five-minute dresser. “I do my brows, apply my mascara, put on a little bit of lip balm, some blush, and I’m ready!” she says. That, and a bit of whichever men’s fragrance she likes at that moment—currently, it is À La Rose by Maison Francis Kurkdjian. The five must-haves in her beauty closet include Brows by Benefit, Hourglass blush and powder palette, a whole bunch of Maybelline lipsticks and mascara by NARS.
“The world is full of spectators,” Mahesh observes, “because it takes a lot of courage to be a performer. I have great respect for those who make films, take whatever comes their way, and then get up and start all over again. This is especially true for those who scale the dizzying heights of success when they’re so young. One minute Alia was the little girl who was putting cream on daddy’s feet for s500, and in two years she had made more money than I ever did in my 50 years as a filmmaker.”
No surprise then, that the tenacious Alia sees life as a long, circuitous, scenic route, where she can stop, be by herself, and come right back to her loved ones, and the camera which loves her. And we can’t help but raise a toast to that.
Photographs: Tarun Vishwa; Styling: Zoha Castelino; Hair: Mike Desir; Make-Up: Puneet Saini; Assisted By: Rajvi Jhaveri (Styling) & Aliza Fatma (Editorial); Production: Imran Khatri Production.